Some things in life really need to be experienced first hand, and the ascent of Mount Everest is probably pretty high up on that list. Photos and videos can’t compare to the real thing, but VR just might. Step forward Sólfar Studios whose debut title Everest VR, built in collaboration with Reykjavik-based visual effects and animation studio RVX, launched yesterday for HTC’s Vive headset. Everest VR intends to bring the mountain to you, with a journey to the most iconic summit on the planet.


Everest VR Details:

Official Site
Developer: Sólfar Studios and RVX
Publisher: Sólfar Studios
Available On: Steam (HTC Vive)
Price:
$24.99
Reviewed On: HTC Vive with SteamVR Controllers
Release Date: August 2nd, 2016


Everest VR has potential to become the new poster child for advanced VR rendering, incorporating nVidia’s GameWorks VR features such Multi Res Shading. More than 300,000 high resolution images were used to build the mountain, with advanced stereo photogrammetry techniques generating a 3D point cloud of Everest and the surrounding areas. From this they then built the 3D mesh and textures which, viewed from afar in one of the games signature vistas, are sublime.

Valve themselves showed the potential of photogrammetry in The Lab, where its ‘Postcards’ took you to visually arresting locales. Everest VR takes this to an all new, and very impressive, extreme. It’s only a shame that other elements of the package let it down.

Interactivity

Despite having a handful of game-like interactions, Everest VR doesn’t position itself as a game: it is firmly in the VR Experience category. Do not go into this expecting something like Crytek’s The Climb. Sadly, in place of gameplay we don’t find a lot else in the package. It’s a walking simulator for a few minutes, an exploration game – with nothing to explore – for a few more minutes, and an unsatisfying assortment of mini-game style interactions every now and then. A poorly delivered, and sadly uninspiring, narration over impressive vistas fills the rest of the running time.

everestvr-5

Everest VR is at its best when it steps back and revels in its impressive vantage points, but it chooses to sandwich them between lacklustre scenes that sap the enthusiasm. Working from basecamp up through the Khumbu Icefalls, Lhotse Face, Hillary Step and finally the summit you have an opportunity to explore some locations through the standard teleportation method, although the game doesn’t provide much to discover or explore in these locations reducing them to superfluous padding.

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There’s a tutorial that shows you how to store items in your backpack and then never requires you to do so once the experience begins. In fact the tutorial teaches you every interaction in the game up front, from climbing ladders to attaching carabiners, which seems strange given that you only do each thing once or twice – why not teach us in situ or just trust that the actions are natural enough and we’ll figure it out? The tutorial hints at a larger experience, with more interactivity, than we actually get – I can’t help but wonder if there were grander plans at one stage that had to be dialled back.

There’s a lost opportunity to be more informative throughout. While there are some interesting facts to be found in the narration, and a God Mode that provides an overview of the region including elevations, there’s no means to drill down into each area; no interesting stories to tell or scientific facts to impart; nothing to really tie together the vignettes you work through. Where are the interviews with real climbers? Where is the overview of the equipment? What are the dangers of high altitude, low oxygen environments and how do climbers adapt? What do they eat? Why do the Sherpas risk their lives? Where is the colour, the flavour, and the interest? It assumes that everyone is an expert, and just takes them on a whistle-stop tour of what I presume are the best and most notorious points on the ascent.

everestvr-3

It’s almost the VR equivalent of paying over the odds as a tourist to take a lift to the top of the tallest tower in a city to see things from a different perspective – sure there’s some information dotted about but you’re basically just there for the view. Compared with something like the Apollo 11 VR Experience, which is respectful of the events whilst also being enthusiastic, informative and entertaining, Everest VR feels like it hasn’t done nearly enough to warrant people’s attention. Compared with something like theBlu, Everest VR is proof that bringing actual reality into virtual reality, even something as compelling as Mount Everest, can’t compete with more fanciful fare without bringing something more to the table than just that signature view.

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That said, even reaching the summit – not the most daunting of tasks as the whole thing weighs in at around 30 minutes – doesn’t have the emotional weight it should because the scenes leading to it have been so underwhelming.

I asked a non-gamer to try the experience, and she walked away with much the same conclusion: what good there was had been buried so deeply beneath underwhelming and frustrating moments that the experience as a whole just wasn’t enjoyable. A sadly missed opportunity, and with a $25 price tag it has put itself well outside impulse buy territory.

