For every ten times that VR has made me feel like a god, elite agent or professional kitchen chef, there are a handful of moments when it’s gone the opposite way. Sports games, for example, successfully manage to replicate the embarrassment I feel when hopelessly trying to compete on a real pitch. I was worried that would be the case going into Project Arena, CCP Games’ Oculus Touch-enabled multiplayer experiment. Thankfully this is one VR game that suppressed that anxiety.
The EVE: Valkyrie developer was showcasing its experiment – described by CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson as “eSports sports” – at EVE Fanfest this year after an initial reveal at GDC. Two modes were on offer, both of which saw you competing with another player using Oculus’ upcoming Touch motion controllers. The first is a sci-fi take on tennis of sorts, with both players batting a spinning disc between each other, trying to avoid a red net in the centre of the court. Alarms bells were set off the second I entered the arena as panic over pathetically missing targets and failing to score firmly set in. I was all too aware I had an audience outside of VR.
But here’s what I found endearing about Project Arena: it’s forgiving. Whereas a more realistic competition might see my opponent wipe the floor with me, the giant rackets and generous trajectory correction keep things on a level playing field. No matter how hard you swing, the disc will find its way to the other side unless it strikes that net. There’s still room for experimentation, as it’s easy to catch your enemy out by serving under the net or setting up a last second backhand, but you’ll have a much easier time making successful returns than you might first fear.
The result is a game that welcomes players with open arms, and embraces fun over skill. There are going to be plenty of VR games that will demand precision in movement, but Project Arena takes a weight off of newcomers with mechanics you can quickly master.
In truth, though, this first minigame is just a warm-up for the next round, where things get decidedly more Tron-like. Both players again stand at opposite ends of the court, only this time there’s no net dividing them, and no racket to return with. Instead, players both have a disc each, which they must physically throw at the opponent and try and strike them with as they return fire. Both of you are also equipped with a wrist-mounted shield which will break if you don’t start throwing your own disc.
It’s a much more elaborate setup, though still bolstered by that accessibility. A well-aimed shot gives you the best chance of hitting your enemy, but this is also a game of pacing as you’re left with a much smaller shield when your disc is in flight. Instead of randomly throwing your weapon and hoping to snag your foe, this mechanic creates some wonderfully tense pauses as you stare down the corridor, stand-off style, wondering who will draw first. Calculate your timing right and you can keep the pressure up, managing to score a point in between your opponent catching his shield and noticing your one.
Again, even if you’re not the best at throwing in real life, the disc will always find its target. The second game is harder to get to grips with than the first but it still has a pick up and play aesthetic to accommodate just about anyone. If you’re looking at something like VR Sports Challenge and worrying about how you might perform in virtual sports, Project Arena looks to be a perfect ailment.
Outside of the games themselves there are some intriguing touches. The announcer, for one, carries herself like GLaDOS from the Portal series, dropping sarcastic comments and jabs into the end of each match. She’s unexpectedly witty and it gives the game some character, even if you weren’t expecting any.
There’s also a spectator mode in which you can see games being played out by miniature athletes. It would be easy to let this pass you by, but it could be a first look at how VR spectator modes are implemented in the future; imagine games of even EVE: Valkyrie in which you could survey a smaller map as a battle rages on. It has enormous potential.
It’s still not clear what’s going to become of Project Arena, though it’s easy to see it developing into another small release from a company that’s becoming increasingly important in the VR space. If it is going to be released then I’d certainly welcome some extra modes and an expansion of the current ones. Why stop at 1 vs. 1, for example? Bringing team-based play into the mix could add another dynamic, and I’d love to see variations on each game type in which you could mix the speed of play up and more. What Project Arena has now is promising if a little shallow, but there’s plenty of room to make that right.