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Not So MMO: CCP Unveils Project Arena

Previews By Gareth Harmer on April 22, 2016

CCP Unveils Project Arena

With a few notable exceptions, sports games aren’t usually something I’ll get excited about, which is why CCP’s latest idea fascinates me. Project Arena takes the ideas behind dodgeball and tennis, wraps them in some fun and futuristic mechanics, and presents them in full VR. The result is a game that’s immediately accessible and, surprisingly, huge fun to play.

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It feels a little strange to be talking about playing a ‘sports’ game in VR. After all, I could always just go outside and play in real-life. But what Project Arena does is make the experience much more fun, without letting pesky things like gravity or friction get in the way.

Although I’ve played VR games a ton (including CCP’s own EVE: Valkyrie), this was my first experience using full standing room-scale VR, complete with a pair of Oculus Rift Touch controllers to track my hand movements. As I pulled on the Rift headset, I was instantly immersed in a TRON-esque environment, complete with crisp and clear visuals. It made my previous experiences with a DK2 and gamepad feel primitive by comparison.

First up was Brawl, a dodgeball-style game where I attempted to throw a disc to strike my opponent. The arena was set in a rectangular with a tube at each end, which allowed me to ricochet and rebound the glowing lightdisc in order to confound my opponent. At least, that was the plan. As it turns out, playing a real sport (even in VR) requires some element of skill.

To throw the disc, I held down the trigger, moved my arm, releasing it as the movement finished, just as I would when throwing a ball. It felt incredibly natural, controlling the speed and angle instinctively, with the game’s physics picking up where my own input left off. And to dodge incoming discs, I just had to move out of the way. I could also raise my arm to block them with my disc, as long as I hadn’t thrown it away.

By comparison, the tennis-style game used a much larger arena, with a large circular net in the middle. In this version, I would strike the disc with a large pad, attached to one arm, to get it around the net in the middle – even below the net if I wanted. The disc would automatically arc around and head to my opponent, who’d then have to knock it back towards me without striking the net.

Because I remained in a fixed position at the end of a corridor or on top of a podium, both games are also very comfortable VR experiences. Yes, I was still tethered to a PC with a cable from the Rift headset, but I wasn’t at risk of tangling myself up in cables or tripping over. That said, both experiences need a little over six square feet of clearance, which might be a challenge for gamers to find.

Besides the satisfying fun of actually playing both games, there was another dimension to Project Arena that caught my attention: spectating. As we queued up to play the two demos, we could watch games play out on large screens. What surprised me was that it was actually entertaining to do so, with players crouching and hurling discs at each other. It’s the kind of thing I could see myself tuning into while waiting for a match or between games, especially if I can also listen in on the voice comms going back and forth.

The studio’s VR labs have even started taking some social aspects into consideration. Before starting a Brawl game, we had to ‘knuckle up’, much like boxers before a fight. I get the feeling that there could be some who try to act tough and intimidating, but they’ll actually have to play that role, rather than just tapping a few buttons and screaming down voice chat.

Project Arena remains under development at CCP, and it’s possible that further game modes might be added in the future. That said, it’s already managed to convert me from uncommitted ambivalence to eager interest, and I’m looking forward to finding out where this concept goes. Following the success of both EVE: Valkyrie and EVE: Gunjack, it feels as if the studio is growing from its MMO roots to becoming a formidable VR developer.

Gareth Harmer / When he's not blasting or fireballing his way through a virtual world, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer can be found dissecting the mechanics of online games. Chua at heart, he's also our resident columnist for all things WildStar.