Hands-on: Echo Arena is set to be the first great VR sport
Multiplayer virtual reality is still a very small niche inside the slightly larger niche that is consumer VR, but with the release of games like Lone Echo that could be changing soon. Lone Echo is an upcoming title for the Oculus Rift VR headset (and uses the Touch controllers), and comes courtesy of the developers at Ready at Dawn, a studio composed of former members of Blizzard and Naughty Dog best known for Okami, the God of War PSP games, and The Order: 1886.
Lone Echo has a sci-fi setting and will have both a single-player and multiplayer component, with the single-player story mode taking place in "an advanced mining facility within the rings of Saturn, complete with a detailed space station, expansive open-vacuum environments, and interactive space equipment." The single-player will focus on puzzles and problem solving as you move around in space with "incredible 1:1 hand-based zero-gravity movement."
The multiplayer side of Lone Echo is a VR sport called Echo Arena, and that's what I had a chance to try out for myself at a recent Oculus press event. Two developers took us through a series of training rooms which introduced the game's movement mechanics, which involve grabbing stationary objects and walls and pushing against them to propel yourself through space (or using personal thursters and brakes), as well as the physics of throwing objects and the game's punching and blocking mechanics.
Echo Arena is easy to describe if you're familiar with both the zero-G combat simulator of the book and movie Ender's Game and the general mechanics of a game like ultimate frisbee, though if you don't know what either of those things are it's easier to just watch it in action.
Here's what our match at the press event looked like, complete with picture-in-picture so you can watch me flail around on my way to earning match MVP:
Virtual reality sports
Simply put, Lone Echo multiplayer was an absolute blast, and represents one of the best experiences I have had yet in any VR headset. Even the training rooms that preceeded the match were fun, and the zero-gravity movement was both instantly intuitive and surprisingly nausea free. I've tried a few other VR games before this one that took place in a zero-gravity setting, and they always brought dizzyness and sickness along with them. The fact that Lone Echo manages to make it perfectly comfortable is a huge credit to the developers and a sign that this is clearly a "second generation" VR title.
While an average multiplayer game of Lone Echo might not be as fun as this one was, which was played with all eight players in the same room and benetiftted from being able to hear the shouts and laughter in real life as well as through the headset, I'm very excited to see what happens once this game gets into the hands of the Oculus comminity at large. I wanted to play again as soon as the match was over, and it will be interesting to see what sorts of serious competitive strategies emerge in a larger multiplayer environment. As is the case with Rocket League, the lack of set positions or distinct abilities in Echo Arena means teams will be free to define their own roles, including whether to have a "goaltender" or not.
Playing Lone Echo multiplayer, I felt like I had an advantage over the other players for two main reasons. One, I had likely spent more time in VR than they had, and the familiarity with the environment and the Oculus Touch controls helped make moving around easier. Second, I've played a lot of frisbee and hockey in my life, two sports which require players to get good at moving where the disc or puck is going to be before it gets there. This anticipation seems like it will be a big part of Echo Arena, thanks to the zero-G gliding nature of its movement and the importance of making the most of your momentum. The fact that both VR and real-world skills could translate into success in this virtual sport is exciting to say the least.
Interestingly, the developers also mentioned that the fact that I'm tall and have a long reach was an asset while playing, as it allowed me to grab the disc when other people would not have been able to. This kind of real life physicality translating into an "e-sport" is one of the aspects of compeititve VR gaming that will be fascinating to watch in the coming months and years.
We don't have a release date for Lone Echo yet, but those who have been waiting for more interesting competitive multiplayer experiences in VR should definitely keep this title on their radar.
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