Autron VR: Hands-on with a virtual reality escape room
Virtual reality arcades are popping up around the world to give people a taste of that immersive experience, without forking out thousands of dollars for their own gear. Autron VR has just launched in Melbourne, Australia, with a range of shooting games, escape rooms and other VR experiences, all tailored for groups. New Atlas went hands on to check it out – and may have ruined regular escape rooms for ourselves.
While there’s no shortage of VR arcades around, most of them just have regular Vives or Rifts set up, with the kind of games anyone could just buy to play at home. But Autron VR is more like going to a theme park – there are four play spaces set up with a wider range of things to do, none of which are available on regular VR systems, and you can play them with friends.
The heart of the Autron VR system is a Vive Pro, the higher-end model of HTC’s headsets. Inside is a pair of AMOLED screens with a combined resolution of 2880 x 1600 pixels, and a 110-degree field of view. That makes for some of the sharpest VR visuals we’ve ever seen.
It’s powered by an MSI VR One Backpack PC, which as you might expect, is worn on your back. That’s vital. When using VR at home you kind of get used to the risk of tripping over the cord and falling on your face, but that’s hardly acceptable in a public venue with four players in one space.
Once your squad is all kitted up, it’s time to jump into some games.
The first thing we tried was a VR escape room. To be honest, we were a little skeptical beforehand – what can VR tech really offer that a regular, analog escape room can’t? And would it actually be any fun?
It turns out that the answer to both questions is “lots.”
If you’ve ever played a normal escape room, you’ll know basically what to expect. With the clock ticking, you have to work together to solve puzzles in a sequence, usually by figuring out what to do with a bunch of random items you find scattered around the room.
The difference here though is just how well VR sells the illusion. Normally the hokey, homemade sets and props of your local escape room joint make it a little hard to suspend your disbelief – but once you strap on that headset, it only takes a few seconds to fool your brain. Even the fact that each player is only a floating head and hands can’t undo it.
VR also lets the rooms be set in wilder locations that would be harder to pull off convincingly in the real world. In Autron VR’s case, that includes an underwater temple, a medieval fantasy world of dragons and potions, or a malfunctioning space station.
It’s that last one that we tried – a VR escape room called Space Station Tiberia, which is also available in a few other locations around the world. Players find themselves trapped on a space station with no power – oh, and there’s an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. You have 35 minutes to restore power to the station, fire up a laser and destroy the deadly space rock.
And the experience is amazing. Up to four players are dropped into this space (pun not intended) and have to poke around at the environment, investigating every little detail and seeing what happens when you try to use one item with another.
In that sense, it’s the logical endpoint of popular, physics-based VR games like Job Simulator. These games are the perfect entry point to VR – the interactions are simple and intuitive, and all revolve around picking stuff up, throwing it around and trying to cram things into other things.
Space Station Tiberia (and, we assume, the other VR escape rooms we didn’t get to try) take that concept and give you an actual goal – plus, you get to do it with friends in the same room. As such, we were throwing items at each other in low gravity, poking wildly at buttons and screens, and coordinating actions to get stuff done.
That is, when we weren’t distracted by the incredible sights around us. We start off inside the space station, which has one wall and part of the floor glassed over, giving us a view of Earth far below. After completing one set of puzzles in there, we move outside, where we’re greeted by another view of the planet, on a background of stars – and the approaching asteroid looming overhead.
Out here, things take a more physical turn. Small space rocks keep smashing into the station and undoing our progress, forcing one player (me, in this case) to pick up a loose panel and wave it around as a shield. Another time, I had to physically jump to grab a battery that was floating just out of reach.
And that’s what really separates VR escape rooms from regular ones. There’s no way to replicate that kind of activity (or that kind of view) in a small room in a bar. Not convincingly, anyway.
The benefits go the other way, too – the escape room structure helps hide some of the problems of room-scale VR games. Traversing long distances in virtual worlds is a hassle, often tackled by teleporting players around, but obviously that’s not an issue in an escape room.
Not only does that allow for much better use of a small physical space in a way that feels natural, but it lets players appreciate the environment more. You’re not running down bland corridor after corridor, but exploring one room in great detail. Who knew the most elegant solution was to just lock players in one place?
Of course, if escape rooms aren’t really your thing, Autron VR also has games that scratch a different itch.
Elsewhere in the warehouse, a horde of zombies is just waiting to be mowed down in Last 4 Standing. The title may be trying to invoke nostalgia for Left 4 Dead, but don’t be fooled – this game doesn’t hold a candle to what’s probably the best zombie shooter of all time.
In this game, up to four players stand their ground in a derelict warehouse, fighting off wave after wave of zombies and monsters. This you do by basically just holding your gun controller at head height and holding the trigger. Bosses roll in every once in a while, but they’re little more than bullet sponges.
Honestly, by itself the game isn’t all that exciting, but being in VR elevates the experience. One of the most understated things about virtual reality is the sense of scale, and it’s in full swing here. Turning around just in time to see an undead doberman leaping at your face, or craning your neck up at a mutant gorilla towering over you, are feelings that a flat screen simply cannot convey.
Even with the wow factor though, the game gets pretty repetitive pretty quickly, and 20 minutes is definitely enough. That stands in stark contrast to the last time we went and shot zombies in VR.
Zero Latency vs. Autron VR
The overall concept may be the same, but there are a few differences. For one, zombie-shooting is just one part of Autron VR, while it’s the bread-and-butter of Zero Latency. As such, Zero Latency absolutely nails the experience, while Autron VR’s version is a little lacking.
The former has more variety in the shooting, much bigger environments, and more things to do that aren’t shooting. But that’s okay – given that this is just one type of experience in a warehouse full of them, it’s worth the trade-off in quality.
The other advantage is that Autron VR isn’t beholden to its own in-house development team, instead licensing games from developers. That means it can fairly easily switch to new games when the old ones get tired, so if you go back in six or 12 months time, you should have a fresh batch of stuff to play.
We don’t want to have to choose between Autron VR and Zero Latency – both are fantastic experiences that can co-exist in the same city.
Our short time with Autron VR definitely left us wanting more – after all, we didn’t get a chance to try the other two escape rooms, the robot shooting game, the player-versus-player battles or the horror experience.
Autron VR is open now, with prices starting at AU$44 (about US$30) per person.
Product page: Autron VR