Premature Evaluation: Virtual-O

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.

“Wrong control.”

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

37 Comments

  1. Seafoam says:

    Ah, this is like a videogame made about 50% of my PE classes in school… and in college… And in the army… To be fair if you live in Finland you can never escape mandatory orienteering.
    Never.

    • Stellar Duck says:

      My biggest regret is that my ex dumped me so I didn’t get the chance to move to Finland.

      You guys have a grand place. So much forest!

      Edit: not that it’s really game related. I’m just salty that it’s been three months today, I guess. I’d blabber to a jakey on the street if they wanted to listen.

    • Xerophyte says:

      It’s a very Nordic thing apparently. Swedes invented the sport, and so we’ve felt compelled to inflict it on our children and neighbors.

      Frankly I didn’t much mind orienteering as a kid. You could do decently well at it by knowing how to read a map & compass, making it by far the best and most relaxing activity offered in PE. There’d always be a group of us strolling briskly through the forest and chatting while the competitively minded folks ran around getting lost.

    • Blackrook says:

      Living in a City in Britain our experience at school was slightly different, run out of school gate … start walking as soon as you get round the corner. Walk to Icecream van, buy an Icecream, sit on bench by river for 30 minutes, walk slowly back to school, run for last 100 yards to make you look out of breath.

      So much for self supervised PE options.

  2. chrismox says:

    £34.99 seems ambitious.

  3. slartibartfast says:

    So a literal walking simulator?

    • April March says:

      Walking is to hiking like driving is to drag racing.

      I think. I only do one of those four things…

      • phuzz says:

        “Walking is to hiking like driving to work is to 4×4’ing.”
        Is probably more accurate.

  4. Koozer says:

    Not sure who the target market is. If you enjoy orienteering and hiking then you can derive more pleasure by going for an actual walk. But hey what do I know, we live in a world of American truck and German public transport simulators.

    • indociso says:

      I actually thought it looks quite interesting! But for £35 it can take a hike.

      • Troubletcat says:

        I agree, the game looks interesting but they really lost their way with the price.

    • April March says:

      I like to concept of orienteering, but would prefer the stakes to be “I score less points in a game” rather than “I get lost and have to sleep in a sleeping bag on a mossy patch and poop into a hole”.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      The last ridealong article was on going hunting in a hunting simulator with someone who liked hunting in real life as well. I suspect this would be a similar niche. Even if you’re into Orienteering the weather doesn’t always agree, someone needs to set up the course or you’ve only got half an hour on a Tuesday night…

    • Pelaf says:

      The disabled community is a good starting target market.

      I’m allowed to make dry-humored jokes like this, I’m one of them, lol.

  5. Sinky says:

    But where are the robots?

  6. Ben King says:

    This absolutely looks like it could be my cup of tea but not until a hefty sale. I know this is nothing like what I’m about to compare it to but any excuse to bring up the light map-building mechanic of “Miasmata” and the bonkers desperation you can be driven to in that game by getting just slightly turned around… It could be nice to tinker with deeper controls without a monster chasing me or health gauges to mind. Also a belated happy becoming a staff writer!

  7. ButteringSundays says:

    Yup, we’ve gone to far.

    Go outside people!

    • phuzz says:

      I went outside. There was just buildings and concrete and people as far as I could see.
      I’ll take my wilderness where I can thinks.

    • gwop_the_derailer says:

      When your own government tells you not to go outside and exercise due to the dangerous levels of air pollution in London, you damn well better take your walking simulator and like it!

      link to theguardian.com

  8. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    Can you draw lines on a map so you can do compass triangulation? I absolutely adored BI for supporting and explaining that in their Arma 3 tutorial.

    • Jekhar says:

      Speaking of ArmA, there are actual Orienteering Mods for it. Never tried them though, after this article i just might.

      • Rhythm says:

        The orienteering mods for Arma 3 seem to give the same core experience here. £35 for this seems awfully much.

        That said I do enjoy just exploring. Wandering Altis, Stratis and just going for a walk in The Hunter are activities I like playing whilst listening to a podcast or audiobook

        • Jekhar says:

          Me too. Since OpFP i regularly place myself on an empty map via the editor, maybe with a vehicle and just go.

  9. Muzman says:

    Seems interesting. But I think I’d miss being stalked by a psychedelic cat with horns while hoeing down home made drugs that make me wonder if it’s all in my head.

    • Jekhar says:

      That cat monster actually held me off buying Miasmata. It seemed like the perfect relaxing game, but that monster was misplaced in my opinion.

      • Muzman says:

        Six of one, half a dozen of the other. There’s plenty of room for such a game in the world, for sure. But being hunted added a lot of spice that I wouldn’t pass up either.

  10. Chiron says:

    I live next to Epping Forest, I’ll just buy an OS map.

    And sit at home looking at it while wrapped up in a blanket and drinking tea.

  11. voorsk says:

    ooh – it’s like a modern version of the Spectrum game ‘The Forest’. Gonna keep an eye on this, for sure!

  12. spacedyemeerkat says:

    Where I think this game loses out (aside from the price, as others have mentioned), is when running through brambles or thicket, any dense vegetation. According to the write-up, the game simply slows you down. Now, in real life, it may indeed slow you down but you can use various running techniques to aid speedier traversal. I imagine the game simply wouldn’t have a way of modelling this variation. Wandering through dense vegetation at a slow mono-speed would be missing part of the point.

  13. kinnikinick says:

    Am I the only one who gets a twinge of Far Cry 2 nostalgia from that first screenshot? I died so many times with that map in my hand instead of a gun – some high-stakes orienteering there.

  14. Urthman says:

    I love the time-lapse replay of the route you took displayed on the map so you can see exactly how bad you did and how you screwed up. There are lots of games I’d love to see something like that in.

  15. harristweed says:

    In the US army infantry we did land navigation pretty regularly. Every year we did a series of tests for our Expert Infantry Badge (which I only got after four tries because I’m unbelievably bad at throwing hand grenades). One of the tests was a land nav course almost exactly like this game. We’d do it for a week or so. I have to say that, notwithstanding that I’m pretty good at it, the sense of profound despair I felt when I got to where I was absolutely certain a marker must be, but was not, remains with me even 13 years later. Incidently, we also did an iteration at night where you were armed only with a compass and a card with five directions and distances. No flashlight allowed. Just stumbling, falling and crawling through the woods in pitch darkness. Maybe that will be a bonus mode in this game.

  16. access.denied says:

    I wonder if it’s just me, but orientation works completely differently for me in games than in real life–I’m not sure if it’s repetitive details, lack of some other subtle environmental cues, or actual lack of embodiment in games, but while I am fairly good at finding my way around outside videogames, I get instantly lost in any open first/third person game (i.e. one not consisting of discrete rooms where orientation is just a matter of memorizing the map). Places all look samey, there is no connection between walking and getting places… all in all, confusion reigns for me.
    Which, by the way, is why ‘realistic’ exclusion of automapping from so many modern games feels like an unfair handicap to me–automaps serve as a crutch mitigating my being deprived of sensations I normally experience when walking around in unfamiliar surroundings.
    And, sadly, increasing modelling fidelity over the last 15 years has done very little to change that for me.