This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 06/04/2018.
Review: Limitless VR
Croydon High Street has seen a real resurgence of late that stands in stark contrast to the gradual decline of the Whitgift Centre and the surrounding area. While Croydon’s dominant shopping area has continued its slow decline as it awaits the ever elusive Westfield development, the high street has become, in only a couple of years, a somewhat unlikely beacon of alternative culture. Starting with the stylish coffee shop Crushed Bean, it now plays home to the technology company incubator TMRW, one of South London’s only board game cafés (The Ludoquist) and the soon to be opened vegan café, Coffee Shotter. With such an archetypal range of venues, its hipster credentials would be complete regardless. But its least-known edgy joint – the virtual reality café/bear Limitless VR – is perhaps the cherry on the top of its surprisingly varied delights.
Opened last year, Limitless VR provides a pay-by-the-hour virtual reality gaming experience on high-end equipment that allows for full body movement. Rather than being a dark, arcade-style space, it aims instead to provide a relaxed and primarily social atmosphere for people to sample the latest games from this most immersive of digital experiences. At first, this makes the space on the high street (currently and unfortunately obscured by scaffolding from the outside) quite a surprise. When I discovered Limitless VR on a rainy Tuesday in December, it looked rather empty and unfinished, even if it was an infinitely more intriguing proposition than the furniture store previously on the site.
Given that VR’s deep-seated and completely logical associations are all about escaping the real world (which will no doubt only be compounded by the release of Spielberg’s film version of Ready Player One), I was primed to expect a space which felt like a dark and futuristic anteroom to the virtual fantasies which were to come. When I got chatting to friendly and enthusiastic owners Mike Bacchus and Simon Jones, I began to see why they had taken a different tack. “Limitless VR is not an arcade. Our competitors elsewhere in London have gone down that route, but we see the whole thing as a much more social experience”, Simon explained. Mike went on: “exactly, we see this as somewhere that you come with some friends and hang out”. Rather than clutter it up with too much campy futuristic clutter, they have gone deliberately with a bright coffee shop feel with simple minimal dividers separating the individual areas that players can freely move within as they navigate virtual worlds.
Right away though, they were keen to get me to try the main event – the games on offer. After lifting the not-at-all-surprisingly bulky headset onto my head, placing the gun-like controllers into each hand and taking a quick tutorial in their use, I went into the virtual games menu and began using some kind of a lightsaber to pick titles. As I am completely new to VR, Simon suggested something beginner-oriented or a virtual tour. Naturally being someone who doesn’t like to mess around, I had no desire to do anything but dive into something with proper action and movement. His recommendation of Guns N’ Stories had immediate appeal, as it looked to me like it would play like a cowboy-themed version of Namco’s arcade classic Time Crisis.
Guns N’ Stories
I was not disappointed. Right away I was shooting the living crap out of an army of (I can only assume) low moral fibre bandits terrorising a small western town. As a first-timer to this current generation of VR technology, my high hopes for the physicality of the experience were immediately fulfilled. Not only did my own screen weapon exactly track my rapid arm movements, but the act of actually ducking ducked me right behind a barrel of suspiciously convenient and bulletproof barrels. Perhaps most importantly, I didn’t need to be told this by anyone – just doing it had exactly the effect that one would expect. Truly Time Crisis‘s famous crouch and reload pedal has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Next up was popular deathmatch flying game, Skyfront. One thing that you can’t do in life easily is fly around in a jetpack, but it turns out that in VR you can feel a really fun approximation of it. By doing a superman impression with one hand and pulling a trigger you fly about slightly outlandish and heavily themed worlds not unlike games in the Unreal Tournament series. With the other hand, you shoot at your enemies with a basic but pleasing array of weapons. Flying around in its truly 3D space does genuinely give you a sense of freedom that I have never felt playing a desktop game. On the other side though, the very immersive nature of the games can actually catch up with you. If you are afraid of, say, heights, you could be in for a surprise. I was fine to begin with, but after a while playing, when I suddenly turned my head down and saw only gaping sky and clouds thousands of feet beneath me, I got quite a shock and felt a sudden urge to cling to anything solid for survival. It was scary for a passing moment, but a big tick against the genuinely experiential difference between these and regular games.
