Preview: The Martian: VR Experience

Virtual reality (VR) experiences that tie-in with movie franchises are nothing new. From Interstellar and Insurgent to The Walk and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, a plethora of motion-picture productions have been supported by VR projects that have invariably presented an intriguing new way to promote new releases. However, what happens when these promotional activities cross the line and become desirable content in their own right? What happens when they become videogames?

The Martian: VR Experience, which debuted at CES last week, walks a fine line. It’s more than a promotional activity, weighing-in at some 20 – 25 minutes and offering far more interactivity than many of the promotional releases mentioned above. It has objectives, albeit ones which are near-impossible to fail, and it very much puts the user in the position of a ‘player’ opposed to a passive observer. The Martian: VR Experience is to VR movie promotions what Bullet Train is to VR technical demos: it’s not quite a videogame, but it sure as hell should be.

 The Martian: VR Experience screenshot

The preview build of The Martian: VR Experience showcased at CES was available on both Oculus Rift with Oculus Touch controllers and the recently revealed HTC Vive-Pre, though both were presented as a seated experience using D-BOX technology. The experience begins in a single room, all dressed-up in science-fiction faire unlike anything seen in the associated movie, asking the player to extend their arms sideways and look straight ahead. This calibration is imposed so as to ensure that the next sequence is balanced correctly for the player’s height: it would be quite easy for The Martian: VR Experience to become an uncontrollable mess were the actions required out of reach.

A few seconds-long shots of the movie are offered before the player is given the task of piloting the rover Mark Watney (Matt Damon, Elysium, Good Will Hunting) makes a daring journey in during The Martian. A control stick that rests between the player legs controls direction and speed, and is interacted with simply by reaching for it with your virtual hand and pulling the trigger to interact. The precision of this and other gestures is remarkable; proof of the essential requirement in the previously mentioned calibration process.

The journey available in this preview build is short and very sweet as it’s the attention to detail opposed to the duration that makes The Martian: VR Experience so highly recommendable. The player has a control deck featuring nine switches to their right, each of which activates/deactivates one of the information monitors in the rover’s cab. The lower quadrant of the rover’s glass screen picks up dirt as you travel at high speed, the wheels spin ferociously beneath you as you bank over uneven terrain and the precision of the control allows the player to push the rover far further than the simple task at hand – a journey from A to B – would suggest.

Other gameplay sections of The Martian: VR Experience see the player responsible for mundane chores such as sorting potatoes or replacing solar panels, yet they’re delivered in such as manner that it’s hard not to engage with the basic nature of their presentation. VRFocus was informed that the full version of The Martian: VR Experience will have a number of similar sequences based on memorable moments from the film and it’s difficult to not try and predict just what the development team have come up with and whether it will meet the same high standards showcased in this preview build.

The Martian: VR Experience screenshot

Built using Unreal Engine 4, The Martian: VR Experience is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful VR titles VRFocus has yet witnessed. Putting most other Oculus Rift and HTC Vive titles to shame – including many of Epic Games’ own efforts – The Martian: VR Experience presents a landscape that is truly unbelievable. The draw distance of the craggy surface area of Mars is unlike anything seen before, and though it could be easy to suggest this is because of the lack of a need for animated character models, the high quality of the red dust and rocks even when moving at high speed is phenomenal. The player’s own EVA suit is also of a high visual standard, as is the interior of the rover.

While the development team where unsure of the future intentions for The Martian: VR Experience – as that decision lies solely in the hands of 20th Century Fox – they were confident that the product they had made would see a public rollout in the future. The hope is that the consumer audience will receive open access to The Martian: VR Experience once the head-mounted displays (HMDs) and their associated motion-control devices become publicly available, as currently there is no control pad-based edition of the software. VRFocus will of course keep you updated with all the latest information on future release of The Martian: VR Experience, and any further hands-on opportunities made available.