Derren Brown’s Ghost Train Spoiler-Free Review at Thorpe Park

Last night we were treated to the press event for Derren Brown’s Ghost Train at Thorpe Park. The ride is a new take on ghost trains with heavy use of virtual reality. We’ve come away unimpressed by the use of VR on Air – now Galactica – at Alton Towers, but they were using the cheap and underpowered GearVR headsets. Can Thorpe Park do any better?

Right out of the gates Thorpe Park got something right by choosing to use the HTC Vive as their headset of choice. With each of these going for nearly £700 for consumers and each train ( I think there’s probably three in the building) having 50 seats, along with spares that must be needed, that’s quite the investment, but it’s clearly the way to go if you want convincing and immersive VR. With a better framerate and most importantly full positional tracking, we’ve been amazed by what the Vive can do elsewhere with video games when attached to a high-spec PC.

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We’re not going to spoil anything on the ride beyond the fact that it does use VR (something that’s in most of the advertising and repeated throughout the queue).  In the first section of VR some quite clever effects are used to make it seem more realistic with lighting and some live actors that have clearly been recorded then inserted into the VR. It’s very convincing and while the environments are still a little low res and clearly more like something out of a video game, when scares come you find yourself immersed enough to be more than a little freaked out. This isn’t the sort of attraction where you can walk around with the headsets on so they have somewhat of a captive audience, forcing you to just sit there while some strange things happen. This section of the ride definitely qualifies as a new take on the Ghost Train and we’d love to see more uses of VR like this. It’s well integrated into the theme of the ride (there’s a reason for you to be putting the headset one) and it can be genuinely frightening, even if the quality isn’t quite good enough to trick you into thinking it’s completely real.

In the second section things are a little worse. Here there’s no live-action, just plenty of CGI and sadly it doesn’t work well enough to be immersive. The environments and things you see all look like something out of a PS3-era game at best and after the quite unsettling first part, this is quite a letdown. The creators of the VR section were perhaps a little too ambitious with what they wanted to achieve here and the tech simply isn’t up to it. Also while things go close to your face, the Vive’s positional tracking might actually be a negative as I was able to lean forward and put my head inside something else, where I just clipped through it and rendered it invisible. Throughout the journey on my first go it all ran well, but on our second there were a few glitches with the headsets where suddenly the geometry would freak out and have to reset itself, sometimes defaulting to a bright blue grid, others to just a static video with no head tracking.

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Overall we’re impressed with the Ghost Train. It’s definitely a new take on an old genre of ride, and it’s worth the experience just because there’s nothing else like it at the moment. We’re not convinced even the mighty Vive is up to the task of a high-throughput mainstream ride like this, where resolution and immersiveness isn’t quite good enough to do something completely in CGI, but as something a bit different that we’ve not seen anywhere else in the world, it’s got a thumbs up. Thorpe Park definitely needed a decent dark ride and now they’ve got one of the best in the world.

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