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Rift Roundup – Halcyon

There are a lot of smaller pieces of software appearing for the Rift and clogging up the marketplace. It is difficult to wade through them, so we’re going to try and take a regular look at some periodically and let you know whether they are worth your time and money. Welcome to our first Rift Roundup – Halcyon.

Perhaps the most important reason why it’s so hard to get a consensus opinion on a lot of the content for the Rift is because the Oculus store is still pretty terrible. There have been improvements, such as being able to see user reviews for content without having to wear the headset. Still Oculus and Facebook need to make a lot more effort in this department. Ranting aside, I am liking the fact that the Rift is developing a lot of smaller pieces of content. There are a lot of people bemoaning the fact that there aren’t more AAA releases for the Rift, which is a fair criticism. However I still find the Rift an occasionally uncomfortable or exhausting experience so smaller experiences are quite often more enjoyable because they don’t come with a migraine or a bucket of vomit.

The first of the Rift Roundups is HALCYON – a project by the SyFy channel that combines live action video with interactive VR scenes. The story revolves around a future in which VR is so widely available that society largely functions via VR implants. This has led to the proliferation of “Virtual Intelligences” – think Siri on speed. These virtual helpers assist with day to day tasks, they run the house and they baby sit our children. The company responsible for this tech revolution is Halcyon, and they hold a monopoly on the market. Against this backdrop the CEO of Halcyon and mastermind behind the VR revolution is murdered – just before he can activate a VR touch interface that will add the sense of touch to VR and allow people to fully interact with both VR and their virtual intelligences. This step would make real life and VR almost indistinguishable and is not without its critics.

When thinking about Halcyon there is a huge amount here to praise. First and foremost I applaud SyFy for greenlighting this project. A series of 8 minute episodes linked together by an interactive experience that is limited to people who own an Oculus Rift or a Gear VR? Serious kudos for that. Also I am hugely impressed at the subject matter here; whilst VR is an obvious topic for a series presented in VR, the show is smart enough to tackle interesting questions around addiction to VR and the ethical and moral cost of creating alternate realities. Whether or not you buy into the concept that VR is the future these are massive questions that we could be facing in the future, or at the very least they’re interesting. Also everyone loves the concept of exploring a crime scene in virtual reality right?

Halcyon only really has one problem. It’s not… very… good…

I feel like a real shit criticising something that I really admire, but it’s a common complaint: “I appreciate what it was trying to do but I didn’t really like it.”

The acting is adequate, and it seems to be competently shot but there are some fundamental flaws with the concept.

The first problem is the medium of delivery itself. The episodes were shown on TV, and can also be streamed, however they’re so short you have to watch them within the VR headset or you will be removing it constantly. Sadly the resolution of the Rift itself means that the video doesn’t look great, and the god rays in white scenes are distracting. The 110 degree field of view of the Rift is impressive, but in this context it means that watching videos requires holding your head straight and looking directly ahead for most of the two hour run time.

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Ironically the VIs all out act the real people. I’m going to assume this is some form of clever meta-commentary on VR, even though that’s obviously nonsense.

The video playback controls are awful, and adding insult to injury before each episode you are obliged to watch the SyFy splash screen and also the Halcyon intro. This might seem minor and both are incredibly short but they’re irritating and really break the immersion.

The VR scenes are also a major disappointment. You are confined to one location for the entire experience and your only interaction with that is to examine key points that flash up on your screen whilst your VI tells you to go and look for them. There is zero challenge and very little of it is interesting. The environment itself is at best adequate – there are a few nice graphical touches but ultimately very little effort has gone into it and it’s unlikely to impress.

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This is as exciting as the action or environments get sadly.

What rapidly became the biggest flaw is that the live action episodes feel the need to reiterate what has already happened in the VR scenes, presumably so that people who don’t own a VR headset can follow along. This seriously undermines the entire point of the VR segments, which were pretty crap in the first place. The entire experience therefore is limited to watching short episodes of a not particularly interesting show, on a virtual screen that strips out a lot of the resolution.

It’s a crying shame because there is nothing truly bad here, there just isn’t quite enough to get excited about. The story asks big questions, but then doesn’t bother to answer them. The setup is intriguing but the interaction is mundane. The acting is serviceable but it isn’t long enough to allow the actors to achieve much.

I genuinely applaud all of the people involved in the making of this, and I would call it a gloriously successful experiment, but as a finished consumer product it is sadly lacking. The fact that it ends on a cliff hanger is promising that we might see a Halcyon series 2, and that is a prospect that would genuinely interest me.

Worth buying?

I’ll say this, at least it’s priced reasonably sensibly. I think if you can find it on a 50% off sale, it’s an interesting way to spend two hours (give or take). However temper your expectations because although Halcyon does a lot of things right, the result is less than the sum of its parts.

Rank at the time of writing:

3 – It’s above Judge Dredd Vs Death, because it’s a more ambitious project that has some successes. Also I know which one I’d rather go back and experience a second time. Sorry Dredd.

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