Immersion

Each scene starts in what feels like a small theatre. In front of you is what you first think is a cinema screen, then realisation dawns and you understand that it’s a window into the Himalayas. You can sense the vast distances, the immense scale and the majesty of the scene before you. And then the nice, safe theatre gently fades away and you find yourself flying over the scene. Surrounded by mountains, dwarfed by the scale, you are exposed, vulnerable, and awestruck. It’s an exceptional moment, repeated a handful of times as you make your climb, and it is hands down the best reason to try Everest VR.

Sadly the other elements conspire to kill the immersion, from the unconvincing mannequins that accompany you on your journey, to the incongruous narration that is almost distracting in its delivery.

Scenes begin by asking the player to stand on a particular point in the tracked space, the intention being to ensure that they have the maximum play area in front of them. Unfortunately I frequently found myself at the extremes of the play space and had to finesse the teleporter to get where I needed to be. The frequent appearance of the chaperone boundaries that this causes, while very necessary, do kill the immersion. Those with larger play areas probably won’t run into this issue, but anyone close to the minimum will run into trouble.

everestvr-6

In the basecamp where your adventure begins, you can pick up all manner of objects. Predictably, my first instinct was to throw them at my fellow mountaineers and was delighted to get a reaction. Sadly that was all I could get from them, aside from overhearing muffled conversations. They are never more than set dressing, running through unconvincing animation loops.

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Climbing ladders, as pedestrian as it sounds, has actually been very well implemented. Unfortunately, as with the other interactions, at the end there is a brief fade to black while the viewpoint is repositioned, which is very jarring. There is no smooth continual transition as there is in The Climb, for example, and this has the effect of taking you out of the experience.

At least the rendering technology shines in Everest VR. The weather systems and the incredibly detailed recreation of the area combine to make you feel like you’re watching a 360 degree video of the real thing, except in much higher fidelity since it’s entirely rendered in realtime and making liberal use of supersampling. At times it is jaw-dropping. Sadly the illusion is only maintained when kept at a distance, with a lack of detail close up revealing the limitations of the process and reducing immersion as a result.

everestvr-4

Comfort

Everest VR is a room scale experience and it almost goes without saying that anyone with an aversion to heights might struggle. The developers have been extremely careful to ensure that any automated camera movement is suitably gentle, however, and there are no rapid movements that might cause discomfort.

Despite the vertiginous setting, simulator sickness only briefly reared its head when floating above the mountain. At these times it’s a good idea to stand pretty much still and not look around too rapidly until you have found your balance, after which it’s fine.

In terms of performance, Everest VR sensibly tunes its settings based on the GPU you have installed. If you are tempted to tweak the options yourself be very careful, as it’s easy to overwork your GPU and fall well under the required 90fps update, but there are some useful controls available. Supersampling can be cranked right up for those with the latest and greatest cards, and the intensity of the weather effects and the level of detail radius can be tweaked for those closer to the base specs if they feel their system is labouring somewhat.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Interactivity
3
Immersion
6
Comfort
6

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  • Ombra Alberto

    No Cv1? :D

  • Daemon Hunt

    Well written review, couldn’t have put it better myself. I’m considering getting a refund. The Climb is much better than this game in terms of ‘things to do’, and, although Everest VR definitely looks amazing in parts, the few boring activities are definitely lacklustre and take away all the wonder. I would suggest that the developers get a hand from a well-heeled film director to help lift the energy and the sense of wonder. I have other VR titles that I can use to ‘show off’ VR to newbies and have decided that this doesn’t quite cut it for the price.

  • BillBixsby

    Great review Matthew. This was by far my biggest let down in VR so far. What I want to find out, is what the heck was going on with all the pre-release reviews? The reviewer from Forbes said “it was so terrifying he couldn’t finish”. Other pretty reliable tech blogs said this game “cemented VR as having arrived”, and some called it the most “immersive experience in VR”. Did these people actually do the demo? Were they bribed? Or was there a different version in pre-release that got scrapped because it was too heavy for consumer use? If it has just come out quietly, I would have thought it was a nice pretty experience. But its mind boggling how much hype it got.

    • kingka

      Lets put it this way, I was blown away by the tuscany demo when I first tried it on the DK1. My brain literally exploded when I tried the “lab” demo on the vive for the first time (specifically the robot repair demo). The unfortunate truth about VR at this point is; the best thing about VR is watching someone try it for the first time. I have played about 70% of VR vive games on steam atm, all those moments of awe that I’ve experienced have all gone, and I’m constantly chasing my next high(new vr experience). IF Everest VR is one of the few games that you’ve played at this caliber. Then you will love it, you will be blown away by it, IF Everest VR is your first VR experience, they you may, in fact find it terrifying and hard to finish. Believe it or not, I found 8i.com’s mountain “climbing” vr demo kinda scary when I first tried it, I would not step off the ledge, at all.

