Today I’ve had the pleasure of trying First Class VR, an edutainment experience on Steam developed by the Chinese studio Light And Digital Technology that is aimed at teaching you all the history of flying, from the first experiments to our most modern shuttles and rockets. The experience is interesting, but also pretty confusing. Let me explain why.
When you launch the experience, you see the initial menu (this is not Apocalypse Rider that begins in medias res) that unluckily is a 2D one and not even one of the best menus that I’ve seen in VR games (Archangel has a 2D menu but it’s much better, for instance). With the menu you can choose the language (English, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese are the available ones) and if you want a seated or standing experience. Around you, there are various logos (Unreal, Oculus and the one of the developers): pointing the logo that is behind you, you can hear a voice telling you the name of the indie studio that has made the game and this is a nice effect.
When you hit play, you start the experience inside a futuristic space station (a bit like the one of Home, but here you’re not going to die!): you’ve been hibernated and a voice tells you where you are and talks about other stuff. Behind you there’s a plant with a Chinese sign on top of it, on the left there is a window that let you see a planet below you and on the right, there’s something like a bomb.
The first impression of the graphics, looking at the environment and the game is that it is surely good: ok, we are not at Robo Recall levels, but they’ve done a really good job. This is an impression that I had during the whole game: considering that we’re talking about an indie studio and that VR games require heavy optimizations, so we can’t have photorealistic quality, the result is pretty good in my opinion. Especially with lighting and particle filters, they made an amazing job: during the helicopter stage, for instance, fireflies all around me were awesome.
There’s a voice that guides you in these initial steps, telling you to open a holographic computer and select an educational program: the only one you can actually start is the one about aviation and so you have to choose that one. After you start this, you actually start the edutainment experience. Interaction with this device is made simply by using the controllers and the trigger button. I have to say that, talking about interactions and movements, this game features very few. You can’t walk: I thought that it was something regarding only the intro (as in Blade Runner 2049), but actually, you can’t move in every stage of the game and you can’t even interact with almost anything.
This is because this game actually isn’t a game, but an edutainment experience: there’s no interactivity, no challenge to win, nothing that resembles a game at all. It is a VR experience, keep that in mind or you’ll come out heavily disappointed by buying this game. The game features only some little interactions here and there, but everything follows always a pre-defined binary and you can’t change the course of events. You can’t even interact with all the various elements of the environment, for instance taking rocks and throwing them in the air just to have fun… you are mainly a spectator of the whole experience. This is the first point where I became confused by this application: in my opinion either you decide to make an interactive experience and you heavily rely on interactions or you make a storytelling experience and so you don’t offer interactions at all (like in Dear Angelica, for instance). Letting me see my own hands while letting me use them very seldom is confusing. Making me perform some dull interactions like grabbing a hook to jump aboard a helicopter doesn’t add anything to the experience: there could be an animation where my hand grabs the hook and I just jump towards there.
About movement, luckily there’s coherence in the sense that during all the narration, you don’t have a locomotion mechanic: you can move with room-scale, but you can’t teleport or roam freely. The strange part is that at the end of the experience, when you reach the “exhibition” stage, you move with teleportation. Another source of confusion, in my opinion.
So, what happens in this narration experience? At the beginning, you find yourself in a completely obscure place, with a lit dove coming from far away. In the meantime, a voice guides you telling that since ancient times mankind has been fascinated by flying and has studied birds to try to learn how to fly. Then it starts talking about Greece and the ancient Chinese people that created their famous flying lanterns. The voice is your teacher, that talks you all the time and explains to you what you’re seeing with your eyes: it tells you the history of aviation from the beginning to our present times.
The way all the various aviation discoveries is provided to you is very artistic: this is not just a collection of technological items (e.g. the Wright brothers’ engine, the first shuttle, etc…) like if you were in a museum, but it tries to be a storytelling experience. It tries to create a connection between all the various eras and provide them to you with smooth transitions, one after the other. For instance, when you’re in the initial black room, at a certain point the voice talks about the invention of the engine by the Wright brothers and you see that engine coming out from the floor and soon all the floor and the environment transform into a hangar for airplanes and the Wright brothers’ plane appears with a cool animation all around the engine. Then some airplanes start flying around you. To talk about the next generation of flying machines, they make you come out of the hangar and while the platform below you disappears, you start seeing a huge airship above you, with some new models of planes flying around. Then the planes start shooting each other, because the program wants to talk you about the use of airplanes during the big wars. Below you, from the sea, comes out the map of Europe, that is brown and red to show you that there is the war there. The experience is all made this way: it tries to create a common thread that passes through all the aviation eras and that guides you in learning.
