I grew up with Commodores, IBM’s, DOS prompts, and Atari, with games like Pong, ET, Below the Root, Ultima and Doom. From tapes, to floppies, to CD’s, to thumb drives and wifi. I really am quite happy to have seen the evolution of technologies along the way. Although I haven’t gamed like I used to in a long time I still enjoy it, just now as a more casual nostalgia style gamer. Recently we ran across something that changes gaming from sitting in front of a screen at home to being totally immersed in a interactive new world with your friends and family.
While planning a trip to Wisconsin Dells I accidentally stumbled upon Kalahari Resorts new edition called The Arena. A quick read of what it was and next thing you know it was top our to do list.
Between, Chris, the kids and myself we are a mix of gamers and non-gamers, with preferences ranging from puzzle adventures to first person shooter styles.
What is it: The Arena is a free roaming virtual reality game world. Where the technology doesn’t tether you in place, but you can actually walk and crouch and move freely without feeling any restrictions of harnesses or other equipment. You get to interact with not only the virtual world but also with up to 5 other players (6 total in game). Keep in mind that this is relatively new, and is one of only 3 locations in America (2 owned by Kalahari) and of only 6 in the entire world. So it’s high up on the unique scale.
No matter how well it is described, or photographed, it doesn’t do it justice. It really is totally immersive, very realistic, and you feel like you have been transported into the gaming world.
Currently two games are offered, Zombie Survival and Engineerium (I’ll try to explain that one a little later). We went with Zombie Survival first, since it’s been a long running family conversational joke about the future outcome of a zombie apocalypse. Plus it initially has some similarities to Call of Duty zombies, which is a familiar game.
Once we were signed in for our game choice, we had to fill out a digital form, with all the usual info and waivers, as well as height & sex. Then we were escorted to a separate room (complete with small lockers to store our valuables) for our game briefing with our game master Matt. (Great guy, answered all our geeky and non-geeky questions) The game master stays will you through your entire game, from briefing, to “suiting” up, and is even there in case you have any issues in game. It was a nice touch having the same person throughout.
From all the how to’s and what not to do’s (it’s actually all pretty simple) in the briefing you go into the game room, which is pretty underwhelming itself. A basic black room with a grid on the floor. You stand where you are told, pull down your goggles, put on your headset, and adjust your lenses. At first you are ethereal looking, kind of like a blue and white light outline ghost with your name floating above. Then your weapon is handed to you and you wait until the game is initialized, and that my friend is when the magic happens.
Zombie Survival: Your vision goes black, the sound of our fellow gamers in your headset goes dark too, you are alone, then life comes back on and you are in the game. Your avatar is the sex you choose when you signed in and the height you listed. Other details are randomized. Some of this part reminded me a little of movies like Tron (old & new) where you get sucked into the game. The Arena has good graphics, yet it’s not so overly realistic as to be super gory and scary.
As you look around you are in the centre of a debris strewn warehouse. The goal is simple, shoot zombies, repair barriers, survive until the end, and try to get a high score. Helping each other out along the way isn’t a bad idea either. (note: there is no friendly fire accidents in game so thankfully no siblings could take each other or the parents out) If zombies do happen to kill you, don’t worry you will respawn (that’s come back to life for those non-gamers).
As you walk around the warehouse space (real and VR) the view around you tracks and changes accordingly. Above you floats your name, plus at your feet you can see your score. If you walk too close to a real world wall, or another person an alarm will sound, think of it as a bubble of safety. So there really is very little danger of smacking into another person while playing. This was something I was nervous about, that I would walk into someone as if I was blindfolded, but that never was an issue. I was completely comfortable once in game.
The game is so immersive that you will step back from attacks, or flinch when a zombie falls from above at your feet. As you look down at the gun in your hand you may even find yourself reaching to reload a clip that in the real world isn’t there but that your brain full believes should be right there. I laughed a few times at myself for avoiding stepping on debris on the ground and watching my step so I didn’t stub a toe……on nothing….nada…doesn’t exist. That is just how all encompassing this is. You almost could swear you feel the elevator move up and down even though in reality it is just you standing in one place in the real world. Even the acoustics of the headsets help to accomplish the goal of being totally absorbed into the game.
Everyone worked well together in game, but at the end only one of us understood to get to the platform for rescue, the rest of us were in the elevator. (Atta girl Frenchie) Afterwards your scores are sent to your email address, so you can compare bragging rights.
So would we play this game again? Absolutely in a geeky enthusiastic heartbeat.
