An experience you simply won't find anywhere else.
With a cold, steel hilt in my hands and the glow from a Kyber crystal's blade painting my face, the dream of cutting down droids and the occasional Sith at a moment's notice finally started to become a reality. For decades, fans have been dreaming of the day they would be able to wield a real lightsaber, and Lenovo's latest gadget brings us closer to that reality than ever, or at least in the mind's eye anyway. All you need is a modern smartphone and Lenovo's Jedi Challenges kit to begin your very first Jedi training, and the best part is that there's no taxation of trade routes to dispute. Let's take a look at what Lenovo brings to the augmented reality table.
In the Box
Lenovo Star Wars: Jedi Challenges retails for $199 and includes almost everything you need to get started. A large augmented reality (AR) headset accompanies Rey's lightsaber and a multi-color tracking beacon. A tray for docking your phone inside the headset is included, as well as cables for plugging the phone into the headset itself. Batteries and chargers are in the box as well, so all you'll really need is your Android or iOS powered smartphone in addition to the kit itself. Lenovo produces a list of compatible phones that are officially recommended for use with the Jedi Challenges kit.
We used the 2016 Google Pixel XL for the bulk of the review period, but tested out a number of other phones that were not on the official list, as well as a few on the list. Many phones that debuted in either 2016 or 2017 should work just fine with the unit, however a few may have incompatibilities that won't work for one reason or another. Lenovo includes adapter cables to plug into the headset itself, including cables for microUSB, USB Type-C, and Lightning.
The look and design of the Mirage AR headset is all Star Wars without a doubt. It's got that bulky, semi industrial look that fits right in with what you'll find in any of the movies, even if it might be a bit cumbersome at first. Elastic headbands wrap around the sides and back of your head, as well as the top, fastening with highly adjustable Velcro straps. These headbands made it so that they could easily fit any adult head, including mine and a number of other friends and family who tried it, as well as kids all the way down to age 3 in our testing. Smaller children might find it more uncomfortable simply because of the size of the headset more than anything, so your mileage may vary with comfortability in younger children.
Three plush face pads meet with the forehead and both cheeks, helping keep the headset more comfortable for long periods of time on your face. The left cheek pad fell off on our review unit, but a quick application of hot glue fixed it right up. It's annoying that these aren't just held on with a Velcro type material too, but it was easy enough of a fix to not be bothered too much by it. Along the right side are three buttons, used for various things within the game, and on the left is the door to the phone tray and ports. You'll place the phone into the tray that slides out, moving the adjustable sliders to fit nearly any size phone. At the bottom is a window which leaves a section of the screen open for projection, and the bottom end of the phone sits at the outside of the headset, near the door. Before closing the flap you'll connect one of the three cables in the box to the headset's microUSB port, allowing the phone to power the headset's cameras for tracking.
The phone's screen is then projected onto the large lenses up front, which creates the illusion that hologram versions of droids, Sith and space chess pieces are floating around in actual real-world space. This in contrast with the myriad of virtual reality headsets out there, which completely occlude your vision with a screen. Instead you'll be slicing droids apart in your living room, playing space chess on your dining room table, and plotting the next Rebel attack in a small city inside your kitchen, all while being fully aware of your surroundings. Your friends and family will even be able to tell what's going on by just looking at the front of your headset while playing too; a nice low tech sort of approach to casting your phone's image on a nearby TV.
Lightsaber and Tracking Beacon
Part and parcel to the experience, of course, is the Lightsaber itself. Design wise, I thought it was Luke/Anakin's lightsaber at first, however upon gazing into the Bluetooth settings on my phone, realized it was labeled as Rey's lightsaber. Placing it next to Anakin's Lightsaber (it's my son's, I swear), you can immediately tell the difference. While the grip of the hilt is nearly identical to the Anakin/Luke one, the rest of it is completely different, and it's all made of an incredibly shiny plastic too. This is of course to make the weapon look more real, and the weight and solid construction of it certainly feels up to the task.
Whether or not being Rey's Lightsaber is a spoiler for The Last Jedi or not is up to you, but there's not much in the game to make you think this could be hers anyway. Two buttons are located on the Lightsaber itself; a small circular one near the top, and a long, rectangular one just above the rubber grips. The game refers to this long button as the "activation matrix" for powering up the blade, but it is also used to activate your Force power, among other things depending on the game you're playing. The tip is a soft, white rubber that illuminates white when disconnected, and blue when connected to the phone via Bluetooth. On the bottom you'll find a hook to hang it with, as well as a power switch, microUSB port for charging and a red status LED.
