Star Wars: Jedi Challenges Review: Showing the Potential of AR Gaming
I’ve demoed a lot of smartphone-based, augmented reality (AR) headsets, and while they’ve always seemed to have potential, nothing about them was very compelling. Lenovo and Disney are working to change that this holiday season with a well-thought-out game based on Star Wars, called Jedi Challenges. There are quite a few cute AR games now, but most of them rely just on your phone’s display, so they’re hardly immersive. Star Wars: Jedi Challenges ($ 199.99) (See it on BestBuy.com) goes quite a bit beyond that.
Leveraging Disney’s expertise in entertainment, and Lenovo’s inexpensive-but-clever Mirage AR headset, the game does a good job of making you believe you are interacting with holographic objects. The crowning touch, though, is the AR light saber. You control it by using a physical light saber handle, modeled after the ones in the movies. The cameras built-in to Lenovo’s Mirage AR headset track it and provide the deadly beam of energy Star Wars fans have come to know and love.
What You Get For Your $ 200 Star Wars: Jedi Challenges Kit
First, you get Lenovo’s Mirage AR headset. It is definitely a low-end model and relies on your smartphone for its display, but if you have a higher-end phone, the visuals are quite good. It has velcro straps for adjusting to your head, but having the phone cantilevered out from your forehead is always going to make it feel a bit heavy and front-weighted. It uses your phone’s IMU for rotational tracking (which is probably one reason only some phones work with it), and you’re provided with a small lit “orb” that you place on the floor to serve as a tracking beacon.
My only issue with the headset is the tray mounting system is cumbersome, so it takes some time to get a phone in and out. The headset comes with short connector cables for micro USB, Lightning, and USB-C phones. There are sliders that clamp your phone in place, so it will work with devices of different dimensions, although there doesn’t seem to be enough room for a case.
The headset image is projected from stereoscopic images on your smartphone: one in front of each eye, reflected off a half-silvered mirror into your eye. So the better the display on your phone, the better your results. I used the game with a Moto Z Force (2nd gen), and overall the image was excellent. You can’t see it in bright light, which is to be expected. I also saw a certain amount of chromatic aberration (where each color appeared slightly shifted from the others), but not enough to be really distracting.
The light saber is modeled after the original, and its sounds are the same as those in the movie (one nice advantage of Disney developing the game). Like the headset, it’s pretty much all plastic, but probably doesn’t surprise anyone. As you level up, you can also change the color of energy your light saber emits. Speaking of sound, the headset comes with an okay pair of speakers, but you can use your phone’s audio (or headphones connected to it) if you prefer. There isn’t a dedicated audio jack on the headset itself though. Personally I’m okay with that, as it is already a lot of fiddling to get an AR or VR game setup and the headset on without worrying about another device.
Initial setup is really straightforward, as the application walks you through the Bluetooth pairing and orb placement process painlessly. You do need a reasonably large (preferably at least 6 feet by 10 feet) of space to play. However, since it’s AR, you always have some sense of your surroundings, so you probably won’t run into a wall. You might send a lamp flying with the real portion of your light saber, though, if you don’t have enough room or get too carried away.
Supports iOS and Android, but Only Certain Models
As I write this, Lenovo supports 15 models of smartphone officially, although some users have reported success with other fairly new handsets. Supported models are the iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone 8, iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 7, iPhone 6s Plus, iPhone 6s, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy S8, Galaxy S7 edge, Galaxy S7, Google Pixel XL, Google Pixel, Moto Z² Force Edition, and LG G6. Lenovo says it will be adding additional models over time.
Curiously, Jedi Challenges is the only game supported by the Mirage AR at this time. Since it is a fairly standard phone-based AR unit, I assume there will be more games for it over time. They may wind up using or even requiring other accessories, though, as the light saber is a fairly specific weapon. In the meantime, Lenovo has teased a multi-player mode for the light saber battles (that is what the second color on the orb will be for, apparently).
The Jedi Challenges
While I would actually have been happy just dueling enemies with light sabers, Lenovo and Disney have gone a lot further in modeling some of the competitive aspects of the Star Wars series. They’ve also modeled Holochess and Strategic Combat. To progress, you need to prove your worth at all three.
You’re guided a bit by a character called The Archivist, who explains there are six different worlds (levels), each of which have challenges in the three categories. As you’d expect, the game starts with all but the first planet, Naboo, locked.
Using the Light Saber
Once activated, you use the Light Saber just about the way any Jedi would. You can slash, cut, and deflect incoming attacks with it. The only issue I found is that it becomes un-centered fairly often, when the light from the saber is no longer aligned with its physical hilt. Clearly this was an anticipated issue, as Lenovo has provided a dedicated button on the side of the unit to re-center it.
As I suppose befits a Jedi using The Force, I found that the incoming rounds I deflected often ricocheted back and killed the droid or bot that fired them. That’s probably a good thing, as I don’t think either I or the Light Saber are accurate enough for me to have actually hit them back at that precise an angle.
Holochess and Strategic Combat
These challenges are quite different, in that they are essentially mental, with the Light Saber only used to select, and sometimes to point. But they are both pretty cool, as you do really feel like you’re seeing holographs moving around the board or battlefield. In Holochess, you move your monsters to attack the AI’s monsters, and in turn of course defend against them.
Strategic Combat is the most involved portion of the game, where you create and control entire armies. I haven’t had enough time to explore much of the potential here, but it is one of the most complex AR experiences I’ve ever seen in a smartphone-based headset. It’s a bit hard to describe what it feels like to play, so here is the teaser video for that section of the game:
Glitches in the App UI
There are a couple annoying limitations in Jedi Challenges. First, I couldn’t find any good way to share a phone but still have multiple user accounts. Lenovo confirmed that currently the game doesn’t have that capability built in. Since this is the sort of game that is fun for just about everyone in the family, but not everyone has a compatible phone, it’d be great to share. You can wipe out the app data, but then you have to start everything over. Separate accounts on the phone itself are another possibility.
The other odd thing is that there doesn’t seem to be a “quit” command from within the app, at least on Android. Because you can’t physically get to the phone’s buttons, to exit the game you need to not only remove the headset and disconnect it from the phone, but physically take the phone tray out of the headset, the phone out of the tray, and then exit the app.
Should You Put One Under the Tree This Holiday Season?
For $ 199, it is expensive for a single game, of course. But Star Wars: Jedi Challenges does open the door to an entire new type of gaming experience, and for serious Star Wars fans should provide hours of fun. I also have to believe that if the game sells well there will be more titles for the hardware as well.