WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME?

WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME?

And an Absolutely Incredible One at That

I distinctly remember Virtual Reality arriving in Birmingham. It was 1993 and a company called Virtuality opened in The Arcadian. We flocked to play it, school kids giddy with excitement on the bus, only to be met with the overriding smell of vomit and a sea of motion sickness warning signs.

It was dreadful. Your legs would buckle, your head would spin and you'd cling to the rims of the machines for dear life. Then, for the best part of 30 odd years, not much changed until... BANG! VR venues opened everywhere, seemingly over night, with wildly varying levels of quality

I've played them all. Literally every single one of them. Not because I'm a VR obsessive, I'm really not, but because it's my job. I've shot zombies over and over again, sailed boats, wielded an axe, fought off giant animatronic ducks, played golf and defused bombs.

There have been moments where I've enjoyed them, absolutely, but ultimately, each and every time, I've been relieved when the mask has come off and always thought that maybe, just maybe, the game play isn't keeping up with the tech. Until now. 

Take a bow Sandbox VR in Grand Central and, specifically, their utterly outstanding Squid Game experience. If you've not seen Netflix's Squid Game or the reality TV spin-off, worry not. The pal who accompanied me for this one hadn't either, but that didn't prevent her from whelping that this was "the best thing ever!" about 15 minutes in to the game.

Sandbox does the theatre of VR brilliantly. Their bar is manned by two robotic arms (above) that comfortingly spill enough drink on every pour to prove that Skynet is still some way off. But with the deep blues and neons you can't help but feel you're onboard the commercial space tug Nostromo, or drinking a double G&T with Rick Deckard and the boys. The staff members, each and every one of them, really good fun, too. 

But anyone can do theatre, just ask Frank Bruno. What really matters is the game play and how it syncs with the tech. Here's where Sandbox steals a march on everyone else. The equipment is light (but wear a t-shirt) you have an entire room to walk around for you and your chums and the games are, in a word, wonderful.

Red Light, Green Light (above) that haunting first round in the TV show, is game number one — known in the UK as Grandma's Footsteps. As the killer doll looks away you're tasked with collecting coins until her head spins round again when you must, of course, remain perfectly still or she'll do away with you.

The wonderful thing is you know when you've slipped up — you can feel a leg wobble, or a hand flinch — and within seconds you're 'dead'. You can hear a pal drop an F-bomb before watching them zapped from existence by old creepy head. You do, of course, come back to life almost immediately. There is no time to be bored here. Only time to play.

There can be up to six of you in the same room, during these games, laughing your backsides off when one of you is eliminated. And it's not scary. It really isn't. They've weighted it far in favour of enjoyment and away from the macabre elements of the Netflix show. There are still aspects of that, but this hasn't been devised to scare. My eleven-year-old has not seen the TV show, for example, but I would absolutely let her play this. 

Other games include Simon Says, a VR version of, essentially, that BBC game show Hole In The Wall Wall (this one probably created the hardest laughs of the entire night) and a trapdoor style game that is play it to believe it in its raw fun.

The way it works is that you all dash about trying to grab a golden bird and the first one to do so learns which trapdoor beneath your feet will open, dropping anyone unfortunate enough to be stood on it to their demise. You then decide whether to tell them which doors keep them safe in honesty, or whether to twist the truth and send them south. Remember, though, they might catch the golden bird next and tell you porky-pies.

This game was wildly enjoyable, Kirsty and I being truthful and keeping one another safe each and every time until the very last bird came out. I caught it and steered Kirst to one of the lethal trapdoors because, quite frankly, I was losing and I have a degree moral flexibility in situations like that.

She stood on the trapdoor waiting to see if I'd be honest (again) or not. I have no idea what she saw in my digital eyes as she looked at me but with half a second to spare she leapt from where she stood onto a safe trapdoor turning in time to see the floor she previously inhabited fall away. Not only had I betrayed her but she had seen through it and hurled herself to safety to claim the win for that round, and the evening as a whole. I've barely laughed that hard in my real life let alone my digital life, as she quite rightly gave me a colossal bollocking for my treachery. 

Squid Game at Sandbox is a masterclass in tension and fun. A game play godsend in a world of overly complicated, unenjoyable VR. It's the Rolls-Royce of Virtual Reality and I cant wait to return. 

I mentioned earlier how I've always been relieved when the mask has come off. Not this time. Squid Game was so compelling and joyous and childish and pulse-pounding that I couldn't wait to crack on with another game. We played a fantasy adventure called Seekers of the Shard and, dear god, it was breath-takingly good also. I just don't have the space or energy to tell you about it, in full. 

Suffice to say Sandbox have cracked VR. File this one alongside Flight Club in a very short inventory of genuinely outstanding examples of tech improving a night (or day) out. Top of the list, lads. Top of the list. ★★★★★

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