I’m not good with shotguns. I realize this a bit too late as hordes of undead barrel through the barricade I forgot to repair. They’re a frenzied bunch, a stark contrast to the slow-gaited creatures George A. Romero perfected and Robert Kirkman resurrected. Our evacuation helicopter’s still minutes away, and at the speed these sallow-faced freaks are moving, I have two options: Say five Hail Marys and hope someone cares enough to feed my stepcat when I’m gone.
I start to accept my fate just as bullets whistle past me, shredding through the swarm like tissue paper. I swing around to thank my Rambo-like savior and see my editor-at-large, standing there with her literal smoking gun.
It’s neither a dream nor a side effect of reading three whole pages of World War Z. It’s a taste of Level Up’s new free-roam virtual reality arena, the first of its kind on the West Coast thanks to a partnership with Australia-based tech company Zero Latency.
“What we find with all our games is the game is fantastic, but it’s the interactions before and after it that are so important to people,” says Scott Vandonkelaar, co-founder and chief technology officer of Zero Latency. “What MGM is gonna provide is a great set of ancillary experiences around what we’re doing. It’s a fantastic compliment to work with them.”
“We’ve done a lot of things to try and make it feel as real as possible.” – Scott Vandonkelaar, chief technology officer of Zero Latency
Since 2015, Zero Latency has opened arenas across four continents, often times with weeks-long waiting lists. And though Vandonkelaar has seen thousands come through for the experience at other arenas, it never gets old: “We joke in the office [that Zero Latency is] one of the few workplaces where, if people are running around and screaming, it’s a good day.”
Up until this point, VR has very much been a solo affair. Those who bought HTC Vives and PlayStation VRs when they hit market played them (oh they definitely played them), but often did so alone. Zero Latency wants to make VR a shared experience, not a spectated one. The 2,000-square-foot arena, reminiscent of something out of Black Mirror, allows up to eight players to explore virtual worlds together. It’s a completely wireless experience, using OSVR HDK2 VR headsets, Razer-integrated headphones with mics and Alienware gaming PCs inside backpacks.
“It’s easier for people who are VR curious, or just want to try something new, to come and spend $50 or $80 to have this amazing experience with their friends than it is to spend thousands of dollars at home, clearing up a room at their house for an in-home set up,” explains Tim Ruse, CEO of Zero Latency.
It’s definitely cheaper to experience free-roam VR at Level Up, but Vandonkelaar stresses, “We’ve done a lot of things to try and make it feel as real as possible.” The gun controllers are “fully-replicated,” he says, and Zero Latency’s full-body tracking ensures your virtual avatars move as naturally, or skittishly, as you do.
We put this to the test in Engineerium, a game where you traverse gravity-bending terrain in the clouds as celestial tiki beings. At one point my group needed to cross a bridge that twisted upside down. I watched our lifestyle editor’s avatar sheepishly shuffle across. Outside of the game she confirmed she’d been shuffling in real life, too, demonstrating the power of Zero Latency’s tracking system and the illusion of the game itself.
“I’ve had serious people, like captains of industry or soldiers, people who are pretty fearless, just refuse to cross the bridge,” Ruse says. “They have a fright and it triggers it at such a level that you have to go over and tap them on the shoulder and go, ‘Okay mate, just close your eyes and we’re gonna walk across this completely empty flat room together, and we’re gonna get to the other side.’
“It’s those moments I think that you really see the power of what we’ve created and how it can take people almost beyond rational thought.”
Along with Engineerium and Zombie Survival, Zero Latency also offers Singularity, a game where you battle killer robots and drones on a space station for galactic street cred. Experiences take place within a 45-minute window, with 30 minutes of gameplay. Players can either mix and match Engineerium and Zombie Survival (both 15 minutes); two rounds of Zombie Survival; or one round of Singularity (30 minutes).
Ruse and Vandonkelaar both identify as lifelong gamers, but the CEO is quick to point out that anyone can enjoy the experience: “I put my 8-year-old daughter in for example, and she played it and she loved it. Then I put my 70-year-old father in there as well, and he could play. It really spans those age groups because it’s just so natural.”
Virtual Reality Arena at Level Up
Inside MGM Grand, $50, reservations at mgmgrand.com/vr