Battling the Empire with VR lightsabers in Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine

Samuel Roberts: Myself and Chris had the chance to try the Star Wars: Trials On Tatooine VR demo at Celebration (an otherwise boring, overpriced, ludicrously queue-heavy public event designed almost exclusively to flog merchandise) this weekend. While the demo is pretty brief—about 15-20 minutes in length—it’s one of the most immediately impressive VR games I’ve played to date. If you’ve spent most of your life waiting for someone to make the perfect lightsaber simulator, this gives you the strong first impression that the team at ILMxLAB has nailed it. 

You hold the Vive controller as a lightsaber, and the 1:1 movement means you find yourself waving it around like Luke did upon switching his father’s on in Obi-Wan’s hut. Except, you know, he wasn’t sweating while wearing a VR headset. It’s amazing. The whole thing is out later today as a free demo, and I am so desperate to play it again. This thing should be in arcades around the world.

Chris Thursten: It's a really good start, for sure, although I'd definitely call this a proof of concept—the VR Jedi game I daydream about is still a daydream.

This is a short demo that serves as an introduction to VR as well as what VR can do with the Star Wars license. You stand in a dusty corner of Tatooine at dusk and wait for a delivery from Han Solo in the Falcon. Watching the ship approach low over the horizon and hearing the roar of its engines as it set down was the highlight of the demo, for me, for reasons I'll get to in a bit.

A surprisingly good Han Solo soundalike sends R2-D2 down the landing ramp with a 'delivery', but problems with the Falcon have you scrambling around outside pushing buttons to try and fix it. Then, an Imperial shuttle sets down and deploys a squad of Stormtroopers to bring you in. A panel in R2's dome slides back, you draw your saber, and prepare to defend yourself.

You can take cover behind boxes and kill stormtroopers by deflecting their blasts back at them, but they never get close enough for you to fight them directly. It's impossible not to get into it, even though I knew that two people from ILMxLAB were stood in the room with me watching. Initially I tried to hold the saber one-handed, like 'don't mind me, I'm a dispassionate journalist'. Pretty quickly I found myself standing in a two-handed ready stance because god damn it I'm holding a lightsaber.

That said, I find that VR always becomes less immersive when you start interacting with the environment—the Vive is a fantastic piece of technology, but there are fundamental restrictions on what you can do and how you can do it. Although there's a blaster bolt-deflecting arcade game to be spun out of this experience, I'd honestly be happier with a game where I just hung around in a spaceport and watched the ships come and go.

Samuel: I think you’re right about the full experience still feeling elusive—but I don’t think they consider this anything but a proof of concept. This weekend, Lucasfilm announced a new collaboration with David Goyer where they plan on building a VR experience around being Darth Vader, which sounds closer to being the full thing you want to see, Chris. 

What could that entail? Space battles, choking Imperial officers, hunting down the remaining Jedi? The potential there is huge. It’s also how we’ll get to have that convincing one-on-one lightsaber duel in VR. Here we see the building blocks of how that can come together. Considering this is a freebie on the Vive, I think that’s okay. This is a treat if you’ve already forked out for that headset (and have the necessary space with which to actually play VR games, which I don’t).

Chris: Absolutely. The great thing about Star Wars is that it lends itself to loads of potential experiences like this: standing on the bridge of a Star Destroyer during a battle, hanging out on Jabba's party barge, watching AT-ATs approach across the ice on Hoth. Visual spectacle is so important to Star Wars, and VR is a natural new way to express it.

It'll be interesting to see if they can turn those experiences into something more than tourism, however. The idea of a VR remake of the X-Wing and TIE Fighter games with modern production values is so exciting to me that I'm actually trying to avoid thinking about it, as it's likely too specific and involved to get made.

One thing that impressed me about Trials on Tatooine, with that in mind, was the writing. This really didn't need to be anything more than a tech demo, but the context provided by the opening crawl and Han's dialogue—that you're one of Luke's new students in the years after the fall of the Empire—makes it feel that much more involving. There are some good jokes, too. We saw Rebels showrunner Dave Filoni's name in the credits as we left and his presence is definitely felt. Even if VR's ability to support a game is limited, I'd definitely watch a Star Wars show in VR.

Samuel: That’s the thing—this clearly benefitted from being produced in-house at Lucasfilm rather than being something made with Battlefront’s corny voice actors. I suddenly realised this was the perfect context in which they could create new Han Solo stories without finding ways to keep Harrison Ford alive for the next 30 years. It feels noticeably more legitimate than any recent Star Wars games. Perhaps tourism is a better match for this than interaction—but there’s no reason they can’t go down both roads at the same time.

Chris: Given that this was the week that '90s Star Wars kids got Thrawn back, perhaps that’s not too much to ask for after all. If nothing else, Trials on Tatooine shows that Lucasfilm are interested in immersive games and interactive experiences again—a gentle u-turn after Disney cracked down on anything that wasn’t free to play, mobile, or involved action figures. If this turns into a proper Star Wars game further down the line, fantastic: but even if it doesn’t, it’s great that this effort is being made.