Hands on: Zero Latency pits player vs. player in warehouse-scale VR
When we first set foot in Zero Latency's warehouse-scale virtual reality system three years ago, we were blown away by how immersive the experience was. On our second visit last year, we were impressed by how creative the team had gotten with how it used both the physical and virtual spaces. Now New Atlas has gone hands-on with the latest development, which marks a logical next step for the tech – pitting players against one another.
Room-scale VR systems like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift can be great at mentally transporting players to new worlds, but the illusion is kind of broken as soon as you take three steps to your left. Zero Latency breaks down that barrier by giving you free rein to roam through a 200-sq m (2,153-sq ft) space.
In our previous two visits, the games have always been cooperative, with up to eight players teaming up to mow down zombies or rogue robots – or just wandering around a gravity-defying maze. But for as long as there's been video games, there's been competition, and that's what the Zero Latency team has tried to tap into with the latest offering, named Sol Raiders.
Player versus player
Since we first got wind of these player-versus-player plans last year, we've been wondering how it would work. How do you keep players from actually hurting each other when they come face-to-face? Would it just be two teams standing on either side of a gap, shooting across at each other? And how do you make it "fun" even when your team is losing?
As it turns out, Zero Latency leaped those hurdles with some clever game mode choices and tweaks to the existing "rules." Sol Raiders is more of a Capture The Flag-style game rather than a boring old deathmatch. Each team of four is trying to shoot a target, and keep the other team away from it. After a set amount of time, the team with the most points wins. Simple.
In two of the three new maps, that target takes the form of a glowing metal ball, which hovers high overhead. Shooting at it pushes it towards the opposite end of the map, so you need to get it to the end to score a goal, soccer-style. Of course, at the same time the other team is trying to do the same, so you'll need one person on ball duty and the other three shooting at enemies as they come sniffing around.
In the third level, your goal is a canister that appears in a random spot on the ground. You have to find it and shoot it a few times to score a point, and then it reappears somewhere else. Again, you'll want to keep the other team away, so it's best to have backup.
Giving the game more of a goal than just "shoot enemies" goes a long way towards covering up the potential pitfalls of having eight players in a relatively confined space trying to kill each other without, you know, actually killing each other. The design means that the two teams naturally separate themselves and meet in the middle to duke it out.
That said, it's not a big open space – instead, each map is made up of twisting corridors and doors that open and close when you shoot them. That slows players down and keeps things tense. And unlike ZL's earlier games where you could freely walk through walls (unless they're mapped to the real-world walls of the warehouse), trying to pull off a cheeky wall-phase here will kill you quicker than an enemy bullet.
When you do die, you have to walk back to your home base to respawn, which is the only time you're allowed to walk through walls. It sounds simple, but this is a neat little way to make dying almost fun, punishing death without being too harsh about it.
As with every time we visit Zero Latency's VR warehouse, we had a blast with Sol Raiders. It's not particularly fast-paced and the game itself is nothing too original, but that's missing the point – the technology is the real star here, and the game excels at bringing a competitive edge to the company's growing library of experiences.
But it wasn't completely smooth sailing. There were a few too many pauses while the staff changed dead batteries or rebooted uncooperative equipment, but the team assured us that these issues would be ironed out by the time the game goes live to the public. For one, we were playing an early version, and the battery problem seemed to come down to the fact that in our media event, several games were being played back-to-back. Paying players will have a bit more time and space to breathe.
Only one niggling thing we found will carry across to the final game: the corridors were a little bit narrow. That means that you can only move as fast as the teammate in front of you, and if they stop to shoot at something around the corner, you can quite easily get stuck in a hallway doing nothing.
But this is such a minor issue, in the face of what's still a fantastic experience. And besides, it's nothing that a little communication won't fix.
With these first steps into the competitive VR scene, Zero Latency has grand plans to turn Sol Raiders into an eSports title. And that could be really cool – the team talked us through how it makes for the perfect spectator sport, both in person and livestreamed over the internet. From experience, it's definitely fun to watch friends reacting to things you can't see, and that could be backed up by TV screens showing each player's virtual point of view.
For now though, Sol Raiders is rolling out to all of Zero Latency's 25 locations around the world as of February 9.
Product page: Zero Latency – Sol Raiders