The future of video games -- EW's Benjamin Svetkey learns about ''virtual reality'' entertainment from the co-creators of BattleTech

I’m standing on a remote planet somewhere on the far edge of the galaxy. My titanium armor is in tatters, my ammunition is running low, and I’m surrounded by three 30-foot-tall killer robots. Swallowing hard, I summon all my courage, raise my particle-beam gun, take aim, and?

”Okay, that’s it, time’s up! Game’s over!”

Mercifully, I find myself transported back to planet Earth, circa 1990. I’m sitting in a video parlor in a converted warehouse on Chicago’s touristy North Pier, inside BattleTech Center, home of the world’s most sophisticated computer game — a sci-fi interactive ”sport” that turns players into 31st- century space warriors. More lifelike than Atari, more advanced than Nintendo, BattleTech is the first generation of a new genus of electronic entertainment called ”virtual reality,” a form of computer magic being billed as the next best (or worst) thing to actually being there.

”Comparing BattleTech to other video games is like comparing a merry-go- round to Disney World,” boasts Jordan Weisman, the 30-year-old computer whiz who, with computer programmer L. Ross Babcock 3rd, spent the last 10 years creating the game. ”Nobody has seen anything like it before. It’s going to attract a lot of attention.”

Since BattleTech Center opened in Chicago in late July, more than 40,000 people have lined up for it, at an extravagant $7 for 10 minutes of play. Kurt Russell has brought his kids to play at least twice. And Hugh Hefner recently inquired about buying a custom-made home version for the Playboy mansion. (Told it would cost $50,000, Hefner said he’d think it over.)

Unlike conventional video games, BattleTech involves much more than pushing buttons and pulling joysticks; it also requires lots of sci-fi role playing — and teammates. My first stop was BattleTech Center’s ”Observation Platform,” where I could watch a game in progress on one video monitor and newscasts from the future (complete with a space-suited anchorman) on another. Then I was led to the ”Ready Area,” where players were split into two teams of up to four each and shown a videotape of a comely drill sergeant giving lessons in basic BattleTech operations. ”One screw-up,” she growled, ”and it’ll take a couple of years for the salvage crews to find all your pieces.” Maybe it was the lobster salad I had had for lunch, but I felt a pang of fear deep in my stomach.

Next we were ushered into the ”Launch Bay Area,” a huge atrium filled with row upon row of what looked like 31st-century bumper cars. These stationary pods are supposed to be the cockpits for tall, animated robot tanks called BattleMechs, which look like the Imperial Walkers in Return of the Jedi. From inside, they look as easy to pilot as jumbo jets: Each has dozens of knobs and pedals and switches and a big video screen where a window should be. After I settled into my pod, a countdown started, the instruments flickered to life, and…

Suddenly I found myself driving on an imaginary 100-square-mile computer-generated alien landscape visible on my pod’s video screen. My team’s objective: Destroy the enemy’s BattleMechs while dodging their counterattacks.

It took awhile to figure out the controls, but before long I was zipping around the planet with ease, feeling like a first-class space cadet. On the screen I saw rolling hills, rocky outcrops, and clumps of gnarled alien vegetation. Every few minutes lightning danced in the distance. ”You’ve got the enemy behind you!” a teammate warned over the cockpit’s intercom. ”They’re coming up fast! Turn around! TURN AROUND!”

Before you could say ”Buck Rogers,” enemy BattleMechs were everywhere, blasting me with lasers and particle beams. There was only one thing I could do to save myself: panic. I punched every button on my console, screamed for help, pushed the throttle to max, and sped away. Hiding my quivering BattleMech behind a pile of rocks, I turned and saw my teammates chasing after the enemy, guns blazing.

”Part of what makes BattleTech so different from other video games is that it pits players against other people, not just against the computer,” Weisman told me later. ”That makes it a lot more unpredictable. You never know what the enemy is going to do, because the enemy is human, not a machine.” What distinguishes the game even more are its dazzling special effects. The BattleTech Center cost $2.5 million to develop and build, and it’s easy to see where the money went.

Sitting in my BattleMech pod and watching the animated action on the video screen, I felt as though I really were speeding around the unknown planet’s surface, even though my cockpit never moved an inch. The terrain isn’t terribly striking — it’s mostly just rocks — but the detail is often remarkable: When I shot my laser near a tree, for instance, I saw the heat from the blast burn away the leaves.

Just how lifelike is it to the participants? The day I played, the enemy team consisted of immaculately attired 20-year-old Mormon missionaries on their lunch break. By the time they left, their neckties were undone, their hair was a mess, and their white button-down shirts were stained with sweat. ”It’s wild,” one of them said, beaming. ”It’s like you’re really on the planet. It’s totally real.” Another nodded: ”I got blown to smithereens,” he said. ”It was awesome!”

This sort of viscerally convincing illusion is what makes ”virtual reality” such a hot concept. BattleTech is the first commercially available application of this new technology. But some experts believe virtual reality will soon creep into television, film, theater, and just about every other leisure activity.

”In 10 years,” BattleTech cocreator Babcock says confidently, ”you’ll be able to enter a room, put on some lightweight equipment — say, a pair of goggles and a glove — and walk around in whatever kind of world you want. You’ll be able to spend a day on Mars or explore the bottom of the ocean. Whatever you want will be possible.”

But Weisman and Babcock have more immediate plans. For starters, the two Chicago natives hope to open BattleTech Centers in a dozen more cities over the next year, including New York, Tokyo, Boston, and L.A. They’re also busy thinking up BattleTech spin-off products (for now, the BattleTech Center offers sci-fi novels, T-shirts, action figures, and board games). And they’re developing a ”virtual reality” game called Interceptor, an additional option to the current game that is expected to be out next year.

”People will get bored of BattleTech,” Weisman says. ”So we’re going to keep adding a game every year. Next year BattleTech Center will also have an Interceptor Center. It’s going to offer a spaceflight game set in the year 6000. We’ll use the same computer equipment as BattleTech — the same cockpits and things — but instead of piloting 30-foot robots, players will pilot spacecrafts. It’s going to be great, even more realistic than BattleTech.”

More realistic? Guess I’d better skip the lobster salad.