Chernobyl: VR Project for PSVR is not a video game. Let me say it again: Chernobyl: VR Project is not a video game. Please don’t labor under the delusion that when you fire it up, you’ll be getting trophies, solving puzzles or killing enormous irradiated two-headed bears. Nope. Fortunately, Chernobyl offers an altogether different experience for your headset. Here’s the deal.
Chronicling perhaps one of the most ominous and intriguing man-made disasters in human history, Chernobyl: VR Project is an educational app that takes you on a tour around Pripyat, Ukraine, where a nuclear reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 caused the deaths of two dozen people and caused cancer in a still-unknown number of the Ukrainian population. The faulty engineering and lax safety precautions that led to the explosion were seen by the global community as endemic of life in the Soviet Union, casting a harsh new light on the USSR and the Cold War. In the last 30 years, countless animals and human babies in the area have been born with often-unlivable genetic mutations caused by radiation from the fallout. Although spending a few hours at a time in the area is safe, most of the Chernobyl area won’t be habitable until the radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere decay, which scientists say won’t happen for another 20,000 years.
Now, the people at The Farm 51 Group have put together Chernobyl: VR Project for Oculus Rift, Steam and – this past September – PSVR. Starting from a 360-degree view of Pripyat from over 100 feet in the air, gamers can use a look-and-click system to navigate to any one of over a dozen points of interest to learn more about a certain location or person involved with the local history of the small town – for example, nearby scrapyards, abandoned community centers and of course the power plant itself. A trusty narrator tells the player about each area and translates for other sources.
Interaction within the app is split up into two main methods of locomotion, dubbed “Look” and “Walk.” On any location labeled with the “Look” icon, the user can look and rotate around in order to view 360-degree, two-dimensional captured footage of the area in question and click buttons within the area for additional material – but not move freely. Most of the “Look” areas have several static locations to view, and some include 360-degree video footage of a tour guide talking about the individual location. I enjoyed learning about each area, and having the freedom of looking anywhere I liked at any time, including while video played.
However, as informative and fascinating as the “Look” locations are, the real treats are the painstakingly reconstructed “Walk” areas. As you can imagine, these are fully navigable 3-D recreations of certain places in and around Pripyat. This is where the VR experience truly shines, as I found myself examining every square inch of each area – I must’ve spent 15 minutes just looking at all the buttons and switches on the control panels at the power plant, amazed to feel like I was really in the area. This is further aided by the fact that several of the textures (most notably walls) have actually been photographed on-location and scanned in to be wrapped as skins around their respective recreations. Peeling wallpapers in a school classroom, rusting metal air units and more all come alive thanks to the ultrarealism of being really photographed and placed into the app. Like their static counterparts, the walkable areas offer clickable icons/buttons to further explore, some of which are linked to more 360-degree videos of our tour guide telling us about the area or even interviews with locals – the current mayor of Kiev is interviewed in one segment, as is a local who lives near the irradiated area.
So what’s the catch? Unfortunately, some of the areas and interactive experiences aren’t labeled quite clearly – or may be missing altogether. The interview with a local singer is a prime example. I was in the community center looking around downstairs and I clicked to be taken from the downstairs to the upstairs, but rather than let me look around like normal, the tour guide did a video talking about it then I was immediately taken to the clip of the singer discussing her memories of the incident before being booted back out to the main menu in Pripyat. Call it a minor gripe, but it does throw you off, as do the occasional video clips that end a couple seconds early, cutting off their speakers’ final words. In another area, the music classroom of the walkable school, the narrator instructed me to find interactive objects to learn more about Russian music and to hear a popular song from the time. However, the nearest thing I could find was a clickable button in the next room which triggered the narrator to tell me about a different facet of the Ukrainian education system. Never did find that song.
The other hang-up is that the “Look” areas, which I mentioned were captured with a 360-degree camera, appear to be in lower resolution or noticeably fuzzy/blurry/soft-focused compared to the walkable areas. And that makes sense to a degree – I understand the realities of different technologies and rendering processes and in-game engines versus encoded videos – but it was still a shame. I’d also say that in a perfect world, every area would’ve been fully-recreated and navigable, but if you can get past the locomotive and visual limitations of the 360-degree-filmed areas, they make a decent accompaniment.
So how much is filmed and how much is 3-D reconstruction? It’s hard to say. Out of the 13 points of interest in the app, maybe five are walkable and the others are 360-degree-filmed, but the walkable areas hold far more narrated exhibits and videos than the 360-degree locations, besides that they’re much larger. It’s made even more complex because some of the 360-degree areas (the radio tower DUGA-2 for instance) have additional small walkable locations you can visit within them. I’d call it a healthy mixture of both.
At the end of the day, Chernobyl: VR Project is a mixture of history, journalism and interactive nonfiction that lies somewhere between the unfairly-named “walking simulator” and one of those museum exhibits with the video screen and buttons that show different clips – but much better than the latter, in my opinion. It also could’ve been fleshed out with a photo gallery, interviews/commentary with the developers, news articles, etc. While it’s a must-own for history buffs, and I’d personally recommend it given the fascinating subject matter, gamers looking for something akin to Fallout 4 or Metro: Redux are in for a sore reality check. The overall limitations in navigation and the overall brevity of the app (you can cover most of it in three to five hours) are balanced by the deep discount price tag of $9.99 USD, but the technical hang-ups aren’t as forgiving.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn more about the Chernobyl incident, as should we all be, and I have a lot of respect for The Farm 51 for this undertaking – bringing one of the most uninhabitable and irradiated areas of the Earth to your doorstep is a rare chance for anyone. However, as much as I enjoyed it, the glitches and limitations did hinder my experience. I’m giving this app a 6.5 out of 10 but I’m hoping that The Farm 51 will return to VR with bigger and smoother educational experiences for us to appreciate.
AIR Entertainment was given a review code for this title by The Farm 51 Group.