Since the first time free-roam VR gaming was teased on social media, I've been on the edge of my seat waiting for it to launch. After all, I'm the kind of guy who used to think nothing of blowing my holiday allowance at a BattleTech center. If there was going to be a new way to throw away money while I blasted away enemies in an easily accessible artificial reality, I was ready to fling my wallet at it (or smartphone - wireless payments right?).
When Facebook bought VR headset company Oculus, it seemed that VR would soon be the next big thing. But since those heady days of technological speculation, VR and the development of its consumer applications has at best, stumbled into the realm of novelty instead of necessity. Sure, we have a decent amount of VR content out there now, but there are only so many VR rollercoaster rides you can try from your couch before falling asleep.
Virtual reality has been trying to become, uh, a reality since the the 80s. Now those wacky reality-escaping goggles are experiencing a renaissance, and thanks to the ubiquity of high-quality imaging devices, VR might finally be here to stay. The most advanced use of VR at the moment has to be free-roam VR gaming. After all, what better way to bridge the gap between the virtual and the real than by creating a physical space which the player can explore? Apart from “jacking in” a la The Matrix, that is.
Enter Zero Latency
At Zero Latency Singapore, you get just that - free-roam immersion into a virtual/physical environment. You and your friends can be literally transported to another world for a whimsical exploration, get dumped in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, or fight aliens aboard a space station styled very similarly to the game Mass Effect. A pair of goggles connected to a backpack and sensor/controller in the shape of a rifle accompany you on your journey on these imaginary worlds, but when the action starts you’ll barely notice the gear.
My gaming experience during the soft launch started with a short briefing on the gaming rules: don’t run, don’t jump, don’t smash your rifle into another player’s head. Then we picked up our gear, hung neatly in a row on the back wall of the briefing room. The backpack reminded me of an old Laser Quest vest, save that instead of IR sensors, each contained an Alienware mini gaming PC. This pumps all the gaming info to the headset and headphones. Fluorescent balls adorned the top of my headset - not the best look, but necessary for the arena cameras to track and recreate my actions in the game.
The VR headset Zero Latency uses is great for short-sighted players, because it has paddles that can adjust the degree of sight correction in the headset. So you won’t have to wear your spectacles under the goggles, or break out your contact lenses just to play a game.
Note that you can't control the volume in game chat, which means you can get an earful of anything from mildly irritating to extremely shrill gamerchat and screams. Great if you’re playing with friends, maybe not so much if you're joining strangers. But hey, at least you get to shout back into their ears.
Into the zone
The first game my group tried was a rather tame but colourful exploratory adventure, where we needed to navigate gravity-defying constructs in order to progress, as a team, to the next level. Not particularly thrilling, but it was a fun and friendly initiation into the digital realm. And it had its moments: the graphics and game design reminded me of Okami, not only in its puzzle-solving premise, but its heavily stylised art direction.
There were a few points when one of the player’s avatars froze and restarted mid-game, which resulted in her gaining noclip mode for a short period of time - watching her float through the stairs to join the rest of the team made for quite a few laughs. I spent most of the game trying to get my avatar to dance by bobbing my head left and right, which my teammates found amusing to varying degrees.
At the end of the game, we were handed our rifle-shaped controllers. Things were obviously about to get intense. The seven of us were plonked into a zombie-infested city, and we had to defend our little rampart from a horde of oncoming undead. The rifle controller allowed you to choose from a variety of weapons, including a shotgun, an assault rifle and a seemingly useless sniper rifle (there seemed to be no way to actually see through the scope). Eventually I ended up using the sniper rifle most though, since it allowed one-shot kills and also afforded the highest scores. The game design and aesthetic won’t win any awards, but it does a competent job at appropriating recognisable pieces from other popular zombie games, so that the game is familiar and frenetic, especially when the zombies inevitably break through a part of the rampart your teammate failed to reinforce (this might lead you to re-evaluate your friendships). If you thought shooting zombies from the comfort of your chair and computer screen was fun, wait till you have an actual - okay, virtually enhanced - rifle in your hands, and you can't pump your shotgun fast enough as zombies overwhelm you. It is literally, another level. Oh, and I had the top score. Not that it's important, of course, but I thought I’d mention it.