Lenovo in partnership with Disney have released (or is it unleashed?) Star Wars: Jedi Challenges, a self-contained AR headset kit which brings that 'far, far away' galaxy into your own home.
The kit equips you with an authentic-looking physical lightsaber replica as a controller for duelling face-to-face with a life-size virtual Darth Vader or Kylo Ren. This is assisted by the smartphone-powered Lenovo Mirage AR headset and a single tracker beacon to create your virtual zone almost anywhere in your house.
The Star Wars-themed experience lets you play the Jedi Master through three different games: strategic combat, lightsaber battles and holochess, the latter being a nice nod to the original Star Wars movie where the game featured briefly.
Setting up Star Wars: Jedi Challenges
Excited pre-teens will likely need the help of an adult to set up the system, which we found a bit too long and kind of fiddly as it involved some trial and error. You need to turn on and set up the app before slotting the phone into the headset via a caddy, then you need to fiddle with the locks on the mount to get the phone sitting just right. The door to the mount that holds the phone in place uses a plastic hinge. Time will tell how durable this is.
You navigate the on-screen menus using a combination of lightsaber movements and tilting your head. While fairly intuitive for adults, this will take time for younger kids. Placing a glowing ball on the floor or a table designates the play space and this also takes some experimenting to get right.
Holochess, strategic combat and lightsaber battles
This is fun and pretty much exactly what you'd expect if you've seen the movie – even down to the headset resolution matching the appearance of the hologram in the original film, giving it that nice retro vibe.
This real-time strategy (RTS) game retains the top down diagonal perspective from traditional RTS games such as Age of Empires. It lets you move around the battlefield by walking or tilting your head, though it doesn't change perspective. However, the controls and combat options are simple given that you don't have a keyboard and mouse. Experienced RTS players might find it loses its charm fairly quickly.
This is where the headset really shines. You can fight droids, Stormtroopers and Darth Maul early in the game! The tutorials are good, and defeating a major villain like Darth Maul is very satisfying.
Holding the lightsaber is always a bit of a thrill, especially when you hear that iconic power-up sound. Combat is fun in practice at first, though you quickly find you don't need real Jedi-class lightsaber skills since you can just wave the thing around like crazy until you hit your enemies. There's some simple strategy involved as some enemies can only be cut down, while others won't come close enough, so you need to deflect their bullets. Again, this doesn't require pin-point accuracy to smack a bullet in kind of the right direction and land a direct hit.
They've done a good job of making the lightsaber feel realistic, though you do need to regularly hit the re-centre button as the blade drifts off and we found it never really sits dead straight. All the games have levels and unlocks and you'll need to work your way through stages to unlock new powers and different ways to play. For example, early on you can unlock a 'force throw' that lets you go full Obi-Wan and blast people back with a wave of your hand (in this case, pushing the lightsaber forward).
But like so many VR and, to a lesser extent, AR games, it doesn't take long before this starts to feel repetitive and there's no storyline to hold your attention. However, you can see they've put some thought into adding variety beyond the simple gimmick of using a lightsaber. The unlockables that actually impact gameplay are cool, as are harder and harder enemies that require different strategies.
The headset with a phone on board (we used an iPhone 7) weighed 617g, which is still a bit on the heavy side for extended gameplay, especially for kids, and it's most noticeable when continually looking down to play the RTS game. It also doesn't sit super securely on your head, so when you inevitably start bobbing about and flicking your head in the heat of battle, the headset can shift position, making enemies blurry and hard to hit.
Star Wars: Jedi Challenges is a novel idea executed relatively well, though it's not obvious at this stage why they opted for the mixed-reality experience of AR over the self-contained world of VR (virtual reality) when the characters don't really interact with the environment. Perhaps this will be better utilised in future content if this kit proves to be sufficiently successful. Bear in mind it's worth checking the phone requirements first: the game is compatible with selected Apple- and Android-based smartphones and requires the download of a companion app.
Is it worth the money? It's pretty well made and the $399 asking price seems reasonable for a good quality immersive experience, but it's limited to the Star Wars universe even if/when they bring out additional content. If you're a big fan already, this will help put you in the picture between movies.