Island 359 (aka ‘totally not Jurassic Park‘)
Shooters, you will notice, are a bit of a common theme here and are certainly one of my preferred genres (though being the cool guy that I am, management games are my actual favourite). But then most first person games are shooters, and the more that I played these games, the clearer it was that first person is where this technology seems to come alive. While it would be super cool to walk around the city I have built in a SimCity-like game, for instance, I can’t see how a VR interface would be much superior to the omniscient one screen view that you need to be in most of the time for getting the big picture on your city/country/football team/space colony and so on. Other non-first person VR games that I have experienced on other platforms (like the Samsung Gear VR) have generally disappointed. VR platformers provide little, if any, extra interest beyond the 2D classics or excellent recent indie titles. Some other VR apps are just plain gimmicks. like the Netflix app, where you literally sit in a nice virtual room with a big virtual TV, and then watch the Netflix show you would have watched anyway.
What games like Island 359 prove, though, is that even if you constrain your creative energies to the first person, there is an enormous amount of design space. Far more advanced and sizeable than the first two games, it allowed me to explore an absolutely vast, realistic island that went through whole day and night cycles, full of (not so realistic) dinosaurs. It allowed me to interact with a wide variety of objects exactly as you’d hope – supplies, containers, weapons and even ladders which you climb with realistic climbing movements that make you genuinely, physically tired after a while. With the fusing of some solid arcade-style storytelling and total freedom of movement, it once again created an atmosphere of fear which that was totally realised, turned into panic and then into a kind of creepy, adrenalin-powered focus when I was suddenly lunged at by a velociraptor.
The last of the major games that I watched was this excellent multiplayer zombie survival horror game. Its bright (and beautifully designed) sunlit aesthetic made it somewhat less terrifying than your typical dimly lit affair, but I can tell you that spinning your head around to find that a zombie is trying to claw the flesh off the back of it is never not alarming. This time I actually played the game with Simon in two player mode. While there was something fundamentally a bit clunky about using a headset and microphone with a guy in a booth next door (who I managed to crash into a couple of times), the sense of camaraderie was higher than in a regular multiplayer game. Again, the more physically I felt present in the game, the more the experience really was heightened. And like Island 359 it enhanced this feeling of reality with attention to realistic detail: every drawer could be opened, every car boot unlocked. Simon remarked that he had previously discovered that it was possible to throw and catch objects in the game, if you’re good enough. I don’t think that my skills were up to that!
At the end of both of my visits to Limitless VR so far I was left more tired than from a typical gaming session, but I felt very satisfied with it. So it was nice to sit down, take a break and speak to Simon and Mike about what they thought the future held for the venue, given the high risk nature of a genuinely new venture and the rapid change in technology. The only cast-iron guarantee is that the kind of kit that they have will eventually get cheaper for people to have at home. Indeed, the first visit itself sparked an interest in buying something that I had close to zero interest in previously. Could they become a victim of their own success and only inspire more people to play at home? Simon and Mike think not. One problem is practical. These are ‘room scale’ systems. You need a lot of space to put them in, and with people’s increasingly small homes that may never be practical for many people. And without the freedom to walk around easily, these games just aren’t going to be the same.
The second one is social. At this point I can see their vision more clearly. They see what they offer as a social activity: a group of mates come down to a bar with a load of VR games, they take it in turns, watch each other looking silly (this is definitely part of the fun at the moment) and have a few beers; or perhaps a children’s party in which the kids play against each other in different booths, while others run around high on sugar. Just as people still go to the cinema despite the existence of Netflix and DVDs, and go to pubs even though you can drink far cheaper at home, they see a strong future in some venues like this, whatever happens.
There’s a question mark over whether they’ve got that ambience down just yet. Mark admits that his biggest regret was not getting an onsite alcohol licence on day one, given their future plans. But they seem to be adapting fast, with lots of large-scale event bookings with temporary licences. Once they do have that in place, I think that it will be critical to work on the design and feel of the venue. Mike and Simon are the most welcoming hosts that you could hope for, but the venue still needs something of the bar atmosphere that they intend to conjure up.
The only other very minor gripe that I have is that the per-booth (note: not person) pricing model is a bit odd for individuals and couples. £35 for a whole group for an hour during the peak is absolutely cracking value. For one person who wants the solo game experience, it seems rather expensive. There appear to be very good reasons for this on the cost side, but it doesn’t change the fact it could be a barrier to some customers.
No doubt they’ll get that sorted. Everything that I saw from Simon and Mike filled me with a lot of confidence in their agile approach. They have a canny idea for marketing, including a tie-in with the Ready Player One film (see more below) and where it’s going next. The games are already fantastic, as are the guidance and help from Simon and Mike. I strongly recommend that you get down there and try it out. I know that I’ll be going back again soon.
Limitless VR can be found at 79 High Street, Croydon and is open Tuesday to Sunday.
From 30th March to 15th April Limitless VR is running a special Ready Player One related event: Flashforward, Flashback. A celebration of all things ’80s and virtual reality, the event will include retro games, music nights and even games based on the movie.