Key Art - The Martian VR
Fox Innovation Labs

Fox is breaking new ground with a virtual-reality spin-off of its 2015 hit theatrical “The Martian”: Instead of following the studios’ playbook to date on using VR for just a short promotional clip, this experience is a more fully fleshed out rendering akin to a franchised video game. And surprisingly, this actually works — even though the title feels as if “The Martian VR Experience” is trying to have it both ways by striving to be both cinematic and gamified at the same time.

“The Martian VR Experience,” which counts the film’s director, Ridley Scott, and “Experience” director Robert Stromberg, as executive producers, is a collaboration between 20th Century Fox, Fox Innovation Lab, RSA Films and The VR Company. Late last year, owners of Samsung’s Gear VR headset got a first preview of the experience with a short four-minute sneak peak that primarily offered 360-degree video, but little to no interactivity. The full version, on the other hand, makes use of  more powerful VR headsets and brings full interactivity and positional tracking to the table, making it a much more interactive and fun experience.

Fox hasn’t said yet when it will release the experience and for what price, and instead only said that it will target “tethered” headsets some time this year, which essentially means that it will be available on Oculus Rift, Playstation VR and HTC Vive. For a demo at the Consumer Electronics Show, the Fox Innovation Lab team used the Oculus Rift VR headset with the Oculus Touch controllers. The latter won’t be available until the second half of this year, which means that fans of “The Martian” may need patience before they actually get to be Mark Watney.

But the wait may be worth it: “The Martian VR Experience” puts you into Watney’s space suit, who is stranded on Mars, forced to fend for himself. It’s a plot well-known to anyone who has watched “The Martian,” and the VR experience sticks close to the source material, even featuring a number of clips to set the stage for acting out many of the individual missions featured in the movie albeit in a faithfully recreated approximation in VR form.

The viewer is being challenged to actually do the things that Watney does to survive. There is a scene that requires you to pick up solar panels with a crane in the middle of a Mars sand storm — think claw machine with an apocalyptic undertone. In another scene, you’ll have to recover plutonium without blowing yourself up. And for the grand finale, you’ll have to eject yourself from the Mars Ascent Vehicle for a home-coming that’s truly emotional.

The experience makes use of the Rift’s positional tracking system, which means that it knows when you move your head or hands and follows these movements in the virtual world, but it actually asks the player to be seated. At first, this seems restraining, but in the end, it makes perfect sense. Watney is seated in his cockpit so many times as well, flipping switches and pressing blinking buttons.

Speaking of which: The experience makes use of handheld controllers like the Oculus Touch, which is essentially a pair of game controllers held in each hand, complete with a number of buttons to trigger hand motions and complete tasks like grabbing an object or pressing a button. In the experience, these controllers become Watney’s hands, and with a bit of practice, they allow you to pull levers, flip switches and toss objects.

At its best, “The Martian VR Experience” does convey a profound sense of presence, making you feel with convincing verisimilitude as if you’ve actually stepped into the world of “The Martian”. But there are also moments that just feel like mildly entertaining, and possibly unnecessary mini-games. One experience challenges you to throw potatoes into buckets, which is about as exciting as it sounds.

To the producers’ credit, these low-pressure interactions are also a good way for consumers that have never experienced VR before to literally get a grip, and learn the use of VR controllers like the Oculus Touch. Still, there is a little bit of a sense that your actual interactions don’t really matter in some of these scenes, which points to a bigger issue that “The Martian VR Experience” and titles coming after it will have to answer: Are they cinematic stories with interactivity, or actual games?

“The Martian VR Experience” wants to be both. By doing so, it may disappoint gamers that are looking more of a challenge. But fans of “The Martian” still get their money’s worth, and will truly enjoy being Mark Watney, if only for 20 minutes.

Update: 1:38 p.m.: This post was updated with additional information about the availability of “The Martian VR Experience”.

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