The education-focused Mars 2030 launches today on SteamVR for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, soon to come to PSVR. With 40 square kilometers of explorable terrain, the experience successfully achieves its main objective: to make the user feel like they are on Mars. However, while its stunning canvas has great potential, its execution currently suffers from a lack of features, and a number of technical problems.
Unquestionably, Mars 2030’s greatest assets are… its assets. The vast landscape is covered in detailed geometry and textures, and the habitat, vehicles, and other equipment are modelled to a high quality. Combined with convincing lighting and shaders, the result is, at times, very impressive.
The Mawrth Vallis region has been reproduced using satellite data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE, with topographical data accurate to within 30cm of the actual elevation. As described in our first experience of Mars 2030 at GTC 2016, the team went to great lengths to represent the martian terrain in the most realistic manner, using Unreal Engine 4’s physically-based rendering. “Our lead environment artist actually worked with a NASA geologist to find the correct reflectance factors to really get the materials to be as photorealistic as possible,” said Justin Sonnekalb, a designer on the project.
Available soon via SteamVR for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, the Mars 2030 journey begins on the final descent towards the planet. I’m told to push the giant ‘detach’ button, which is where the first body Presence problems become apparent.
The inverse kinematics on the avatar’s arms look odd, probably because the hands (and their resting position) don’t seem to line up agreeably with where my hands fit on the Vive controllers. My character is seated, so I feel compelled to sit too. Resting the controllers on my knees, the virtual hands clip through my virtual legs. It’s possible to reset the camera and sit in such a way that this doesn’t happen, but it would certainly benefit from some fine tuning here. (After being spoiled by the incredible hand animation in Lone Echo, this kind of thing stands out.) While this could be explained as the result of maintaining 1:1 tracking of the hands, the hands also clip through the legs if you play it with a gamepad, where you have no direct control of your arms—something that doesn’t occur in the rover, so I suspect it can be fixed.
After the landing sequence, I appear ‘outside’, with my avatar now standing. The problem is, if I then physically stand, I end up floating above the surface. So I start hunting for a camera reset button, and unfortunately, the Vive controller map (and indeed every controller map) is blank. I eventually figured out that the camera reset is pressing the left trigger and right ‘grip’ button simultaneously, but I still haven’t discovered the shortcut for gamepad. A tutorial sequence is then supposed to activate, but over multiple restarts of the software, it only seemed to trigger 50% of the time.
I’m instructed to move around, use the scanner, and pick up a few rocks. Here, the physics system seems to struggle, and it’s not just from the weaker gravity. Tasked with placing flags at notable locations, these act as a checkpoint and can then be used for fast travel. Several times, the flags ended up flying out of my hand rather than elegantly fitting into place, and the problem seemed even more prevalent when using a gamepad.
After this, you jump into the rover, and my character is sitting again. I grab the virtual joystick with my left hand. Unfortunately, when operated by the tilt of the Vive controller, the movement is unnecessarily sensitive, causing the vehicle to move erratically due to its 6-axis system. Using a gamepad or keyboard in this case is far more intuitive and stable. Thankfully, there is an autopilot feature, which means you can enjoy the view instead of wrestling with the controls. Then, whenever you exit the vehicle, you’re given a brief ‘pressurisation’ animation of your character climbing into their suit. It’s jarring, as it feels like an out-of-body experience, particularly as every other transition is a simple fade to black.
Much like Steve Wozniak’s demo, I also experienced dizziness, as the vehicle movement is unusual (the unfamiliar martian gravity is probably a factor too) and the on-foot locomotion is smooth, including rotation—a common cause of nausea. The opening tutorial suggests there is now a ‘comfort mode’, but exactly what that entails is unclear, as enabling or disabling the function had no obvious effect.
However, there is a permanent ‘teleport’ function that appears active whether you want it or not, so perhaps this is a bug. What it desperately needs (for those sensitive to smooth locomotion in VR) is a snap turning option, which is presumably what the comfort mode is supposed to enable. The teleport feels rather overpowered, as it allows the user to fly across the landscape at breakneck speed, much faster than the rover can travel. As a result, the temptation is there to mash the button and ‘cheat’ your way across the terrain rather than enjoying the journey.
What I’m getting to is this: after hours of testing Mars 2030, I’m still struggling to figure out what is the best way to experience it. It certainly feels like an experience developed with gamepad in mind, but without an obvious camera reset button, it’s practically impossible to use the gamepad when on foot. There’s no obvious solution to the issue of wanting to sit and stand each time you get in and out of the rover, but again, it really needs a quick-access camera reset. Bizarrely, turning with the right stick on a gamepad rotates the avatar body (and HUD), but not the head, another body Presence issue. I’d rather use a gamepad to control the rover, but much rather use motion controllers to pick up rocks. Frankly, the most consistent, least problematic way to play has been on a monitor with a mouse and keyboard. Interestingly, I also felt a small degree of nausea playing it on a monitor too. I’ve played countless first-person games on a monitor without issue; the only other example that caused nausea was The Witness, a possible combination of unusual rotation and movement acceleration, no FOV adjustment, and a lack of crosshair (which was quickly fixed).
Mars 2030 has some strong educational features
Mars 2030 feels unfinished. The menu system is partly broken; not only are the controller maps missing, but the graphics settings don’t seem to register, and it struggles with save slots and checkpoints. The main objective, which involves finding interesting rocks to assess in the Geolab under a microscope, was impossible to finish, as the game would always forget my ‘geolab progress’ each time it crashed, not recognising that I had found samples. Unless more missions unlock after all the Geolab samples are found, it feels like there simply isn’t enough to do, but developer FMG Labs say there could be additional missions in the future.
Despite its bugs, Mars 2030 is capable of delivering a remarkably atmospheric experience. Its audio deserves particular mention, with convincing, ambisonic sound effects and a suitably grand musical score performed by the London Symphonic Orchestra. The horn melody that plays out each time you place a flag is magnificent. The voice acting is mediocre, but it is welcome, and educational. The accelerated day-night cycle is spectacular, with shadows casting realistically across the landscape. The distinctive blue sunsets and sunrises have an eerie, magical quality, and the blackness of night is mildly terrifying in a VR headset. If you’re looking for a powerful sense of isolation, this might be the one. The software is at its best when you stand still, stop fighting the controls and simply take in the view.
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Mars 2030 is launching soon on Steam for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift on July 27th and comes to PSVR later this summer. It will cost $15 and will be free for students and educators, as part of the NASA Space Act Agreement.