Surviving a Zombie Apocalypse and Exploring Fantastical Worlds With Arena VR
Around us, the city is in flames. The improvised safe zone we've cobbled together from disabled cars, scaffolding and rubble has been holding together, but from the sounds of my teammates, it's not going to last much longer. I grab my machine gun and join them in the center of all the chaos, hoping to hold back the hordes of zombies clamoring to get inside. The rescue chopper is coming, but extraction is going to be tough with these monsters scraping and clawing at us from every angle. Fortunately, bullets aren't at a premium just yet, and we're able to hold back the wave of rotting flesh long enough to get airlifted out. For one more day, we've managed to survive in this dangerous and deadly world.
Around us, the room is dark. The play zone built in the Kalahari Resort hardly looks nothing like a crumbling metropolis. In fact, the room looks deceptively plain. If it weren't for the hundreds of motion-tracking cameras throughout and the grid-patterned floor, you'd think this was a room waiting to be turned into something that matches the bright lights and digitized sounds coming from the arcade on the other side of the entrance. Instead, it's actually one of the most incredible virtual reality arenas we've ever seen, and it just so happens to be in a mountain resort with its own water park.
Developed by Zero Latency in partnership with Kalahari Resorts, Arena VR is one of the first room-scale interactive experiences in the United States. We tried out something similar last year when Ghostbusters Dimensions was open in limited engagement in New York, but Arena VR isn't quite as linear. With Ghostbusters, the experience was tailored so specifically there were additional effects like wind and set dressing in every room, however that limited what you could do at any time. Arena VR has a defined area developed within the space of a full room --- about the size of a standard restaurant --- where you can move around as you please. The only limitations you have are built into the game experiences themselves.
Currently there are two different virtual reality games you can experience through Arena VR: Zombie Survival and Engineerium. With either game, up to six people can play at once, but Zombie Survival is the only truly interactive experience. Engineerium is a bit more passive, and has some light puzzle solving, but we'll get to that in a moment. Zombie Survival is a blast, and anyone that's ever played a first-person shooter will find themselves at home immediately. You do get a physical rifle to hold, which is both motion-tracked in real time and can switch between a handful of different weapons with the press of a button.
The vibe is very much like Zombies mode from Call of Duty, where you have a set area you're trying to defend, and in addition to shooting zombies, must maintain blockades to ensure your safety. What's interesting about Zombie Survival beyond the immersive gunplay is how the arena can easily turn into a two-story battleground. There's only one floor in the real world, but based on how you move around the virtual world, you can take the high ground on the scaffolding to take out zombies from above. It's really clever level design that takes into account that there are likely people on the "ground" too, and ensures that you don't bump into one another. Still, Zombie Survival is a fairly stationary game, and Engineerium takes level design even further.
Though it's not as cathartic as Zombie Survival, Engineerium is a lot more interesting. By putting players directly into the post-apocalyptic zombie world, Arena VR does add a great new twist to the concept. It's just that we've seen that idea delved into so much over the years, it's not quite as special as it was in a pre-Walking Dead world. Engineerium offers a fantastical world that combines the aesthetics of MC Escher, Christian Riese Lassen and South American architecture to craft visuals that you couldn't find anywhere in reality. It's a simple game to enjoy, but it's all about the way in which Zero Latency's developers have built a world that tricks your brain into believing it's somewhere it isn't.
The paths wind and twist at all sorts of angles, and even though you're still just walking around a regular old empty room, your eyes and brain comprehend that you're walking sideways, which throws your balance off. Even the simple task of walking down a "hill" becomes an exercise in staying upright and not walking weirdly to compensate for the angle and pitch of the virtual path. As you roam around, you and the other players will split up as well, with clever map design that will have you looking at someone upside down on a platform above you --- even though they're just on the other side of the room on the same physical plane as you. It's impressive and tricky, and the environmental design is captivating to witness. Zombie Survival may be more physically demanding, but Engineerium plays with many of your senses to create a feeling of being there the shooting game just can't match.
Both of these games are just the start of what Zero Latency and Kalahari Resorts have planned for Arena VR and virtual reality experiences at the resorts in general. New games built around the same physical space are expected to shuffle in and out throughout the year. We don't know quite what those will be just yet, but there are already a number of additional experiences in development for Arena VR. Kalahari Resorts also hopes to implement virtual reality in other elements of the resort, such as meditative interaction in the spas, and potentially some water-based experiences as well.
Even in just the limited time we had with what Arena VR had to offer we came away impressed. Though some platforms for VR do allow you to do room-based experiences at home, they don't quite have the level of interaction that Zero Latency incorporates with its product. The home options are also quite expensive to invest in and don't really give you much a multiplayer experience. Kalahari's options are much more budget friendly (just $25 per 30-minute session), and let you enjoy a good time with a bunch of friends. Plus when you're done, you can go to a water park.