Tom Grace

A block on New Oxford Street has been rebranded as Toxico Technologies, which provides the setting for this live-action zombie shooter.

It seems a shame to start on a negative note, but first impressions count for a lot and the ordeal involved in actually gaining entry to Variant 31 is utterly dismal. We received an email advising us to arrive about 30 minutes early in order to complete patient registration – we ended up queuing for more than 90 minutes, which is completely unacceptable given the experience ran short of its advertised 90 minute duration. Variant 31 is not set up to cope with queues – we stood outside on the street for the whole time. There’s no shelter, nowhere to sit, no access to water and the venue has no toilets.

We don’t think this is a way to treat customers who are paying such a premium – weekend prime time tickets cost up to £65. What we found most perplexing was that press night was postponed – twice! – in order to iron out teething problems. We dread to think what the experience was like if this is the situation now the issues have been “fixed”. It’s unfortunate, as the frustration and boredom caused by the lengthy queue ensured any anticipation or excitement felt in the run up to the experience had completely vanished by the time we reached the front of the line.

Thankfully, when we finally set our feet inside the venue, we ended up having fun. The premise is that we have found ourselves in a former testing facility – now abandoned and derelict, we have to search the building, finding clues and solving puzzles to escape, while holding off hordes of zombies. In practice, it works like a Resident Evil-themed game of laser quest. The technology is enjoyable too, and although it was still having some issues – occasionally a player would become infected without encountering a zombie – it worked well most of the time.

The various paths through Variant 31 are random. While it’s fine that everyone should enjoy this immersive experience differently, it seems unfair that some are destined for a more varied adventure. The clues and puzzles are entirely contingent on bumping into a particular actor in the right room at the right time. This meant that a few of our group were sent on a fetch-quest around the facility, solving puzzles to break a code, leaving the majority to meander aimlessly, shooting zombies and collecting points. While the shooting and collecting was fun initially it quickly became repetitive.

The experience does suffer from a lack of variety. There may well be lots of rooms, narrow corridors and staircases to explore, but most of our time was spent shooting or avoiding zombies, or seeking out point sensors. It may have fallen short of its advertised run time, but by the end we were ready for it to be over. As such, Variant 31 is quite disappointing. It’s a shame, as there’s potential for a great real-life video game experience here – a few moments really get the adrenaline going and there are certainly some frights to be had. But all things considered – the utter shambles of trying to gain entry, the steep price tag, the repetitive nature of the game – we just don’t feel like we can recommend it. Ambitious, fun, but very flawed indeed.

GAY TIMES gives Variant 31 ★★☆☆☆

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