Every Monday we abandon Brendan in a forest with a map and an early access game. This week, the hardcore orienteering of Virtual-O [official site].
“These rocks are definitely the correct rocks,” I think, as the sun glares down through the trees of a Czech wood. A flock of birds passes through the sky in the distance. Grass and twigs rustle under my feet as I look around for the control – a small orange and white square that serves as a checkpoint for this countryside time trial. Ah, there it is. I run towards it, feeling relief that I am not as lost as I previously thought. The checkpoint buzzes with disdain. A message flashes up. “Wrong control,” it says. I frown and look helplessly at the forest. The rocks lied to me.
I know exactly nothing about orienteering, except that it is not about travelling to China. Virtual-O is a simulation of the low-octane sport, in which you are given a course of numbered checkpoints in a rough and largely uninhabited part of the wilderness. You’ve got to navigate this course as quickly as possible, using only your wits and a detailed map with a compass. The game doesn’t teach you what the symbols on the map mean (except as tool tips during loading screens) but it does allow for some helping hands.
Normally, you have to rotate the map and readjust it to keep track of your own position, but one option automates this process. I played my first training level like this to try and understand which lines on the map represented power lines and which were paths, roads or grid references. Afterwards, I turned the automation off because it seemed to defy the entire point of the challenge. And, for someone with my sense of direction, it is definitely challenging.
There are two maps built upon the LIDAR formations of actual places in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czech map is called Lada and it looks very green and pleasant. The Slovakian map is called the Kingdom of Spiderwebs. Here is a video of me trying to navigate a series of beginner control points while the map is covered in fog.
As you can see, I am supposed to be following the red lines as closely as possible, the large circles are the areas where the controls can be found and each must be punched and passed in order. But within seconds of starting I mistake a road for a lesser path and end up walking around in the fog like a clueless lamb. This fog, like other weather features and the time of day, can be set according to your own whims. I just turned it on to get some nice screenshots and see how it affected my burgeoning skills as a navigator. By the time I discovered the electricty pylon, I knew I had made a fundamental error, so I galloped into the nearest glade in desperation. 8 minutes and 27 seconds into the ordeal, I gave up.
Both maps have a set of pre-made courses, and you can customise the difficulty and environment in small ways – switching on ‘map assist’, or summoning an overcast sky to block out the sun, or making your character run at 4 times the normal speed. You can also take on courses set by other players, ranging in self-proclaimed difficulty – white, purple, yellow, red, black… I’m not sure of the exact order. If you are up for it you can create your own courses in a first-person ‘course builder’ mode.
I chose a training course on Lada and resolved to complete the thing. For the athletes of this sport, it is supposed to be about being quick, and the game reflects that – slowing you down if you try to run through briar or shrubs, while always allowing you a faster running speed on smooth surfaces like pathways. But for me, I was going to take my time. Just reaching the end of a course should be my first concern. I made sure the auto-magical map was not enabled and landed in the Czech woodlands.
I found the first three controls easily enough, lining up the hills and contours of the map with the green slopes. A trio of fenced allotments and a tower helped give me some sense of direction. At the third control I consulted the map again and looked in the direction I needed to go, down a gully. The control was right there in plain sight. Easy peasy. I sprinted forward, touched it and and froze.
This was how I learned that the game throws these fake checkpoints in as part of the challenge. I wandered about for a couple of minutes trying to understand what about my calculations had been wrong before finally realising that the real control was just another 50 yards or so behind the imposter. I continued on, confident with my directional capabilities. Now, I thought, if I head over this rise there should be a … a house?
No. That shouldn’t be there at all. I squinted at the map to see how I’d wandered the wrong way. The house was clearly marked on the map and a wide paved road ran alongside it – easy things to decipher. A huge boulder loomed over the road and that was where my next checkpoint was hiding. After some confused scrabbling, I found the control. Now there was only two left. I strolled around in my usual manner, like a lost drunk, until I finally reached the end. The whole course took me 42 minutes.
Just like the foggy run, I was awarded with a timelapsed video of my performance. In this, a little blue dot traces the exact route you’ve taken, accompanied by a video of your perspective in the corner. Watching myself back was like watching a lost bird that has forgotten how to fly, moving at times with purpose and direction and at other times seemingly at random. But it was fun to see the moments when I was so close to a control, and reflecting on how wrong my imagined position on the map really was.
I had a silly time, yes. But in fairness, I probably won’t be diving back in. It’s very much an enthusiast’s game, the sim that orienteering lovers (Orienteers? Orienteerers?) will be pleased with but something that doesn’t register with a larger crowd (especially considering the steep £34.99 entry fee). But that’s all right, that’s what it seems to be aiming for. A detailed world with hardcore maps and a doubtless hardcore community. The rocks might lie to me, but they tell the truth to those who know them well.
Virtual-O is on Steam for £34.99/$39.99. These impressions are based on build 1512252