The success of any AR game depends entirely on immersion: whether the player's having so much they forget how massively dorky they look with a cafeteria tray stuck to their their face. Disney's Star Wars: Jedi Challenges, a $399 standalone AR machine made in collaboration with Lenovo, succeeds at this in fits and spurts. Going toe-to-toe with Darth Maul in melee combat or commanding ground troops to retake ships is thrilling, but the package's clunky, cluttered setup presentation wastes too much time in drawing in players.
The headset itself is just one of four necessary devices to play Jedi Challenges (including the phone, tracking device, and the lightsaber). Everything but the phone is included in the purchase but, annoyingly, if even one is low on battery, the whole operation collapses.
Setup is tedious and installing the game recalls Apple's famously silly dongle system. There are three steps: start up the Jedi Challenges app on your phone, insert your phone into the headset, then sync the headset with the lightsaber. The glowing tracking device adapts well both on the floor or a tabletop and even moving it in the middle of a game isn't too terribly intrusive. You'll still need a spacious area for the projections to work, however.
Lenovo sent along the headset with the Motorola Z2 Force. The 5.5-inch screen easily slid into the protective tray that you then put into the headset, sorta like an SNES cartridge. It didn't fit so easily with the 4.7-inch iPhone 7, even with the tray adjusters. Anything less than perfect alignment distorts the images, so Lenovo's claims about it working with "any phone with an Android or iOS" should be hedged: if you have a smaller screen, you'll have to change the app's HUD settings to adapt. But even when I did this, the projections weren't as clear as with the Z2 Force.
The headset's best adapted for wider screen phones like the Moto Z2. Calibration can be pretty hit-or-miss.
It's a hassle if you only have a few minutes for a quick game and leaving the game idle long enough (obviously you'd take this off if you wanted to use the bathroom or talk to someone) sometimes causes it to disconnect from the lightsaber. In that case, you'll have to take the phone out of the headset and restart it to re-sync with the app. Imagine sitting down to play Star Wars and instead feeling like you're stuck playing Mouse Trap.
Having to pop open the headset itself every time you play is more than a little annoying.
The UX is clunky, and I can't imagine kids pushing through the tedium when they just want to play a game. Luckily, the games themselves are remarkably well executed. Challenges has three gaming modes: Trial of Combat, using the lightsaber to face off in melee combat, Trial of Insight, basically holographic chess, and Trial of Leadership, a Starcraft-esque action/strategy game.
Prepare to look like a dork.
Trial of Combat is easily the biggest draw: using the lightsaber, you slash enemies, counter attacks, activate unlockable force abilities, and reflect shots from blasters. Facing off against Darth Maul, yellow lights onscreen would indicate how to hold my lightsaber in order to block his attacks: I'd guard against a few strikes, follow up with timed slashes of my own and a Force blast. It was fast paced and reflex intensive, and the headset delivered: pivoting between the different prompts was seamless and the later stages, against groups of enemies, kept my interest even as the prompts became repetitive.
Trial of Leadership was my personal favourite to play. Here, you command troops and face off against invading armies. As Germain Lussier said in his hands-on report about Jedi Challenges, it's essentially Starcraft on your living room floor. Using the lightsaber as a cross between a remote control and a conductor's baton, you select objects and place them around the battlefield. Gameplay is essentially point-and-click, but flanking enemy soldiers with a well placed laser turret or a dramatic last minute rescue from Obi Wan Kenobi (you select and place him on the field as if he were a vehicle) is very satisfying.
The third mode (or first, you can play in any order) is holochess, an adaptation of the game Chewie and 3P0 Play in "A New Hope." Calling it "chess" might be a stretch, because while it is faithfully realised and looks a lot like it did onscreen, the rules aren't much more complicated than "paper beats rock." They're a simplified version of the canon rules. Maybe too simplified, as it did n't hold my interest. The game drags, but it's easy to imagine Disney and Lenovo incorporating a PvP mode to add much needed tension or strategy. For now, it hangs as the least interesting mode.
I had a lot of fun with Jedi Challenges, but I still don't have faith in the headset as a long-term investment. This thing costs 400 damn dollars! Disney has said new games more updates are coming to the app, most likely tie-ins with The Last Jedi hitting theatres in December, so there's hope for new updates and potentially an earnest commitment to AR. For now, it's just a fun diversion.
- The lightsaber battles are a fun, faithful realisation of the tech.
- Setup takes entirely too long and having to charge 4 separate devices to play sucks.
- There's not enough depth to the games to keep older players entertained, but $399 is quite pricey for a kids game.
- You unlock new lightsaber colours and that became a real motivator in finishing challenges.