Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs are the kind of game that people get lost in, finding friends and communities to spend days and days with. Virtual reality has quickly become a popular way for folks to interact with others, often in wild and strange worlds or environments. So combining the social interactions of an MMORPG with the immersive world of VR seems like a good idea on paper. But can a VR MMO really work? Well, after playing a few hours of Zenith, the latest VR hit on Steam, I think so.
Zenith, released last week across multiple platforms including Steam and PSVR, isn’t the first VR MMORPG. But considering how well it’s selling on Oculus’ digital store and on Steam, it seems likely that it’s quickly become the most popular attempt to blend the two together. It also helps that the game supports crossplay across all platforms and runs on the standalone Oculus Quest 2 headset. After seeing so many folks jump in, I wanted to try out Zenith for myself.
My first experience with Zenith was awful. The game was suffering through a massive server outage, and when I did eventually get in I ran into lag and other hiccups. While I assume the devs are happy that Zenith is so popular players are crashing servers, it was a rough introduction to the game. Eventually, the servers got back up and running and I was able to create a character, choosing from one of two currently available classes. The options boil down to a sword-wielding, melee-focused warrior and a spell-slinging mage. I played both and prefer the mage, but mainly because you don’t have to swing your arms about as much.
If you’ve played an MMO in the last decade or so, you won’t be surprised by most of what Zenith is doing. You kill 10 of these things and talk to folks over here and collect 20 of these other things before going to kill a bigger, harder enemy. Repeat. If this was a standard flatscreen MMO I’d be very bored. But Zenith’s biggest strengths are its VR immersion and motion controls, which help to elevate the bog-standard MMO fare quite a bit.
For example, combat in Zenith is a mix of gestures and motion-controlled aiming. As a mage, I had access to dual magic gauntlets that behaved like energy pistols from Halo. You can charge them for powerful attacks that stun or pepper enemies with a bunch of fast, low-damage shots. Spells and special attacks use gestures. To toss a fireball, I simply flicked my wrist while holding both the grip and trigger button on the Quest 2 controllers. If I wanted to electrocute my enemies using a massive lighting blast, all it took was a simple upward flick of the wrist while holding the grip. It took a few minutes to get the controls down, but once I did I found myself quickly and effortlessly fighting enemies. Zenith’s combat sits in that perfect spot. It’s not too easy or boring, but not too tricky or complicated. I spent a solid hour one day just killing stuff and leveling up before entering a dungeon. And it was fun. I was also tired afterward, but getting some exercise while you play is a nice change compared to sitting around and playing a typical MMO. Zenith does support playing while sitting, however, which is nice because my feet hurt after a few hours.
Where Zenith really shines is in the way it uses its motion controls and VR to do more than just recreate World of Warcraft or Everquest. My favorite twist is that you can climb anything in Zenith. Simply use the grip buttons on your VR controller and you can climb up any wall or cliff until you reach the top or run out of stamina. Climbing around the open world of Zenith, I felt more free to do anything I wanted than I usually do in MMOs, which I wasn’t expecting.
Another thing I didn’t expect: How nice it would be to hang out with folks in Zenith.
By default, Zenith has everyone unmuted. This might sound like a nightmare, and I’m sure it can be in some scenarios, but when I played I found people were just having a good time, sharing stories and asking for help. There was also a lot of face touching. I’m not sure why this is a thing, but people would come up to me and touch my face. I started doing it to other people too. Usually silently or with a simple “Hello.” It was odd, for sure, but felt like Zenith’s equivalent of a hug or handshake.
At one point I met a small group of folks who were hanging out on a tower after climbing it together. I joined them and asked them about how long they had been playing and their thoughts on the game. They eventually explained that they all had met in VRchat and saw Zenith as a different way to hang out online.
“Now we screw around and shit while leveling up and defeating monsters, and all that stuff,” explained one person I met. “It’s like…a different way to chill together. It’s cool…I mean, it’s like World of Warcraft or whatever. But now in VR, I can spank my friends too!” They all laughed after that, and then proceeded to, well, spank each other.
That’s probably the most exciting part of playing an MMO in VR. Not the spanking, but the ability to more easily communicate and hang with people in a digital space. Text chat and even voice chat have their limits. But being able to communicate with people using both your voice and your body movements opens up a bunch of new options.
A small example of this happened when I was helping someone fight some generic baddies (narrative elements are not this game’s strong suit, and the baddies were not particularly memorable), and during the fight, a bigger monster came up behind me. My temporary ally was muted, but waved his arm and pointed behind me, prompting me to turn around and defend myself. A tiny moment, but just one example of the kind of interactions VR brings to an MMO.
With further updates and more content, I could see Zenith becoming a game that folks sink days of their lives into. And it’s a lot better than Mark Zuckerberg’s cold and boring metaverse experiment I previously tried out.