When I tried it in mid-2015, I was blown away by Zero Latency's immersive virtual reality -- completely wireless, free roaming, warehouse-sized VR, built in Melbourne.
Almost two years on, the fundamentals are the same, but the Zero Latency experience is more refined than it has ever been. And that means new things are possible.
My hands are sweaty. The gun I'm holding is heavy. I'm stressed already. I feel like I've been running for hours. "Where are they?" "I don't know..."
A lot has changed since I walked in the doors of Zero Latency's warehouse space in North Melbourne a little more than a year and a half ago. Where five or six PCs once sat in a corner, with floorspace to spare -- enough for a generous boardroom table -- trestle tables are lined up from wall to wall with PCs and monitors, with staff behind them busily working. Upstairs, an area that was previously storage has become another hub of computers and programmers. There's not enough room. There's not enough space.
What has changed most behind the scenes is the office's bustling activity -- it's intense now, because Zero Latency is no longer just a backyard operation. It's international, with warehouse-sized free-roaming virtual reality spaces in Tokyo, Madrid and Orlando. The Australian operation is growing, and the team is growing with it too. A new warehouse and office in Melbourne is in the works.
That the company's first office is literally bursting at the seams with coders and operations staff is an apt metaphor for Zero Latency's meteoric rise -- in barely a year -- from a bold idea to a proven formula.
Now Built For Smaller Spaces, Not Larger
Zero Latency's first experience used the entirety of its warehouse-sized free roaming area, but there was never a point where players would have the opportunity to move from one side to the other unimpeded in-game. If anything, the warehouse size was too large for the level design of the VR missions the company put together. In reality, a space half the size can be every bit as effective -- without players even noticing a difference between the two.
Since August 2015, Zero Latency has opened free-roam spaces in Tokyo, Japan at the Joypolis amusement park. In Madrid, Spain. In Orlando, Florida as V-Play Reality. The company that started in a Melbourne warehouse has expanded to three new continents.
New spaces that the company is expanding into internationally, it's found, are generally around 200 square feet in size rather than the nearly 400 of the North Melbourne warehouse. It's had to adapt its games to suit those new requirements, but it's a challenge the team has clearly risen to with its three new titles.
That's a significantly smaller play area, but it never feels like you're confined to one location -- both tricks of gameplay and level design, like in-game elevators to re-orient players in the opposite direction, and the complete escapism of virtual reality, both contribute to a complete loss of the sense of where you are in the outside world.
More Powerful Hardware Means More Immersive Gaming
The hardware that Zero Latency uses is more mature in 2017 than it was two years ago. Because each player necessarily has to have their own self-contained VR apparatus to build the game world around them, a backpack with an Alienware gaming PC and hot-swappable battery packs is the heart -- but that heart has become much smaller and more energy efficient. Zero Latency has swapped out its deprecated Oculus Rifts -- previously development versions of the headset, now impossible to find -- for Razer's OSVR HDK2, and a matching Razer surround-sound headset.
Zero Latency's in-house-developed gun has been overhauled, too. It still uses the tried-and-tested PlayStation Move controller to appear accurately and realistically in players' hands in the in-game world, but the design has been redesigned to be more comfortable to use for longer periods and easier to interact with with the barrier of a VR headset in front of the wearer's eyes. The 'Blackbird', as the team calls the new rifle, looks more sci-fi than spec-ops, and it's better suited to the more diverse games that the company has developed.
Because the hardware is newer, it's more powerful despite being smaller and lighter. The custom VR backpack -- built for Zero Latency by an Australian military supplier -- has enough graphical grunt to power games that look better and run more smoothly than the first iteration of Zero Latency's Outbreak. The gun's size and weight remains hefty, but it's appropriate for how real the team wants it to feel. The whole experience is more refined.
From Zombie Shooters To Physics Puzzlers
Zero Latency is introducing three new games as part of its first big overhaul. The first is Singularity, a sci-fi corridor shooter that feels equal parts Aliens and System Shock. In it, you and your team are tasked with shutting down the rogue AI on the space station you find yourselves on, surviving wave after wave of computer-controlled robot attacks both from a distance and up close. It's the most similar in level design to Zero Latency's first mission experience, with tight corners and jump-out scares that make for a constant battle.
The now-classic zombie Survival mode returns, too, but it's been overhauled massively since the undead mission that Zero Latency launched with in 2015. Now, players spend 12 minutes surviving against hordes of zombies, building barricades and dispatching enemies large and small before any surviving team members are extracted at the end of the countdown. It's intense, physical and sweaty work -- it feels like a much longer game in VR than it does in IRL minutes, and the stress of being attacked up close by a horde of zombies is real. This one is for the adrenaline junkies.
But it's the third game mode that's the largest departure from existing form for Zero Latency veterans, and also the most interesting. Engineerium doesn't use weapons, so players have their hands free. It's a physics puzzler, asking teams to explore a floating stone maze. Despite having their feet on terra firma, virtual reality means players walk on ceilings and through spiraling gravity-defying courses. It has soft lilting ambient music, too -- a point of contention in VR development -- that lends a sense of escapism and wonder to the already fantastical ancient Egypt meets Alice in Wonderland environment that players wander around.
Zero Latency's new Singularity and Survival missions are open to the public as of today, and Engineerium will launch next week. Tickets are the same $88 price per person as the experience launched with in 2015, and that gets you anywhere between 45 minutes and 60 minutes in-game. That might sound like a short time, but when you're in VR, holding a rifle to your shoulder and blasting away at androids or zombies, it's more than enough.