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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.