Criterion's Star Wars Battlefront experience is the best demo for VR yet
And it's free. Sort of.
If you've got a VR headset of any flavour at home, you'll know the situation. You've got friends around, and they're keen to see what this strange, not-so-new technology is capable of now it's finally found its way into people's living rooms.
Previously I'd bust out Oculus Dreamdeck and get everyone to meet the dinosaur, rejoicing in their squirms and screams as a T-Rex came bounding towards them in that abandoned museum hall. Then I'd send them down to the depths of PlayStation VR Worlds to meet the shark, and yet again rejoice in their squirms and screams as they came face to face with the great white.
There's a theme emerging, sure, but it's not always about inflicting fear and suffering on newcomers - really good friends would be treated to a playthrough of Rez Infinite's VR rendition of Area 5, which remains the greatest experience I've yet had in virtual reality. Now, though, if I'm looking for a quick and easy sell for this new medium there's a new go-to game.
The Battlefront VR experience that's just released as a free expansion for owners of DICE's shooter is short. A playthrough takes no longer than 15 minutes, and in truth there's not much reason to return to it when you're done. It's a fleeting and fairly shallow single mission set in the heavens that takes Battlefront's Fighter Squadron mechanics and wraps them up in cotton wool while dousing it all with a fair splash of spectacle. What spectacle it is, though.
The mission starts with a tour of an X-Wing fighter, which you're free to investigate from various different angles. It's been rendered beautifully, the detail even more impressive once you're sitting in the cockpit where there are so many delightful incidentals - you can push pretty much any button, pulling up the targeting computer or shifting the S-Foils into attack position with the appropriate whine from Lucasarts' soundbanks.
That's the joy of Battlefront in VR, really. Much was made of the photogrammetry used in the building of the main game, and that approach - whereby the assets are pulled in many instances from the film props themselves - comes into its own here. Glance around the cockpit and for anyone who's ever spent lonely Saturday afternoons running around their living room with a Kenner model in their hands it's something of a revelation. The toys never looked this good, and to sit in the cockpit of such an exquisite model is quite the eye-opener.
Head out on the mission itself and it's no less spectacular. The controls have been pared back from the already simplistic Fighter Squadron mode, though that's all for your own benefit - Criterion toned it down in order to avoid any sickness. Battlefront VR can still make your stomach turn, mind, as you dart between asteroids and chase down TIE Fighters in the small shooter sections it presents you, but it does so in the manner of a good fairground ride.
Which is probably how best to describe Battlefront VR. It's a short and spectacular ride that's got all the dazzle of something like Disneyland's Star Tours, and it's all delivered from the comfort of your own living room. It's the kind of thing that will be wheeled out for family members throughout Christmas looking to get a sample of VR, and it does a grand job of selling you on the immersion that's capable with the medium. That Star Wars magic helps a lot, too.
You can sense some of the old Criterion Games magic in its robust spectacle as well, and it's a pleasure to see the studio's name atop a game for the first time since 2012's Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Since then it's lent its hand to various projects, helping with the handling of the speeders in vanilla Battlefront, and around 80 people are still employed at the Guildford studio - and they're still working on their own projects, I'm told. Here's hoping it gets a chance to spread its wings again sometime soon - Battlefront VR is a great showcase not just for the PlayStation VR headset it's currently exclusive to, but also for the talents of this celebrated developer.