It’s clear from the moment you lay eyes on Dubai’s new VR Park that this isn’t going to be your average VR arcade. Stroll inside the new facility located in the city’s comically enormous shopping mall — which has made a hobby of collecting ‘World’s Largest’ attractions — and you’ll be dazzled by two floors filled with themed booths and rides that make Disneyland seem under-dressed.
Launched earlier this month, the VR Park features 17 VR experiences (and one AR photo booth) that run the gamut of headsets and capabilities. You get everything from 360-degree mobile VR videos to full, custom-built room scale games with purpose-built controllers and even an indoor rollercoaster. It’s a shrine to all things virtual reality, offering wave-based shooting, vertigo-inducing heights and zombie-slaying.
When it comes to actually jumping into VR, though, the park is at its best when it straddles the line between giving you experiences you can’t get at home and not making you sick.
Take Ape-X, one of the more inventive games on display. Like many of the attractions, it uses Starbreeze’s StarVR headset, a high-spec if somewhat clunky device specifically built for location-based VR. Here you put on two gauntlet-like controllers and stand on a circular platform. In VR, this translates to a sci-fi scene that apes (sorry) the climactic scene of King Kong atop the Empire State Building. You can throw your arms around to smash drones intent on taking you down or fire projectiles Iron Man-style while hugging the building behind you and circling around the top.
It’s frantic fun and the purpose-built set provides an extra ingredient for the immersion that you couldn’t get at home (not without some expensive DIY at least). That said, there were some issues; the tether connecting the headset to the pole was too short and often yanked my head back at unexpected moments. When everything clicked, though, it was hard to remind yourself that you were really standing in a dimly-lit room and not on top of a skyscraper.
Other StarVR experiences offered similar moments of VR ecstasy, even if the software could be underwhelming. The Mummy: Prodigium Strike, for example, is a lackluster shooter from a design standpoint with subpar visuals, but sitting on the side of a helicopter that vibrated as it hovered in the air and shook when a group of ravens slammed into the side still made it an unexpected highlight. In fact, the best software I saw wasn’t even a game, but a free preview of Construct, a VR mobile film built to show off the volumetric capture technology Starbreeze acquired when the company bought PresenZ back in 2016. The short piece showcased some of the most realistic visuals I’ve seen in VR without sacrificing positional tracking, though this was more of a time-killer while you wait for other games to open up rather than an attraction of its own.
Elsewhere, VR Park includes some apps that will be familiar to those with an HTC Vive but have new life breathed into them through the prospect of local multiplayer. Four players can put on backpack PCs to jump into The Raft, for example, and then team-up to blast aquatic monsters that plague the swamp you float down. Even with others in the room, it’s hard for a VR veteran to get excited about a game so close to the home VR experience (especially when there’s very little in the way of a challenge), but it’s not hard to imagine newcomers discovering the delights of immersive entertainment without having to throw down hundreds of dollars. The same goes for the custom level of Payday 2 you can dive into.
Easily the strangest installation from Starbreeze’s offerings, though, was running on a Gear VR and it wasn’t built for me or you. Geminose, as the piece is called, runs on a rotating carousel, with cushions lining the floor. Inside VR you’re on a snail-paced train that travels across several dimensions, each featuring cutesy animals. Starbreeze told me this experience was intended for young children, which immediately set alarm bells ringing in my head. Starbreeze CEO Bo Andersson Klint assured me children on the ride would be monitored at all times but, when I mentioned the age limits of around 13 and over that companies like Sony and Oculus place upon their products, he noted that there was no evidence to suggest VR was detrimental to children under that age. Personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable handing a Gear VR to my child, but ultimately it’s up to parents.
Outside of Starbreeze’s own apps VR Park has some strange offerings. There are several amusement-style rides in which you put on a headset and are transported to another reality as you’re whisked around the real world, but the combination of a bumpy ride across the dunes and a VR rollercoaster that span as it violently threw you across the Dubai landscape had me feeling so queasy I couldn’t stomach the thought of any more VR for the day. I can’t say I was sorry to miss the two other rides that dropped and swung you from great heights.
Points have to be given to the arcade’s presentation, though, which mixes the grandeur design you’d expect from Dubai tourism with theme park-style fun. The booth for The Walking Dead is particularly impressive, littered with blood-stained body bags and weapons, while the main hub recreates some of the city’s most iconic buildings stretching down from the ceiling. It’s really a sight to behold.
Price-wise the park isn’t outrageously expensive, though it’s not as cheap as you might hope, either. While nothing on display even comes close to matching, say, The Void’s impressive Star Wars experience, you’ll get a similarly-long VR experience for a third of the price. The biggest experiences all cost 45 dirhams (about $12/£9) as opposed to around £30/$30 for The Void. There are a handful of apps — Ape-X, Payday VR, The Walking Dead — that I feel are reasonable in that price range, but the park would certainly be a much more attractive proposition if the prices came down slightly.
Ultimately I left the VR Park with mixed feelings. As a long-time VR user, precious few experiences had truly managed to wow me, but to casual passersby and holiday makers that haven’t yet picked up a headset this is an easy, affordable way to discover the joys of immersive entertainment. It’s not worth traveling for, then, but if you’re in town it’s a fun way to kill an afternoon.