Video games have long been a force for imagination. It's no surprise, they are after all those imaginings we had as children writ large and in polygons, pixels and pointers.
Project Arena is what happens when you get talented developers, a company like CCP, a movie like TRON and blend it on high with a HTC Vive dropped in for flavour.
What is it?
Consider Project Arena an experiment. A prototype masquerading as a game pretending to be a concept. In short it is a two player battle game reminiscent of TRONs light dic battles. Each player puts on a HTC Vive and finds themselves in a virtual training ground which takes you through the basics of gameplay. The mechanics of that are relatively simply, you have a shield that you can throw as a projectile, leaving you with smaller discs on your hands. This projectile will bounce off the walls and can be actively blocked or deflected.
Your shield, when you have it on your wrist, can block three projectiles before needing to recharge. A better option is instead of meeting the projectile head on is to try and smack it with your shield at an angle and deflect it away from yourself. Fortunately they've already considered the biggest trip hazard possible in the game, things will never hit you in the back even if they bounce off the rear wall of the virtual battle. Eyes front for everything.
After the quick introduction to the mechanics, the game is very simple. You and your opponent face each other down a corridor, your health displays on the floor in front of you. Hit them and avoid getting hit to win. Simple, easy, almost boring right?
My experience with the PSVR and the X-Wing alpha test was pure fan fantasy. It was a moment of childhood glee and hope. My experiences this year and last year with EVE Valkyrie were good fun and a wonderful endorsement of VR technology. I got to be in a spaceship and go dogfighting! The future was here!
Project Arena is hands down absolutely the most fun I have had with a VR game. Others have filled me with awe, slithered around the edges of my vision bearing terror and have amused me with their tricks and techniques for putting me in a moment or a place. Project Arena though? It's a game pure and simple, and like all pure simple games, it is fun. We play games like that because they are fun and uncomplicated.
Sure now, days after the experience I realise that I should have been deflecting my opponents disc in as wide an arc as I could to leave her shieldless longer. I realise that I should have experimented a little bit more to try and find a sweet spot to bounce my own projectile and take the lead. That doesn't matter because I know the next time I get my hands on it, it'll be the same thing all over again. Three rounds, best two out of three, sudden death if we take too long. It will be fun and that's glorious.
I'm sure people have great fun watching other people play VR games. Put two people on a mat and drop the Vive on their heads and suddenly they're flexing, dodging and reacting to things that only they can see.
For the demo, sure, it wasn't just what we could see. CCP sensibly set up monitors so people could see exactly what was going on in the arena. As with any VR experience though, watching the flat screen doesn't do the experience justice. It doesn't bring the same jolt of adrenaline seeing that disc coming towards your face as it does in the headset.
The Vive worked beautifully and it was my first experience with the hand controllers for any VR headset. There wasn't that normal frozen feeling looking down on a VR body and it not reacting like you want. I could curl and twist my arms and they would do what I wanted. I could see Hannah down the other end of a virtual corridor doing the same. The experience from start to finish felt right in a way that other applications haven't quite gelled.
Is there a future to Project Arena? I have no idea. I'd like to think so. I'd like to think that this won't be a rare treat held only for Fanfests in Iceland and press areas at conventions. I'd love to see them bring in more options, more players. I have no idea if the technology is up to that to be honest and until they try and build it, I guess no one does.
Round one went to me narrowly. Round two went to Hannah easily. Round three? We both had found our feet and it was drawing out the clock which resulted in sudden death. I just managed the victory but it genuinely could have gone either way. After three rounds I won but I feel that ultimately no matter how any of the matches went throughout Gamescom CCP came out the victor.
If this is what they can do with VR as an experiment, a what if? I can't wait to see what will happen if they really truly apply themselves to it.