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


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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 does cover 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.

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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 that 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.

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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.

Wisely accounting for reality within VR—and with cool level options

Enlarge / When you take damage, or you try to walk through a VR wall, the game will black you out and ask you to run to a teleporter to spawn back in.
I-Illusions

What’s to stop you from running around in the real world and cheating your way around the game’s virtual walls? Arena handles this nimbly enough. If you step into any bespoke virtual geometry, the entire game blacks out, and you get a very limited time window to step onto a nearby teleporter, at which point you warp back into the VR battleground. Take too long to do this, and you lose one of your three health bars. Continue hiding in the void, and you’ll keep getting damaged until it’s game over for you. Doing this also makes you flash visibly back into the action, in such a way that if you walk into a wall while being shot at by an opponent, you’re not really getting an edge with a sneaky VR vanish maneuver.

Similarly, whenever anyone takes damage via laser, their VR world blacks out, and they get a slightly longer time window to move in the real world to a different teleporter in order to respawn. This all but guarantees that your foe won’t immediately see you when you respawn, unless they guess which teleporter you’re going towards and march towards it in VR space accordingly.

Arena‘s pre-built levels absolutely hit the spot. My favorite bits include the window-like gaps that emerge in each level’s corners, particularly the ones covered in glass, which lasers can’t shoot through. I love a dramatic, “you see me but you can’t hiiiit me” moment in a laser tag showdown. Similarly, peeking spots emerge from many of each level’s sightlines, so that you can spot tiny bits of motion so long as you keep moving. Your other option is to stand still in a hiding corner like a sucker, and wait for a better player to work the room to their advantage, complete with charged, corner-bouncing lasers.

As a nice touch, I-Illusions has included a level editor that supports up to three custom-made battleground creations. The editor errs on the side of utter simplicity, and this means players can create solid, generic chunks anywhere in an open room. This gives players a ton of editing options, ranging from a full, ceiling-to-floor pillar to an open window to a chunk of knee-high debris. You can even opt to create solid chunks just hanging in the middle of the air if you want. But the editor currently eschews pre-built levels’ more exciting architectural tricks, including curvature and transparent, laser-blocking windows. It doesn’t support custom textures, colors, or other ways to spruce up your levels’ presentation, either.

Time for the Facebook warning

Playing all of this in single-player mode was solid enough, but what about multiplayer? I will eventually test Arena against other humans, but in the pre-release period, trying to do so led to nothing but woe—and that’s primarily Facebook’s fault, not I-Illusions’.

The issue mostly stemmed from how my access was limited to one review code, then trying to enable “Family Sharing” on a second headset so that I could load the same game on both my original Oculus Quest and my newer Quest 2. In order to do this, Facebook demands that a headset’s additional accounts also have Facebook credentials attached. I’m outing myself here: I made an entirely fake identity for this second account, since I’m the only person in my household, in order to get “guest” functionality working. Which, let’s be clear, is an even hairier turd of a requirement than the Oculus platform’s already obnoxious Facebookening already was.

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With my real identity and my dummy identity loaded on both Quest headsets, I tried adding the real identity to the fake identity’s friends list, and vice versa. Nothing worked. Something about trying to add each to the other, either as their Facebook identities or their Oculus usernames, made the whole thing explode in a way that I couldn’t unstick. What a waste of a Facebook TOS violation.

Family Sharing is currently listed as “experimental” and “beta” on Oculus’s interface, which gives the company wiggle room about this issue. If you’re in the same boat as me—you own two headsets, and you want to get two-player mode working for local games of Space Pirate Arena—you should expect to run into similar headaches. If you’re deadset on testing this mode’s two-player functionality, you’re better off using two headsets with completely different accounts, each buying their own copy of the game. (And, yes, each must be linked to Facebook, sigh.)

With the game receiving wider release today, my ability to play against other people opens up thanks to online opponents. Arena doesn’t include random-user matchmaking, so players need to coordinate with people on a friends list. So should you and a friend be in a big-enough space wherever you live, you can connect online and face off as if you’re in the same massive room.

Verdict: Cumbersome, sometimes shallow, but boy, what a free treat

Space Pirate Arena teaser from 2019

Meanwhile, for local two-player combat, both people in the same room will need to sync up using a Wi-Fi connection and Oculus’s built-in friends list. Upon doing this, I-Illusions says the two Quest systems should sync up using a form of local wireless connectivity, instead of sending your gameplay data to a server and back. Sadly, I haven’t been able to test this yet, owing to account-related woe.

However, I would advise exercising extreme caution if you and someone else play in the same space and decide to map it as a one-to-one battle. The act of syncing up two Quest headsets’ Guardian spaces is a lot more challenging than I’d anticipated, because you have to start drawing your Guardian from the center of a room. It’s easy for this to be off by a smidge due to the inexact nature of how each user puts the headset on, where they look first, and how they draw their personal Guardian. It’s next to impossible to guarantee that the person you’re playing against will be in the exact spot in real life that they appear to be virtually, even if you follow I-Illusions’ advice of calibrating local sessions with a piece of tape on the floor.

Worse, Arena is a frantic game, and it requires running through a black void at various times, as described above. If you need to respawn, there’s a greater-than-zero chance that your dash to a teleporter could collide with your real-life foe… if you’ve mapped the Guardian boundaries in a way that you’re in the exact same physical space. If you and your friend are fully aware of that reality and make a pact to not madly dash for virtual teleporters, you may be fine. But in order to have a clear conscience, I must recommend finding an even bigger physical space so that you can draw two 10 m x 10 m squares, one for each player. Opposite sides on a tennis court might work, for example (but, again, Quest tracking works better indoors than outdoors, so I hope your favorite tennis center has a roof).

Yes, yes, this is a capitalized Whole Lot for a single video game. And Space Pirate Trainer DX‘s Arena mode isn’t necessarily all that deep. So far, there’s only one pistol type, with no weapon pickups or power-ups interspersed in levels. And once you’re in a level, its geometry doesn’t animate; doors don’t open and close with switches, for example. That’s pretty static stuff for the wild, unlimited bounds of virtual reality.

But remember: Despite its limits, this ambitious, demanding mode is entirely free as part of an existing, feature-packed VR game. Arena supports online play. It includes a solid level editor. And it’s absolutely performative in terms of image refresh rates and comfort. If you’ve already gotten far enough to even consider testing this mode out, meaning you have a way to get two Quest headsets into at least one large playspace, be grateful that I-Illusions pulled off as much as they have. You gotta try it.