Frankly, I thought laser tag had gone the way of roller rinks.
Then again, roller skates made an incredible comeback after some simple wheel realignment, so perhaps there is hope for Ultrazone, billed as "the ultimate laser adventure."
Ultrazone is doing what it can to separate itself from its less-successful predecessors (its La Reina Fashion Plaza location also housed the short-lived Lazer Sport) and current competitors. Newspaper ads proclaim: "This is not just a laser game!!!" And in a press release announcing the franchise's April 24 opening, owner Albert Shemtoub said: "It's better than Virtual Reality--it's actual reality." Groan.
Cheesy advertising gimmicks aside, Ultrazone's boast of more advanced equipment and a superior playing field is accurate. For openers, there are none of the awkward plastic helmets that were used in the late-1980s laser tag game called Photon. The only targets are on the guns and on Star Trek-style vests that slip over your head and buckle on the sides.
The vests--which have flashing targets on the chest, back and shoulders--keep track of who shot whom how many times. At the end of the 15-minute match, players receive printouts with game stats--including individual score, team score, number of shots fired, and accuracy--useful for determining if you did indeed shoot your teammates. (I did. Twice.)
The 8,000-square-foot arena, which Lazer Sport had dotted with barriers of cloth and PVC pipes, has become an impressive maze of barricades, tunnels and rooms. If the layout doesn't disorient you, the blaring rock music, sirens and strobe lights will. The arena is hot, filled with smoke (better to see the lasers with) and smells like pre-pubescent sweat--a not-so-subtle reminder that the kids who grew up with Sega Genesis have the upper hand over those of us who played Frogger on Atari.
There are vests for up to 27 players (divided into three teams), but groups of nine to 12 seem ideal. With fewer players, you spend too much time looking for people to shoot at; with more, you can't find an unoccupied hiding spot. Unless you reserve the place for a party, there's no controlling who your opponents will be. My advice: Wait until there aren't any 12-year-olds hanging out in the lobby. They make small targets and have Super Nintendo-sharpened skills.
Accept that your first game will be spent trying to figure out where your home base is, how to reload and what the sounds emanating from your vest mean. A better introduction might reduce this confusion. An arena map drawn on the "briefing room" wall is about as helpful as a Los Angeles map that doesn't mark freeways. During neither of the two introductions I had did the "game master" actually shoot or stun the vest to demonstrate the sounds. Nor did she say how many points were scored by shooting a player versus attacking a home base. Such things are important if you're going to develop any sort of strategy with your team.
But Ultrazone is probably not a game of strategy. Unless you have a team of three or more players, it's probably useless to assign a player to guard your base. The tunnels and darkness lend themselves more to guerrilla warfare anyway: Hop out of an opening, fire off two rounds (preferably a stun, then a kill) and disappear. The aforementioned 12-year-olds seem especially good at this.
Once you have a grasp of the layout, success depends on two things--quick response and no mercy. One of my friends felt guilty at racking up points against a 6-year-old. I had no such reservations. I'd been hardened by an earlier brutal round against some 12-year-olds that left me with a humiliating negative score.
All the advanced technology still has some frustrating limitations. After firing 30 rounds, each player has to walk through one of three "recharging stations." But you can't recharge until you're out of ammo, and the vests won't tell you how many shots you have left. You also have to recharge after being hit six times, even if you aren't out of ammo.
There's no rapid-fire racking up of points, either. The gun--which has to be held with two hands--fires only once a second. And if a player is hit on the chest or back, he or she is "deactivated" and can't be shot for 10 seconds.
Complicated rules. Probably made up by 12-year-olds.
Actually, the rules are probably designed to protect people like me from total humiliation.
One advantage adult-types have over preteens at this game is in the wallet category. A kid's allowance can disappear quickly at $7.50 per 15-minute game. Of course, at the cost of a movie for one-sixth the time, so can an adult's salary.
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WHERE AND WHEN
Location: La Reina Fashion Plaza, 14622 Ventura Blvd., No. 208, Sherman Oaks.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Price: $7.50 per 15-minute game. Discounts with membership.
Call: (818) 789-6620.