While gaming, the Lightsaber is used as the main control input, although sometimes the three buttons on the side of the headset will be used as well. Since the Lightsaber connects to your phone via Bluetooth, it'll generally have a quick line of communication with your phone, but there's some obvious latency between real world actions and what you'll actually see moving on screen. A set of gyroscopes inside the Lightsaber are used to track movement of the weapon itself, and is calibrated the first time you start up the app. While the game gives you the ability to recenter the blade for calibration any time during the game, I didn't find this was necessary most of the time. The biggest problem with the unit is that its refresh rate isn't incredibly fast, and won't feel quite 1:1 with your hand because of this slight lag. This will likely vary depending on the phone you're using to run the show, but it can take you out of the experience sometimes.
The tracking beacon is a simple design, with a black plastic base and a large, squishy white globe up top. Inside of this globe is a series of LED lights, which are activated via the three-way switch on the bottom. 2 AA batteries are included in the box and power the beacon. At this time only the pink light will be used for playing; the second cyan color is reserved for a future update that allows multiplayer functionality; presumably Lightsaber duels and possibly other functionality as well. The two cameras on the front of the headset feature fish-eye lenses that keep track of this tracking beacon, giving the virtual world an actual spatial relationship to the world you're physically standing in.
The Lenovo Star Wars: Jedi Challenges app is pretty hefty; 747MB on my phone as of the writing of this review. Since only flagship-tier phones are on the officially supported list, space shouldn't be an issue, but it's worth noting that it'll take a while to download and a fair amount of space too. Primarily designed to be interacted with inside the headset, the app only features a setup and calibration mode before you jump into the real meat of the experience. Once you've met all the setup requirements and place the phone into the tray of the headset, the rest of the experience is controlled via a combination of Lightsaber buttons and the three buttons on the headset itself. The entire experience is delivered as a training program, complete with holograms and a rather sarcastic artificial intelligence teacher.
Organization is multi-tiered, consisting of travel to different planets to take on various challenges that would befit a Padawan, and eventually a Jedi once you pass the training phase. Planets are organized into Outer Rim, Mid Rim, Inner Rim and Core Worlds. Each planet consists of three sets of challenges; Holochess, Strategic Battles, and Lightsaber Combat. Each of these is a very different game, and all control quite a bit differently as well. The hero game is of course going to be Lightsaber Combat, and is likely the thing that drew many into even looking at the Jedi Challenges kit in the first place. There are two main types of challenges within Lightsaber Combat, with each planet containing three Lightsaber challenges in total. The first two are always wave based, with waves of enemies coming at you, normally shooting from afar, while others come closer for melee combat.
Blaster bolts can be deflected back at the units, and these behave closely to how they would in real life. The angle you deflect the blaster bolt back at is the trajectory the bolt will take, so just blocking a bolt won't automatically send it flying back in the direction of the enemy that shot it. Throughout the campaign you'll encounter various Droids and Stormtroopers, among plenty of other units as well. Once you pass these challenges, the Lightsaber duel challenge will open up. You'll start out fighting Darth Maul on Naboo, and while he's a bit of a pushover, the build up to very difficult challenges happens quickly. Subsequent planets each feature a different Sith to battle, and you'll soon take on the likes of Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, but even lesser known characters like The Grand Inquisitor are no easy task.
The virtual blade on the saber attempts to keep in line with the physical hilt that you hold, and for the most part works well enough to create the illusion of holding an actual saber. There's a slight delay when moving the saber physically versus when it actually shows in the game, but we're talking milliseconds here, not something that actually affects the gameplay in the end. While something like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift would feel far more realistic so to speak, this doesn't feel like a dumbed down experience because of the slower controls. During battles you'll need to physically dodge attacks as well as block them with your saber, and maybe deflect the occasional blaster bolt as well.
Lightsaber battles become increasingly complex as you progress, and while the initial Darth Maul fight mostly has you blocking his Lightsaber attacks one way or the other, subsequent battles will have you guessing at which way you need to block, forcing you to study your opponent before acting. A health gauge appears over the enemy as you successfully attack, and a few dozen different active and passive Force powers can be used during battle. Before each battle you'll equip one active and two passive powers, all of which are unlocked after earning them throughout battles. Consecutive passes in each challenge can become harder and more rewarding, offering more goodies as a result.
Holochess is everyone's favorite way to let the Wookie win, and the strategy involved is fantastic to say the least. The circular board doesn't represent normal Chess in any meaningful way, and the strategies employed loosely resemble the classic game as well. Once you pass the two training courses, the first actual Holochess game is opened up against your virtual teacher. Each unit moves a set number of spaces around the circular board, which resembles a dartboard more than anything, and each unit subsequently deals different rates of damage. These units will attack each other voraciously, with a finishing move once a unit's health has been depleted. The strategy that can be employed is rich and varied, and at times you will need to study the board and identify which pieces might move next, or draw them in for a multi-layered attack.
