Star Wars fever is taking over the world once again, with The Last Jedi currently breaking records across the box offices. If you’re looking to jump aboard the hype train, but have already seen the movie more times than you can count, then perhaps you should check out something a little different?
Created by Lucasfilm, ILMxLAB and The VOID, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is an immersive experience currently running at Westfield Shepherd's Bush. After visiting it myself, I can safely say that it is the epitome of virtual reality. For it’s not just the traditional headgear that gets you into action. This whole attraction is built as a maze, complete with four-dimensional experiences that engage all of your senses.
The exterior view of the VR experience in Westfield Shepherd's Bush
I went as a part of a Star Wars themed birthday extravaganza that my friend was hosting. Whilst I was in the office finishing my working day, he kicked his afternoon off watching The Last Jedi. So by the time I arrived, the group were in an in-depth analysis about the film’s plot…
Who am I kidding. We were all discussing the Porgs. They are just too darn cute.
But anyway, I’m getting off topic! Once you arrive at the VR experience, you are briefed with your mission. To go undercover as a stormtrooper and retrieve a valuable item from an Empire base. Sounds simple enough right? So once you have your objective, you are suited up into a full body harness and headwear, and sent through to the first room to prepare to enter this strange new world.
The area where you are suited up into your new identity
This was the second time that I had personally partaken in a VR experience. However, it was the first time that I’d ever done it with other people at the same time. The strangest thing was seeing my comrades movements, knowing that they were literally in front of me in costume, but all that I could see was another fellow stormtrooper waving back at me. Your headgear also features powerful headphones, which have mics linked between each other (just like real spies!).
Before we knew it, the most sarcastic robot in the galaxy, K-250 (best known from Rogue One, voiced by the great Alan Tudyk) was calling us forward to discuss our mission once again in the charming way that he does. The spacecraft that we were on opened its doors, and in front of us was a planet ridden with lava and devastation. We were instructed to step onto a ‘moving platform’, which would take us to the heart of the rebel base. This platform would fly high through the sky, towards the floating building in the middle of the world.
A glimpse of what you can see on this experience
This was a moment that will truly stay with me for a long time. The sensory experiences in this area were so detailed, I had a hard time believing that I was in reality standing in a walled room in the middle of Shepherd's Bush. Hot air blasted from above to emulate the volcanic atmosphere, whilst the floor rumbled as the platform seemingly flew through the air. The visuals were so good, that I found myself slightly hesitant to walk to edge of the area that we were stood on, as all I could see was a hundred-odd foot drop into boiling molten lava below.
Now I won’t lie. Despite the fact that I claim to be a stealth lover when it comes to normal gaming, our team were anything but that. We instantly blew our cover when we entered the base, by one of our teammates testing out his gun at a wall to see if it worked. It was like something out of a terrible action-comedy fusion movie.
These guys look much more PR friendly, and way less dorky than we did
But by doing this, we got to experience even more features of this awesome VR experience. The body armour that we wore acted as reactors to movement. For example, there were many instances that other enemy stormtroopers (NPC’s) came out to attack us, and they would shoot their rifles at us. If they hit (and yes, many times they did), you would feel an impact on your body. Not enough to hurt of course, but enough for you to notice.
Another particular memory that stands out is my inability to remember a very simple code. To open a nearby door, I was supposed to follow a pattern of pressing buttons, the same which K-250 did. For whatever reason, I literally could not do it. And boy, did that robot make me know. Hearing Alan Tudyk’s voice say to me “You really are useless, aren’t you?” was quite something, I must say.
Meanwhile, the guys on the team let me struggle with the code whilst they had fun shooting at the enemies. Bloody boys.
There were quite a few instances where we lost all our grasp on where we were really standing. Particularly when an enemy was coming straight for us. I don’t want to spoil too much, but there was one moment when one of my team members cried out “OH GOD NO!” as an enemy got quite close to comfort.
But in our defence, it felt like we’d been transported into a Matrix-esque scenario. I came out of this experience disorientated with the world, and slightly disappointed that my surroundings were incredibly mundane and showed no signs of any galactic interface. I truly just wanted to jump straight back into the land of the Jedi, and relieve my science-fiction life with my own two eyes.
If there are any readers from across the pond in the US, this experience is also available in Orlando, Florida and Anaheim, California.
This is what this experience offers. It bewitches you into believing that what you are seeing - and feeling - is real life. For a brief fifteen minutes, you can let go of your outside woes and understand what the life of an undercover space spy might feel like.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is scheduled to be on until 7 March 2018, and you can take a look at times and ticket prices right here.