Platforms: PC - Oculus Rift
Editor's note: This review is based on our experiences with the game's open betas. Additionally, though Echo Arena was originally just the multiplayer component of the single-player game Lone Echo, the games have since been spun off into distinct releases, so we are reviewing them separately. You can read our review of Lone Echo here.
Virtual reality is capable of delivering a kind of emotional intensity we've never seen before in video games. It turns out our powerful human brains aren't that difficult to trick, and even if we logically know things we are seeing aren't "real" that doesn't stop us from reacting to them as if they are. We've all seen videos of people running into walls to escape virtual monsters, or reacting with terror to virtual heights, and VR's potential for evoking empathy is a fascinating frontier we are just beginning to understand.
So what happens when you combine the power of virtual reality with a competitive multiplayer sport experience? After spending a lot of time playing in the game's open beta periods I can tell you: Echo Arena will deliver some of the best and worst experiences of your gaming life.
Zero gravity sports
Echo Arena hasn't changed much since our first hands-on opportunity with the game earlier this year, and remains an experience best described as a combination of Ultimate Frisbee, Tron, and Ender's Game. Two teams of three (a smaller number than what we saw in the game's earliest demos) compete in a zero gravity compeition, attempting to throw or carry a disc through the enemy's goal. Defense involves attempting to steal the disc or punching other players in their virtual heads, which will temporarily stun them (unless they activate their shields at just the right moment).
The actual act of scoring in Echo Arena is relatively simple (though long-range throws take a great deal of skill), but it's the game's movement mechanics that really make it something special. Players have boosters and thrusters mapped to different buttons on the Oculus Touch controls, but the most effective way to move is usually through grabbing objects or terrain and pushing yourself off. It's hard to describe how fun this basic act of movement is, but it's really really fun. It feels unlike anything we've ever had before in games, an experience that actually captures something of the fun we've always suspected astronauts of having when we see videos of them goofing around on the space station. The game wisely keeps everything on the same up-and-down axis by default, which eliminates a degree of freedom but makes a huge difference in minimizing motion sickness.
Another important aspect of movement in Echo Arena is grabbing on to other players, since you can use your friends and foes in much the same way as stationary objects and terrain to propel yourself through space and change direction quickly. In fact, one of the most critical components of success in the game's beta turned out to be players who linked up as a team coming out of the boost tubes at the start of each round. One player held onto the tube in order to get shot out with speed, while one or two other players would grab on in a sort of Conga line. By tossing themselves off of the first player at just the right moment, players could maximize their speed and, ideally, take the disc towards the enemy goal uncontested.
Outside of a comeptitive match of Lone Echo you can hang out in a multiplayer lobby, and plenty of players spend hours enjoying the game this way, tossing themselves around in zero gravity and just enjoying the wonderful freedom of the feeling. Joining a multiplayer lobby and chatting with everyone while you float around is a great social experience (made more fun and potentially dangerous by the fact that many new Rift owners don't seem to understand that the headset has a built-in microphone that automatically turns on). In the beta I saw players teaching each other the game in the practice arena, discussing how excited they were about the upcoming launch, or trading practice punches, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Echo Arena's lobby become just as popular of a social VR experience as alternatives like Playroom VR.
The frustrations of a sport in its infancy
Speaking of this launch tube Conga line...in many of the matches in which I participated in during the game's beta, I saw goal after goal after goal scored in basically this exact same way. Two players would launch together, grab the disc, then end up scoring in less than ten total seconds. After each goal Echo Arena re-sets each team back in their bases for another launch tube "Joust" sequence, and more often than not the team that had just scored would attempt the same exact thing...and they would be successful again.
No matter which side of the match you're on, a team running up the score to 16-0 based on exactly the same play, over and over again, doesn't feel very fun. It also plain sucks to have a game split up into ten-second chunks like this, resetting into the launch tube area again and again and again, and this kind of match offers new players very little opprotunity to actually play the game and improve their skills. Echo Arena is at its best when play goes back and forth, and desperate clears and risky passes lead to exciting breakaways and split-second saves. Unfortunately, that sort of experience was too rare during the game's beta.
And yes, of course, there are ways to defend against this sort of play (including playing "goalie"), but in practice I didn't seem them work out as often as they probably should have. Part of the problem is the fact that the game is so new. The meta is in its infancy, and players haven't mastered counters to this seemingly dominant strategy yet. More importantly, teams aren't being balanced in any meaningful way yet. People who literally just unboxed their Oculus Rift were being thrown against clear Echo Arena masters in the game's beta, and the results weren't pretty. Now that the game is officially out, hopefully we'll see improved matchmaking.
