Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is a new VR experience located in Downtown Disney. We were able to grab tickets on pre-sale last year before they sold out, and this morning, after months of waiting, was our turn to don the suits, helmets, and blasters and recover the Imperial intelligence.
Here's a quick story synopsis from the official Secrets of the Empire website:
Under the orders of the budding rebellion, your team will travel to the molten planet of Mustafar. Your mission is to recover Imperial intelligence vital to the rebellion’s survival. Alongside the pragmatic droid K-2S0, your team must navigate through an enemy facility walking into danger at every turn. Disguised as stormtroopers, grab your blaster, solve puzzles, and fight giant lava monsters in an effort to fulfill your team's orders.
Arrival at The VOID
We arrived 30 minutes early, found our parking in the Downtown Disney lot ($12/hour, but thankfully VOID validates for 3 hours), and made our way to the VOID building located right next to Sprinkles Cupcakes.
Upon arriving, were was a line just to get to the door. The attendant there was politely answering people's questions who were lining up just to find out what was going on inside this Star Wars themed location. After getting to the front we were told we would need to wait until 10 minutes before our arrival time before we could be admitted.
Once it was our turn, we lined up as a pair inside and waited to check in. The process was fairly painless, though the scanning of tickets and having to sign liability waivers was a little obnoxious.
Suiting Up in VR Gear
The next room you enter is the presentation of the story. You're told about the Imperial intelligence given your orders to infiltrate by Cassian Andor (you may remember him from Rogue One).
Next it's time to scan your wristbands into the terminals and pick your Stormtrooper colors (basically your shoulder pads).
Gearing up comes next. You line up against these racks of VR gear hanging from hooks. Each person is issued a VR backpack/vest combo, and a helmet with VR headset. The vest snaps on comfortably and can be tightened in several locations which made the 25 pounds very manageable. As a bigger guy, I was also able to get an extender for a piece of my vest to make it more comfortable.
The headset felt very similar to the Vive VR headset I have at home. The helmet could be tightened via two knobs, one of the top and bottom. The tighter the better according to our guide -- especially bringing the VR headset tighter against your face made the image clearer.
Inside the helmet are microphones which allow your squad to talk to each other and hear each other very clearly thanks to noise cancelling headphones inside the helmet. Audio for the experience could also be turned up on the headset.
Full Sensory VR Experience
The entire experience is fully immersive and full sensory. By that I mean you see yourself and your squad members as Stormtroopers and can physically reach out and touch them at any time. When you reach out your hands, even without any controllers, you see your stormtrooper hands and can make full movements and gestures with each finger individually.
The world is fully interactive as well. Right in the beginning you have to pull levers, reach out and grab blaster rifles, walk across catwalks, and go through doors, and even solve puzzles. There's never a feeling of being restricted physically. It's all wireless and the world feels tactile like you would expect.
At one point a droid was in the corner and I bent over and felt him and he literally had all of the vents, widgets, and accessories he appeared to have via what was being shown to me through my VR headset.
On the volcanic planet of Mustafar, you can even feel the heat of the lava and smell the ash in the air. The experiences of see, touch, hear, and smell are all there.
Overall Experience / Execution
Playing through the VR simulation felt very much like a VR video game -- though way better because I wasn't tethered to a USB/HDMI port, and I could walk around in and interact with my surroundings.
This was the closest experience I have ever had to being inside the holodeck.
Throughout the scenario we had to fight Stormtroopers and I was worried the shooting would be really gimmicky. Though the blaster shots felt a little floaty at times, they were remarkably accurate (once you figured out the slight learning curve of aiming with a headset on and how you have to be slightly to the right).
At one point Darth Vader came into the fight and when shooting at him he reacted in real time to blocking our shots. Think about that... I aimed a physical rifle prop, pulled a trigger, I saw the blaster shots shoot at a VR simulation, and it blocked/reflected the shots.
When Vader bent our blasters before our eyes and then shocked us all (which we could feel through our VR vests)... it was chill-inducing moments. Major nerd chills.
Price & Time
The price of admission was around $32 per person. The one downside of the entire experience was that it felt like it went by too fast. From start to finish -- signing in and putting on the gear -- the experience was about 25 minutes. I'd say we had about 10 minutes of actual time spent in the virtual reality. All things considered, being shorter than we would have liked is definitely a flaw, but probably the best flaw given how this could have been a really corny experience.
We definitely recommend you experience this for yourself if you're a Star Wars, Virtual Reality, Gamer, or nerd.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire was the best experience I have had in virtual reality to-date. From a complete sensory experience down to shooting storm troopers and standing toe-to-toe with Darth Vader, it had it all.