      When reading VR reviews, maybe ask yourself. “what other games has this guy/girl tried on the vive/rift”. If he is new to VR experiences, as a seasoned / experienced VR gamer, I’d take those reviews with a grain of salt. I’ve been burned way too many times buying VR games based on the opinion certain bloggers.

  • gigus

    We did a bit of work on planning out the photogrammetry and camera rig design for this project. It was originally a non-profit project undertaken to measure the melting of the glaciers. You can read about it here, http://www.xrez.com/case-studies/glacierworks-climate-change-in-gigapixel/

    • yag

      Great work. Are there some free models to download ? (for people who would want to make a real mountain climbing sim)

  • Trooper Gooner

    This was one game/experience I was so looking forward to due to the pre-hype on it, but I’m not touching it now until it’s at least 50% off now judging by the severe lack of content in it. Good honest review.

  • Raphael

    Looks like a very honest review. The steam feedback is very mixed for this “experience”. I won’t be buying because of the price to content ratio.

  • Pistol Pete

    The article is wrong, there is NO SLI support.

    • Thanks Pete – you’re right and I’ve updated the article to reflect this.

      • Badelhas

        Great review, congrats.
        To be honest I’m a bit disappointed with the whole htc vive experience. Apart from the headset not being recognized most of the times, the bsod and pc reboots (yes, I know it’s not normal and opened a Steam support ticket) the games I’ve tried are not what I expected. I bought Pool Nation VR and Vanishing Realms and don’t really feel the need of playing them much more. I also got the following free games: the lab, tilt brush, the star wars experience, Nvidia fun house and rec room. It’s curious that the game I liked best is the free and very simple and indie game Rec Room.
        Is there a game I should definitely get right now, in your humble opinion?
        Cheers

  • Colin Parnell

    Like many people I was keenly waiting to run this on my Vive. With the PR behind this project obviously being well run and prominently positioned in the VR world, I think anyone with an interest in VR would be hard pressed not to know about this software. The success of the marketing may partially be, I suspect, because of the lack of other significant material, and because this material can look so stunning, majestic and grand.
    As a producer in the video world, I can also guess what happened. It probably just didn’t have the real funding required to make it great from the start. Not enough time or resources allowed, but a team of people that saw the interest, popularity and eagerness for people to want this to be good (like me), and so decided to charge a premium and make some money.
    A real shame. I do hope the people behind it don’t ruin the perception of value for money in the VR world. Prices of VR software obviously need time to settle, as they are clearly all over the place right now. I regularly feel short changed on a product and instantly go for the refund on Steam, but also feel the opposite occasionally and get pleasantly surprised at how amazing a product is for such a low price.
    Luckily, I think VR early adopters are all savvy people that take notice of the honest and intelligent reviews out there, like this one, and on those on Steam. Thank goodness for Steams reviews, and reviews like this one (which confirms the Steam ones too).

  • Mike

    I have to disagree, but it was a good article. I was amazed on how immersed I was in the mountains. This looked like it was painstakingly made by very talented individuals. I applaud their effort. The game was short and the price is steep, but this was such a unique experiance to feel everest like that. Too many people are always shooting down VR, yet I keep seeing great strides made by these pioneers of VR. It gets more real and impressive each time. I highly recamended this game, even if your have to pay an extra 10 dollars on what it would be worth in a mass market.

    • yag

      Actually it’s the opposite : too many VR experiences are over-hyped because the reviewers are new to VR and easily impressed (forgetting the poor gameplay, etc.)
      Thanks we have RoadToVR at least for some decent reviews.

  • Tyrus Gail

    Generally -there are NO real games for HMDs. I have DK2, and GearVR and I will NOT change it for anything else until there will be real games for VR (certainly not in the near future). Oculus store for now has only expensive ‘experiences’. This is really not enough, to spend 800USD for cv1/vive.

    • GH

      I hear this sometimes,I’m not really sure what people expect or what a ‘real game’ is since it seems to differ. People seem to want the first VR awe all the time in a game and that seems like a pretty tall order. If you want a game to spend months in I suggest Elite Dangerous but then people start complaining about ‘grinding’ so not really sure, what is a ‘real’ game ?