Friday 21 October 2016

Galactica at Alton Towers - Review

Mourning for Air

When you take the monorail from Alton’s carpark to the entrance, the aqua blue track of the original B&M flying coaster is the first attraction you'll catch a glimpse of.

Air was a peculiar roller coaster, marketed so successfully as a gentle ride experience, it even managed to convince my mother to try it. Until then, she could only brave the Runaway Mine Train. Unless aimed at children or families, roller coasters are always supposed to be scary. But here was a major coaster, one with a rider height requirement of 1.4m to match the likes of Nemesis and Oblivion, that did everything to appear gentle. From the colour scheme, audio and environment on park to the TV advertisements, branding and name... Air was calm.

Air's original TV commercial captures the traditional sense of anxiety associated with roller coasters at the start, but as the story progresses, the riders discover Air is a gentle experience.

So I’ve always had a soft spot for it through my mother. I think what Air tried to be was brave, interesting and important, showing that aggressive “bigger, faster, scarier!” is not the only way to sell coasters. With its gimmicky riding position, Air also appealed to a wider audience of more conventional thrill seekers and it was such a wonderful example of how roller coasters can be abstract in theme. Physical scenery and elaborate narrative isn’t always necessary, they can powerfully convey an idea through aesthetic brand and Air’s was a wonderfully original example. seems to agree with me on this point: "the minimalist theme works precisely because it doesn’t require us to perceive the ride as anything other than what it is. When the train moves into the flying  position accompanied a shift in the lighting color temperature in the station the effect is cool because we’re not required to take part in a make-believe theme park story, the ride and effects simply are."

It's highly probable that Air started life on the drawing board very differently, only becoming this abstract, unthemed, conceptual piece through budgetary necessity. Its home in Forbidden Valley is out of place, in fact it was pretty out of place amongst the Tussauds lineup full stop. There are rumours of an original theme involving military aircraft sent to fight the Nemesis being scrapped post 9/11, which would explain the blandness and simplicity as the team rushed out a new concept. But in my opinion, Air pulled through, perhaps better than it would have done with a more elaborate and inevitably darker theme. Air has always been criticised for being dull and tame, but unlike Thirteen and Swarm, Air was never pretending to be anything but. So what little bite it does have dips rider’s tepid toes in the deep end of what roller coasters can do. Air's innovation as a conceptual experience, one about the awe and wonder of freedom rather than the conventional experiential themes of anxiety, fear and adrenalin remained unique.

However… Despite my respect for Air, there’s no denying that it doesn’t quite  deliver a dramatic enough experience for repeated riding, or cater to my tastes of what makes a great roller coaster. And once I rode Tatsu at Six Flags Magic Mountain, I wasn't even sure Air was the best realisation of the flying coaster concept. So, I'm torn by the alterations and addition of VR. 

The first Fully Dedicated VR Roller Coaster

Oh Merlin and their obsession with "firsts".  Unlike the other VR roller coasters, Galactica is marketed as the first dedicated VR coaster with an implied permanency. And for the first couple of months, Alton Towers took that seriously, refusing to allow guests to ride the coaster without VR. That ridiculousness didn't last, of course, but the fact that you can now ride the newly named Galactica without the headsets is somewhat besides the point for me, because this isn't Air with VR, it's a complete rebrand. Like I've hopefully explained well enough above, it wasn't the layout that made Air special, it was the whole package. In fairness, future removal of the VR would just leave a generic space themed coaster no different to the suggestive theming found at most parks around the world. And nothing about it strays too far from Air’s original delicate atmosphere - I do realise this, but it has lost the abstractness and I think there's something quite sad about having “lost” one of the world’s most uniquely branded roller coasters. 

Operationally Unsound

The cost of running and maintaining Galactica must be absurd. In an attempt to shave the loading procedure time down, Galactica has a lot of staff on the platform. Sadly, despite being a “dedicated” VR experience, little else has been done to try and improve operations… Because frankly, what else could they try? Throughput is the elephant in the room when discussing VR that no one backing the technology wishes to acknowledge. VR adds to the loading process, therefore it adds time, time decreases the number of people a ride can take per hour and that increases queue time. It will always be impossible for VR additions to not decrease the throughput. That isn't pessimism, that's just how time works.

Everybody loves theme parks, except the people who cannot tolerate waiting in line. It’s the only major criticism people have of this industry and yet it’s the element we - the fan community and industry professionals alike - consider the least. Excessive waiting spoils the wonderful experiences people could be having. So I question whether poor capacity is  ever worth it, even when the experience at the end of the line is outstanding.

Photo credit: Figment Productions (The company behind Galactica's video.)

Galactica Review

So, was Galactica any good? I… Dunno. I’m in no rush to try it again, but it was interesting and certainly a million times better use of the technology than I experienced on Derren Brown’s Ghost Train. It has received pretty positive reviews, too. But I can’t help feeling like I’ve still not experienced VR in an ideal situation.