From a storytelling and artistic standpoint, I really loved this idea: it is original and makes the experience more enjoyable. The problem is that it’s weird that the experience seems actually broken in three parts: one is the one that I’ve already described; the second one showcases you the various shuttles of the space programs of USA, Russia, and China; the third one is a journey to the sky. These three parts appear completely unrelated one to the other, both on the UX, on the topic and the controlling scheme. It is like the thread is actually made of 3 threads of 3 different colors sewn one after the other. Again, it’s confusing.
The second part I’m talking about stops talking about aviation and starts talking about space programs. The experience makes you jump aboard a helicopter and with it, you enter a cave, inside which you can find a lot of famous shuttles and spaceships. While you travel, the commander of the helicopter tells you what are the various ships that you’re watching: e.g. he says things like “look, that has been the first shuttle that China has launched in space” or “that is the Apollo 11, the first ship to land to the moon” and so on. As you can see, this part of the experience is completely unrelated to the first one, that was based on storytelling and transitions… it is just a showcase of various machines as if you were in a museum, with the only difference that you’re on a helicopter flying through a cave. And really, I don’t know why all those old spaceships are inside a cave.
Flying inside the helicopter is cool (even if in the end it causes a bit of motion sickness) and gives you a bit the impression of being really there. It’s one of the best sensations that the experience can make you feel. Furthermore, the cave is full of fireflies that give some eye candies to this part of the experience.
The helicopter takes you to a platform, where the third part begins. You’re given wings as if you were Icarus (but…why???) and moving your arms like a bird, you can start shooting to the stars, floating around a Chinese shuttle, while the voice says stuff about the future of aviation (will we reach Mars as Elon Musk wants?). The end.
Or maybe not, there’s actually a fourth part, that is an exhibition. You find yourself in an enormous open-air museum, where you can see all the various stages of evolution of the worldwide aviation, from the first studies on birds to the latest shuttles. Here you can move using teleportation and see an exhibit of every element that has been shown you during the narrative experience.
For every element, you have an information button that you can activate to see its description: it is interesting… for instance this way I’ve learned the history behind the Chinese flying lanterns.
So you can go through all the various machines and spaceships invented by humans and see their names and descriptions. When you reach the end of the path, you find the names of the developers (a very original and immersive way to show the credits!) and then… the experience ends (even if there’s no EXIT key!). This final part of the program is very interesting since lets you calmly explore all the cool things that mankind has invented to explore the sky and space above it and learn a lot of useful information about them.
My final impressions are, as you can see, pretty mixed. The experience has some moments that are amazing, as for instance:
- The journey on the helicopter;
- The transitions in the first part of the experience;
- The bombing during the World Wars, where you see an enormous fleet of airplanes and then bombs exploding next to you and even a wing of an airplane going straight to your face!
- The moment when you explore the outside of a shuttle from a very close position.
It also has great graphics and an original storytelling way of explaining things (at least in the first part).
But it is also too incoherent: narration had to follow a common mode… splitting it into three (plus one) pieces with three completely different kinds of experiences has no sense. Providing some seldom interactions in a storytelling experience has little sense.
Furthermore, from an educational standpoint, I didn’t feel so enriched by it. During the narration, I enjoyed the journey, but it didn’t give me detailed information about the various inventions. For instance, about Wright bros’ engine, it just tells that it has been invented and in which year, but it would have been interesting discovering how it has been invented, how it was made and its technical specifications. The experience tries to mix entertainment and education, but in the end, it provides well neither the first nor the second. Again, it is a matter of confusion… it would be better, in my opinion, to pick one of them and go only for that path. To not bother the player, it just provides quick info about everything, but this means teaching almost nothing.
A last word about length: the experience lasts around 20-30 minutes. It is very short and in my opinion not worth a replay. Maybe adding more info would have made it longer and useful.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’ve not come out with an overall bad impression of it, it’s a good experience with some very cool points, but in my opinion, it is a work that has no clear idea about what it wants to provide and so can’t provide it. You can find it on SteamVR for $6.99 and in my opinion, it is not worth the price, especially because of its very short duration. And it’s a pity because they had an interesting idea and tried to develop it in an original way. My advice is to buy it at that price only if you’ve a great passion for spaceships and airplanes since it gives you the possibility to see them from very very close: in the museum, I was right there next to the various shuttles and it was very cool. Otherwise, buy it if they put it at a discounted price.
I really hope the devs will upgrade the app to make it better for future releases!
(Header image by Zodiac Interactive)
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