The lights begin to flicker and then they're switched off. As darkness engulfs us, an alarm blazes through our "home base room" and my teammates start to disperse. I follow closely behind, my M4 assault rifle held to my chest as I scurry from wall to wall before seeking cover in what appears to be an abandoned subway.
Just as I set foot inside, a player wearing a camouflage-printed vest and headband pops out from behind a door of a neighbouring subway car and opens fire. I feel two shocks to my abdomen as my vest lights up red, indicating I'm dead, so I rush back to the home base to be revived and top up my ammunition, hoping my next venture on to the battleground will not come to such an abrupt, fruitless end.
I'm at Xstrike, an all-new entertainment concept in Dubai, where friend quickly becomes foe. A multistorey Al Quoz warehouse has been transformed into a space with two fields – Havoc City and Haven Link. Each one mimics a Hollywood-style set, with a labyrinth of rooms, apocalyptic interiors and realistic props.
It's hauntingly similar to the screens of video games, in which players also fight to survive, albeit from the comfort of their couches. "Xstrike facilities are the future of scenario and live-action gaming, and provide the most realistic force-on-force combat experience in the world today," says Sameer Ali, co-founder and managing partner of Immersive Experiences, the company behind the venture.
"It combines the best aspects of laser tag and paintball in one immersive and hyper-realistic concept experience," adds co-founder Mohamed Ali Atish. "For customers who find paintball too painful, but laser tag too childish, we are the perfect middle ground."
It certainly feels like a big step up from laser tag – after playing for only 15 minutes, I'm drenched in sweat and my shoulders are sore from the weight of the gun. Compared to paintball, meanwhile, the shock vibrations here cause less pain than paintball pellets, making it more suitable for players of a variety of ages, levels and capabilities.
Founded in 2017 by Ali, Atish, Sultan Alrajhi and Zohaib Ali, Immersive Experiences is an equity fund in the UAE that has raised more than Dh35 million to launch a series of multisensory entertainment concepts in the region. Xstrike is the first of these and opens to the public on Friday, December 20 .
Ali explains that a "live combat experience" is the closest that a commercial concept can come to simulating a real-life combat situation in a safe, controlled environment. The weapons systems and software used by Xstrike are called iCombat, technology invented in the US and introduced to the UAE for the first time.
Shots are delivered through a player's StressX Belt, which sends adjustable levels of vibrations (at the discretion of each player) to their abdomen. Players can also opt out of wearing a belt if they prefer to play without any sensation.
My fellow player Esha Amin, however, says players should wear the belt, even if the vibrations are set at a lower level. "To fully experience the thrill, you have to have your shock level on. I played it on level five and it just feels like a pinch, which goes away instantly," she says.
Atish says the sensation of being shot by an opposing player raises the stakes of the game. "Traditional laser tag can feel boring due to the lack of any stakes involved," he says. "You could stand in the middle of the arena and simply not care about getting shot."
Ali says he has fond memories of growing up and playing video games with his brother, Zohaib. "Counter-Strike was all the rage back in the day and a great memory was visiting network cafes during the weekends to meet friends and play the game," he says. "Xstrike is, in many ways, a real-life video game experience."
Video games are often criticised because of their potential behavioural effects on players, who can become desensitised to violence and aggression. But Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director at The LightHouse, says this is not the case with an experience such as Xstrike, which encourages teamwork. "The intention is to develop group cohesion, increase communication and work strategically together within a team," she says. Although weaponry is involved, she notes that players are not shooting with the intention to harm one another.
Atish says the combat simulation experiences at Xstrike are not all designed for players to "kill off" their opposition. "Our missions range from protecting certain members of your team, to rescuing a hostage or collecting a certain number of supply boxes within a fixed amount of time," he explains. "Objectives during gameplay are by no means limited to 'eliminating' one another."
After each round, teams reassemble in their base rooms to view stats from both teams on a screen and check how much the ammunition they have left. Ali says he is confident this elevates the experience above games such as paintball, which lack digital tracking and scoring. He says he also believes this feature will encourage visitors to return. "Xstrike has been built around repeatability with plenty of variations during gameplay, including live-action zombies that attack both teams indiscriminately," he says.
Players can track their stats, increase their playing level and upgrade their weaponry for future visits. "Our goal is to build a community of players in the UAE and across the Mena region with various facilities planned for expansion in the coming years," he says.
Xstrike opens on December 20, with prices from Dh89. More information is available at www.xstrike.com