The Samsung headset is less comfortable than the HTC Vive found on DBGT, awkward to adjust and with a black border surrounding the field of view. My friends all had issues with focus and whilst I did not, that's probably due to being the only one of us with 20/20 vision. I could never get the headset comfortably tight, but not too tight, having to hold it up to avoid pressure on my nose throughout the ride. An issue absent on Ghost Train, but that's because DBGT barely moves I guess. I think it's also worth noting that whilst pre-boarding videos state to wait for attendants to hand the headset to you, they expected us to sort it out ourselves and didn't check that we were comfortable before dispatch. I thought that was weird. It just goes to show how much staff competency wavers and why relying on staff numbers to solve operational issues and as a replacement for poor design isn't a viable solution.

The first thing I wanted to do when the video started up and the cars raised into the flying position ready for dispatch, was look back towards my feet. I was met with slight disappointment, again. Maybe this is just me, but I associate VR with 360 degree viewing, so feel like there should be some reward for looking around, but everything kinda looks the same. It looks pretty good though to be fair, lots of movement keeping the futuristic cylinder you’re confined in visually interesting, a world away from DBGT’s boring environment. A lot of people criticise the image quality on Galactica, but not only did I think it was ok, I'd argue that even if it were noticeably worse than DBGT, I'd much rather have a poorer quality image that was interesting to look at. It's still not good enough to immerse me, but the Hollywood levels of budget required for that are an unreasonable goal. The weird out of body experience is still a problem for me with regard to immersion, too. I'm still hyper-aware that I have a screen strapped to my face and that feeling itself is very anti theme park. It's not as bad as with DBGT, because here I am willing to accept that I'm looking out of a vehicle, rather than my own eyes. 

The lift turned out to be the best part of the ride, offering the most to look at accompanied by dramatically building music. It really is quite good, coupled with the vulnerable position the flying coaster holds you in. Up until the top of the lift, the visuals make sense with the physical movement of the ride. I wonder if this is due to knowing the layout well, but once we get moving at speed, the visuals no longer made sense, not following the physical motions of the ride. The worst part was right near the end, when the viewpoint suddenly pans to the side and slows down several moments before you hit the breaks, leading to nausea. Due to the restrictive restraints and riding position your viewpoint is also rather awkward, which I’m sure didn’t help the motion sickness. The footage failed to convey speed convincingly the whole time, never appearing like I was rushing through space with objects passing me by at great speed. Meanwhile the ride felt faster (and rougher) than I remembered it. I really can’t tell if this disjointedness between body and visuals is related to the lacking quality of the two different VR experiences I’ve tried out, or if it’s just the way my brain works.

Photo credit: Figment Productions (The company behind Galactica's video.)

Originally I thought a space setting was a good choice for a VR coaster - the assets being easier to render, no foliage or animal life, characters or any Earthly stuff to recognise that will inevitably stand out like a sore thumb when poorly animated. It’s just darkness and pretty colourful lights and floating objects. But, the speed thing is an issue, as is the way nothing really happens. The flight through meteorites is all wrong, none of them whizzing past your face. The flight over an icy looking landscape could have had you dive into a canyon, but no, you just awkwardly cruise over the bleak, uninteresting world. It's like a slideshow created from the results of a Google Image Search for "space".

The experience is bizarre, almost like the opposite of being on a simulator. Where simulators struggle to make you believe you’re really falling, or racing forwards at speed, Galactica failed to convince me that... I wasn’t? It’s weird. Really, really strange. The resulting experience is perplexingly simulator-like, more akin to something like Soarin' than anything else. After decades of trying to make simulators feel more realistic, it seems monumentally stupid to make a roller coaster less real.

One last criticism is of the spoken audio on the lift. It is out of place and distracting from the otherwise dramatic aesthetic and emotive soundtrack as you ascend. IMAscore's Galactica soundtrack might be my favourite track of theirs so far; suitably dramatic, contemporary and wondrous as well as being narratively in sync with the ride's pacing. But that bloody voiceover... The voice is not only a poor choice of voice - sounding more like they plucked whoever was available at the time rather than a professional actor, but it’s also way too quiet to understand coherently. Of what I could make out, it was obviously a forced injection of storytelling. It just seems funny to me that the lift hill, a time when it makes sense to entertain riders with a story, turned out to be the most visually and auditorily interesting part of the ride. During the flight, you pass through portals that take you between locations, and the attempt to explain that is just so unnecessary and so... Merlin. Whilst it's not necessarily bad to try and explain stuff or have an accompanying story for those who want to get invested in it; if you're going to bother, make it bloody good and make it worthwhile and most importantly of all, deliver it appropriately. It is too often executed poorly like it is here, or like on DBGT where you’re lectured boring narrative for what feels like eternity whilst nothing else is happening during prime ride time. I just want less effort wasted forcing in storytime and more consideration for the theatre of the entire experience, I guess.

Galactica's new set piece is spectacular at night, but criminally the park is barely ever open at night.
Photo credit: Figment Productions (The company behind Galactica's video.)

So, all in all, Galactica is ok? The popular response seems to be that Air wasn’t very good and something that spices it up is welcomed. I can appreciate that. Not that I totally agree, but I can appreciate it. But as with DBGT I’m curious what the future holds here. I can’t imagine the running costs can be maintained long term, replacing broken headsets and paying for extra staff. I wonder if we’ll see new video overlays as time goes on to squeeze more life from the investment, as has been teased for Ghost Train next season.

Oh, I suppose I should briefly comment on the hygiene thing… It was pretty gross. Eyelashes and crud in corners, as predicted.

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