"The Martian: VR Experience" renders the dull reality of life on Mars a little too well

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The Martian: VR Experience puts you inside Mark Watney's and let's you do all the boring things he does. (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

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The Martian: VR Experience is 20th Century Fox's first big step into creating novel content for this new medium. The studio has founded the Fox Innovation Lab to exclusively develop VR projects to tie in with their future blockbuster movie titles and The Martian: VR Experience is their first commercial drop into this nascent market.

So what's it like?

The short answer: not great, unfortunately.

At a cost of US$19.99 this brief VR experience for the HTC Vive and Playstation VR lasts no more than 20 minutes and comes across as frustratingly banal and overpriced.

The experience closely follows the narrative of the well known movie from 2015, interspersing familiar diary scenes from the film featuring Matt Damon as Mark Watney with short interactive scenarios that are stiflingly uninteresting.

The experience starts strongly enough highlighting the power of virtual reality to transport you into an unfamiliar environment with an impressively immersive trip to the surface of Mars. It's initially quite engaging to be thrust onto the surface of this barren planet but, the humdrum nature of the narrative quickly kicks in as you are tasked with a series of dull activities such as throwing potatoes into barrels and removing rocks to clear a canister of plutonium.

These interactive sequences do quite fairly mirror the thematic and narrative beats of the film which, after all, set out to highlight the ordinary aspects of surviving in a perilous landscape, but there is something curiously irritating about being so sophisticatedly immersed within an exciting environment yet being forced to execute such pedestrian tasks. The fundamental flaw in The Martian: VR Experience is that fact that there is nothing inherently exciting in simply pushing buttons and pulling levers.

There are six interactive scenarios across the whole experience, and each follows a different stage from the film's narrative. It is only the final sequence that generates any degree of novelty or excitement. Here you have to pierce your space suit and propel yourself towards a spacecraft while floating in Mars' orbit, but even then this whole scene plays out rather perfunctorily. The mechanics of the Vive's controllers are responsive but the task is still disappointingly linear.

The most frustrating part of this entire project is the fact the Fox have put a $20 price tag on what ultimately is a one-play, 20 minute experience. It's understandable the studio is trying to evaluate ways to commercialize VR content, but at more than the price of a regular movie ticket, my overriding impression was that it felt like a bit of a rip-off.

When LucasFilm released its Star Wars experience, Trials Of Tatooine for free earlier this year we got a taste of how exciting these forms of movie/VR tie-ins could be. That experience tapped into a rich vein of nostalgia allowing us the sensation of wielding a lightsaber and battling stormtroopers. Plus, it was free. With The Martian: VR Experience, Fox seems to be stretching the definition of "$20 worth" for what is essentially a short, single-play experience.

As Bladerunner and Star Wars VR experiences are being developed for launch in 2017 and 20th Century Fox pushes to bring more VR content to market we can only hope the experience – and the price – improves.

Check out the trailer for The Martian: VR Experience below:

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