Ready At Dawn Studios spent 20 months working on its science fiction single-player virtual reality game Lone Echo and its accompanying multiplayer companion mode Echo Arena. Both are debuting today exclusively on the Oculus Rift + Touch VR platform, and they’re going to take the quality of VR entertainment up a notch.
I played Echo Arena again in a hands-on preview this week in San Francisco, and its one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had yet in VR. (You can check out my session in the video). This is the kind of application that VR needs if it is to meet expectations of becoming a $25 billion industry by 2020.
In Lone Echo, you play a robot who assists human astronauts on a deep space mission. Echo Arena is a five-versus-five multiplayer game where you move through zero gravity and try to fling a disc into the opponent’s goal. It makes use of Touch gesture controls and voice-over-Internet communication. I like to think of it as a blend of science fiction films like Tron and Ender’s Game, or Ultimate Frisbee in zero gravity.
It’s a high-movement game, where you are constantly moving around like in a game of Quidditch in Harry Potter. But the first thing you notice is that you don’t get motion sickness. Ru Weerasuriya, president and creative director of the game’s developer, Ready At Dawn Studios, in an interview that the team studied what makes you sick and realized that it’s all about sending the right signals to the brain. If you grab at something and you can actually clench something in the game, that doesn’t make you sick because it is a one-to-one interaction where your hands in VR do exactly what your brain wants them to do.
Within moments, you can get used to grabbing hand holds in zero gravity, and flying using the thruster buttons on the controls. I found it was easy to get around in my third time playing the game.
But once the action started, I found I had a lot to learn. I intercepted a disc from the opposing team. But instead of tossing it at the open goal (as you can see in the video when I get the disc for the first time), I lost track of where the goal was and sent the disc flying in the wrong direction. It was a terrible pass, and one that I would repeat multiple times in the match.
Flying around wasn’t hard. Once you are moving, you stay moving in that direction. You can stop yourself immediately by hitting the brake button. Or you can boost yourself in a particular direction by holding your hand out and pressing a different button. The comfort level was fine for me, even with the heavy VR headset on my head, because the game did exactly what I wanted it to do in terms of movement.
Echo Arena has a tutorial where you can spend a lot of time getting used to moving from place to place in zero gravity, where it’s easy to remember that when you start moving in one direction, you’ll continue to do that until you apply some force to either stop or to move in a different direction. Where it gets complex is when you have four other teammates as well as five opponents flying around in the same space.
With so many things flying in different directions, I got flustered. I was a terrible judge of figuring out where the disc was going to go. It bounces off walls and moves at angles. I kept chasing after the disc and missing it. But others figured out what to do, and they scored a few points.
I enjoyed punching some rivals in the face. If you connect with a punch, you disable the opponent for a few seconds. You can also reach out and grab the flying disc by squeezing the trigger on the hand controls at the right time. If you catch it, you can then swing your arm in another direction, let go of the trigger, and send the disc flying to a teammate.
As you can see, the voice communication adds a lot to the fun. You can yell at teammates and get them organized. The 3D graphics look superb, and the art style reminds me of the neon characters in Tron. Weerasuriya said the game uses the same engine that Ready At Dawn designed for The Order: 1886, the PlayStation 4 game that debuted in 2015. The multiplayer game is a lot of fun, and I hope it will become the first popular esports in VR.