But, importantly, Echo Arena's current structure might make it a challenge to balance teams. First off, because the teams are only three players each, the impact of each single player is enormous. While one great player might not be enough to win in a game of Overwatch, in Echo Arena it absolutely is.
Secondly, Echo Arena could be tough to balance because, similarly to a sport like ice hockey, the basics of movement are as much of a challenge as anything else in the game. In real life, if you're in reasonably good shape you can run around on a football field or a basketball court and at least be in the general vicinity of the action, most of the time, even if you aren't really contributing to the play. With hockey and Echo Arena, though, players who aren't quite up to the level of their competitors or teammates will be totally left behind. And having a player on your team in Echo Arena who is significantly lagging behind the play isn't much different from not having that player at all.
All that said, though, sports are never perfect when they are first invented, and Echo Arena is absolutely a sport (arguments about video games lacking physicality fall totally flat in the face of a title as demanding as this). It took a while for basketball to evolve to the point where players didn't have to climb a ladder to get the ball out of the basket every time someone scored, so we can and should be patient while the wrinkles are ironed out of Echo Arena.
In the coming weeks and months I expect we'll see balancing tweaks and rule changes (read our interview with the game's director for more on these post-launch plans) designed to minimize the early problems that have emerged in Echo Arena, and that's all fine and expected. With both Oculus itself, ESL, and Intel involved pushing the game as part of the VR Challenger League we have every reason to expect the developers will remain extremely active and will make the changes needed to perfect Echo Arena.
Echo Arena made me want to punch people for real
Earlier in this review I talked about the social joys Echo Arena offers, but it's important to discuss the dark side of VR's power as well. I have never been more angry at other players in a video game than I was while playing Echo Arena. This was specifically a problem during the dead time that occurs after a goal is scored, because I encountered more than one opposing player who, in the midst of running up the score against my team to ridiculous heights, liked to follow up each goal by zooming over to me, getting right in my face, and punching me over and over while shouting profanity at me.
This was dead time, and so counted for nothing meaningful in the game. It's roughly equivalent to an opponent in a multiplayer FPS teabagging or shooting your corpse after they kill you, but that sort of thing never really botherrs me. This, though...having a guy in your face, insulting you, punching at you, after having scored against you...this brought up different sorts of emotions. This felt much more like the sort of aggression that comes up during actual sports, and leads to pushing, fighting, and bench-clearing brawls. It's a testament to the intimacy and power of virtual reality and Echo Arena, to be sure, but it's also not a feeling I like at all. I don't want to get this angry playing a game.
Going forward, VR games will probably have to figure out ways to deal with this kind of conduct, which has so much more of an impact in VR than it ever has in games before.
On a similar note, it's worth mentioning that many of those playing Echo Arena during its beta were clearly children. Since punching players is a main game mechanic, that means that Echo Arena is a game in which adults somewhere in the world are making punching motions, lewd gestures, and (often) swearing at opponents they know to be children. That...feels pretty weird and bad, in a way that is a step beyond cursing at kids on Xbox Live. Ultimately the responsibility rests with parents to monitor what their kids are playing, and as a blanket rule I'd say children under a certain age shouldn't be playing any multiplayer virtual reality game. This is a new frontier we're all exploring together, and not everyone can be trusted to behave nicely.
Fortunately, the Echo Arena devs have been saying all the right things about harrassment issues so far, and we can expect social control features to become more robust post-launch.
An absolute must-play
Echo Arena is a great and important game, and feels like a significant step forward for multiplayer virtual reality. The game will be a free download for three months, but it will be well worth its $20 price after that period is over. The frustrations I felt with the strategic balance and the conduct of some other players are both things all new multiplayer games have to deal with, and Echo Arena has the huge advantage of offering a revolutionary new kind of game to play at its core, which makes any problem seem minor in comparison.
A sizable playerbase is important for a game like this to be successful, so making it a free download during this initial period is a fantastic move. I'll be eagerly awaiting rule refinements to improve the core game and look forward to the truly great players ranking up and away from the masses, but until that happens I'll still be playing Echo Arena as much as I can, because it's just so unbelievably fun.
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