VR review: Space Pirate Trainer’s new “Arena” is massive, must-play (if you can)


I-Illusions

If you already thought the average VR use case was too inconvenient, you are absolutely not the target market for Space Pirate Arena. Later today, this brand-new mode lands as a free update to the five-year-old VR hit Space Pirate Trainer (whose new name, Space Pirate Trainer DX, still only costs $15 and is a fine VR-action option even for the smallest, weakest VR rigs).

Like other popular VR games, Space Pirate Arena requires strapping into a face-covering headset, which is inconvenient enough. In good news, this game’s wholly free new mode doesn’t require any cables, PCs, or external sensors, owing to its exclusivity to the self-contained Oculus Quest platform. You are, in some ways, quite liberated as this brand of space pirate.

But Arena‘s playable convenience ends there, as the mode pushes Quest and Quest 2 headsets to their room-sensing limit: an exact 10 m x 10 m square (32.8 ft x 32.8 ft) in your VR lasering room of choice, not a centimeter (inch) less. This is because Space Pirate Arena is a fully blown laser tag facsimile, meant to resemble the real-life zap-a-rama that you might associate with ’80s and ’90s malls.

Ambitious, inconvenient, and unwieldy—even compared to other VR games? This, I had to dive into. My review of this unique mode, as a result, does account for Arena‘s coolest and trippiest aspects as it covers this release’s faults and annoyances. Plus, I encountered some outright Facebook-related rage that got in the way of my tests (and might do the same to yours).

Arguably cheaper than the plastic-gun option

As I previously wrote, Arena‘s sales pitch is as follows: would you like to play two-player laser tag in the year 2021? If so, you could buy a pair of plastic laser tag guns and sensors, and you could build a single, elaborate room, full of hallways, windows, and duck-and-cover debris—which means you’d need the materials, the time, and a space where you’re allowed to temporarily erect such physical wizardry. (This list, obviously, doesn’t account for optional niceties like a black light, proper ’80s-mall carpeting, or a sick stereo system pumping out some fusion of disco, techno, and pop-punk.)

Orrrrrr you could buy two Quest virtual reality headsets, two copies of the game Space Pirate Trainer DX, and have two players strap into them in the same oversized room. (You’ll also need Wi-Fi, which I’ll get to.) That’s a base price of $630 before tax, and the cost might tick up a bit higher if you get a Quest with a higher memory capacity or comfort-aiding upgrades like a face liner or a head strap. Still, that buy-in also nets you all the general use cases of VR, and you’ll arguably get more general use out of a VR headset than a real-world laser tag rig.

I make that comparison specifically because I could imagine 12-year-old me drawing up the above as a spreadsheet, presenting it to my parents, and hosting a brief seminar on why I believed this was the best birthday gift of all time, so would you pleeeeease give it to me.

Fit to be square (eventually)

For adult Sam, however, trouble began when I started looking for appropriate playspaces. My first thought was to hit up a parking garage near my Seattle apartment. It’s not massive, but it was big enough to suit previous out-of-my-house tests of “untethered” VR systems. Unfortunately, this parking garage offers a large rectangle, not Space Pirate Arena‘s specific demand—an exact square, 100 meters squared.

This is thanks to a specific limitation of the Oculus Quest platform. After strapping into a Quest headset in a new real-world space, the system turns on its outward facing cameras, then asks users to point at the nearby floor and paint a “guardian” boundary. Tell your VR system where the floor ends and nearby walls begin so it can appropriately frame the virtual nonsense to come. This works quite well in average indoor environs, but it hits a harsh tracking limit once you’re in a big-enough room. You can’t paint a guardian space larger than a 10 m x 10 m square, and its line becomes straight and right-angled at any edges.

Additionally, both models of Oculus Quest struggle to track your exact presence in an open field without static visual indicators on a ceiling. It’ll work in a pinch, but you generally want to be indoors with these sets to guarantee stable VR tracking.

Hence, I went looking for an ideal space to even boot into Space Pirate Arena, since its loading screen responds with a no-no-no wag of the finger if you haven’t confirmed a maximum-size tracking square within a Quest’s system settings. I finally found such a space at last weekend’s PAX West 2021: the expo’s media team graciously offered an “interview” room where no interviews were happening. (As I reported, it was a weird PAX.)

Finally, I’m playing the game—and having a blast

Once I had that all set up, I booted Space Pirate Arena by myself, knowing I could at least battle built-in AI “droid” opponents. Arena‘s pre-battle lobby shows various options on a floating virtual screen on one edge of the room. Shoot at it with the virtual gun in your hand to pick from the game’s pre-built levels, check your friends list, pick some options, and then… wait, how does it start? I kept shooting at the virtual screen in hopes I’d find a “start” button of some sort.

Eventually, I realized I needed to walk to one of the four “teleporters” inside this mode’s pre-battle void, which is essential for Arena‘s real-world conceit. You and a second player need to start each match standing on opposite ends of the tracked playspace. Until the game knows you’re not standing directly next to an opponent in the real world, it won’t take you to a far more elaborate virtual world. The same applies when playing in single-player mode, which makes for a slightly annoying hoop to jump through. Either way, you must track a wide-open room to boot the mode at all. You should be able to walk to a little starting teleporter.

Do all of this, and the game will black out and load one of its battlegrounds. Each of the five pre-built worlds on offer is designed to fit perfectly in a 10 m x 10 m square, and each is designed for optimal high-speed performance on weak Quest hardware. Do not expect eye-popping graphics. Some spaces are surrounded by walls, while others look out to wide-open skies and ho-hum details in the distance. The textures and geometry are utilitarian, not gorgeous, even though developer I-Illusions has made an effort to spruce up each scene with unique differentiating architectural details and varied aesthetics.

Once you’re in, there are no joysticks to speak of. Everything you do in Arena revolves around physical motion. Walk, sneak, crawl, and hide using your arms and legs. Aim a one-handed pistol with one hand (which you can define in the game’s menus). The other hand holds a decently sized shield, and this is activated with a button-press. The shield also has a charge meter, so if you hold the shield up for too long, or it absorbs too many attacks, it goes away temporarily.

The first thing worth noting is that every Arena sightline is cluttered and limited by a healthy variety of walls, windows, hallways, and chest-high clutter. Start shooting your gun in one of these rooms, and you’ll quickly realize that the VR experience feels nothing like standing in a wide-open room and shooting directly at a foe who stands eight meters away. Aim and shoot at a virtual wall, and your laser will stop upon impact. Hold down your gun’s trigger to “charge,” on the other hand, and that can shoot a bouncing laser, which will reflect off roughly 2-3 surfaces—possibly around a corner, which is tactically useful. Yet, that comes at the cost of making a humming noise that your opponent will not only hear but be able to triangulate, using Quest’s built-in 3D positional audio.



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