The third gameplay mode is Strategic Battles; a real-time strategy game where you control various units in the Clone Wars and other epic battles throughout Star Wars film history. Your viewpoint is rendered as that of a general on a starship, getting a bird's eye view of the world. Command is done via the reticle in the center of the display, which is used to choose units on the map. Clicking the activation matrix button on the Lightsaber brings up a menu with different units that can be summoned and placed on the map. You'll only be able to summon each unit every so often, with a cooldown timer placed on the selection screen after each choice.
The map is generally broken up into two controlled sections, with an enemy territory and a friendly territory that you can drop new units into. Units range from Clone Troopers to Jedi, automated turrets, and other vehicles, just to mention a few. These units will all attack and strategize on their own, or you can take direct command of squads by clicking on them and letting them know which enemies you'd like them to target, or even highlighting a specific enemy as an important target for all units to prioritize. Battles are intense and strategy driven, and the feeling of controlling units in real time in real-world space is fantastic. The holograms of these units appear to be sitting on your floor, and you can look straight down, move around the room, and even crouch down to get a super up-close view of each individual unit. Strategy battles are an important part in a Jedi's training to become a war general, and are an incredibly fun way to spend quite a few hours of your time.
Comfort, Performance and Battery Life
For the most part I found the headset was very comfortable, aided by the fact that it's fairly light plastic and only holding a phone inside. The three straps that wrap around the head are stretchy and comfortable, and the velcro makes it so that it can adjust to virtually any head size. While my left cheek pad fell off and had to be glued back onto the unit, I can't see much wear and tear happening to the headset over time, no matter how much it is played. You're not knocking into walls or objects thanks to the fact that you can actually see them through the glass, so it won't take as much damage as a VR unit might.
As these are projected images that appear to be in real world space, rather than being in a fully virtual world, your eyes have to focus on the glass nearest your face the entire time you're playing. I generally have great vision, but folks with vision issues might find themselves fatigued after a while, especially those with difficulties focusing up close. I feel like this fatigue is slightly exacerbated due to the fact that you can actually see the world through the glass, giving you a way to focus on other objects while playing. This may not affect everyone, and personally I only found it a bit jarring when looking around the room for an errant Stormtrooper to dispatch, but it's a possibility nonetheless.
Folks normally affected by framerate issues in virtual reality likely won't have a problem here, as the projected image doesn't have the same nauseating effect that the closed window of VR can have on some people's vision. There's still a bit of a framerate stutter, which is going to vary depending on what phone you're using to power the experience, and it's this part of the equation that could make or break the experience for some. It would have been better if Lenovo could include the brains of the whole thing in one package for consistency, but so long as you stick with one of the phones on the recommended list, your experience should be about the same as ours.
So far as movement is concerned, you won't be physically swinging your arms around like a madman; the Lightsaber can't keep up with movement that fast, for one, and the game just isn't designed that way anyway. The most physical movement you'll be making is when dodging attacks instead of blocking them, and even then it's more of a lean or a slight duck (unless you're really into it), so you shouldn't be all that tired, even after long play sessions. As a result I never saw the unit get sweaty, like VR headsets get, either while I was playing it or while many groups of people were playing it. This is an amazing set piece for a party, and having it over the Thanksgiving holiday meant dozens of people got to play and experience Jedi Challenges, and none of them had to worry about nasty, sweaty equipment.
Battery life isn't too much of a concern, as when the low battery notification appears you'll still have something like 30 minutes or so before the battery actually dies. The biggest problem is that you ultimately have four batteries to worry about when playing the game: the headset, the Lightsaber, your phone, and to a lesser degree, the tracking beacon. The tracking beacon is the only thing powered by AA batteries, of which the included ones aren't rechargeable, but seem to last forever anyway. The headset and Lightsaber are both powered by a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, just like your phone is, and are both charged via a microUSB cable. While there's only one power brick and one microUSB cable included in the box, the likelihood that you've already got the cables to charge both is high. They both take a while to charge though, so you won't be back to gaming in just a few minutes if it dies, more like 30+ minutes at the least.
$200 is certainly a fair bit of money to ask for given that this isn't a completely standalone package, but the experience and the content you'll get is as unique as any out there. Many, many hours of gaming await you, and the challenge here is real, both the physical and the mental. Awesome technology is paired with the accessibility and ease of updating a smartphone app, and the pairing and setup process couldn't be more simple. There are a lot of batteries to keep charged, and you'll need to have a competent enough phone to play it, but for those that meet the prerequisites and are fans of Star Wars in general, it's an incredibly fun experience you simply won't find anywhere else.Buy Lenovo Star Wars: Jedi Challenges