Engineerium: A much more family friendly game, no violence (unless you count your kids threatening to push each other off into the water). It was described initially as a puzzle solving adventure. I ended up viewing it as a fanciful walk around a colourful Aztec inspired dreamscape. It is a peculiar and beautiful world, of floating stone paths, waterfalls, sea creatures, birds and butterflies. As you walked along you needed to locate and stand on virtual pressure plates in the game, to trigger another pathway to form or change and allow you to get to a glowing orb. This glowing orb would transport you to the next level of the game world. So less of a puzzle and more of a family stroll through an odd and fantastic world of bright colours, unique views, and interesting creatures.
I often found myself gawking upwards or peering precariously over a ledge in order to watch a blue whale float/fly by. Again picture leaning over to look at something trying not to fall over the ledge and in reality you are just bending randomly in an empty room. At one point I was even dancing back and forth. We all found ourselves trying to point things out to each other and although your body moves as you move, and your head moves and looks where and how you look, your hands do not, there is no tracking abilities on your hands and arms, so pointing is ….. well pointless.
As you wander along in Engineerium some of the pathways will spiral or slope sharply up or down, and you may find yourself struggling to walk upright. It’s a little freaky but definitely fun.
This game was simple but beautiful and you could take your time to look around you in wonder and amazement of the world. Each time as you triggered the glowing orb the world would shift and you would have a new pathway and a new perspective of this unique and mystical realm.
While we thoroughly enjoyed it and every one of us found it a fun, otherworldly experience, for us it was a one and done. However if we had someone new with us, or they were younger or not at all into shooter games then I would be happy to experience this again.
Overall: Even if someone isn’t going in game with you they can watch you on the video screen (no audio thankfully) in the lobby as you wander around, which is kind of weird and definitely not as cool as being in game. The lobby screen also shows them what you see in your goggles, but it’s not nearly the same as being immersed in game. If you get a chance to play, don’t stand outside looking in, go into the game and leave everyone else watching you wondering what’s up with all the pointing and waiving and even booty shaking.
First off everything with the staff and the in game experience was absolutely professional and top notch.
There were a couple of things that we counted as negative. Trying to find The Arena in the first place required two stops, and asking three different times for directions. We were not staying on the resort this time and came in strictly as outsiders. There was no clear signage directing players to the location. There was only one we found even saying specifically where it was. This however was not much help since it said it was beside the waterpark front desk, so we had to find out where that was in order to find The Arena. Lack of clear signage was a big issue for us.
Also of note regarding the set up, is as one group is coming out of the game to get their items from the lockers they come into the room where the next briefing is ongoing. This is more than a little distracting, since the team coming out is excited and pumped and talking about their experience.
When looking online on the Kalahari web page, there is a great write up and overview of The Arena game play and a couple detailed photos of the games available; however there is no specific description of the individual games. You don’t even know there are two options if you don’t look at the photos and guess or until you click on the bookings page. Zombie Survival seems relatively self explanatory, Engineerium however is really kind of a mystery in that regard.
The last point is likely more of a personal preference but was something that our entire group felt to one extent or another. That Engineerium was an awkward and not very easy to remember name (writing this article I had to look it up a couple times before I just gave up and wrote it down), and again it is also relatively non-descript. The game itself would be a more difficult one to name or to describe. For us when talking to others about it we have tried describing it as an alternate reality walking adventure, where you can visually explore a curious reimagining of an Aztec dream world. For us the name Engineerium conjures up more of a Minecraft vibe and calling it a puzzle seems a bit off base as well, but all of that could just be because our group is skewed a little older on this trip.
So to sum it all up, GO, ENJOY, and GO AGAIN. Even at $25 per person I think this is a good rate and would pay that to experience The Arena again .
The Arena opens up a whole new level of gaming experience, on your own or with your family (I actually want to take Grandma to do this). Add it to your list now. Challenge your perception of the world around you, step into today’s version of the book Ready Player One
Things to Keep in Mind
- Arrive 10 mins before your booked start time
- Leave hooded sweatshirts at home or be prepared to tuck your hood inside your shirt. The hood can cover the air vents for the system in the back pack and this could cause overheating
- You will be asked to remove your glasses, but don’t worry the optics are easy to adjust to suit your vision level (although I imagine there may be some limitations, but it worked well for all of us, including those that need glasses)
- Book early – Space is easy to find now, but likely as word spreads and people try it out bookings will fill up. Especially during the busy tourist season.
Must be at least 13 years (we asked why and a big portion of it is related to the equipment weight and size. Likely there are other reasons as well but after wearing the headset I can see why the restriction.)
Kalahari Resorts, Wisconsin
Wisconsin Dells Tourism
Kalahari Resorts, Poconos