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Archive for March, 2018

Review of Sparc for PSVR

The PSVR doesn’t seem to be at a loss for racquet sports games. In November 2017 Holoball and Proton Pulse Plus came out. And then in August 2017, Sparc was released simultaneously for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and the PSVR. Outside of a few tutorial and training mini-games, the entire game is played online (meaning that PSVR users need a Playstation Plus subscription).

The developers made the decision that your opponents would be real humans, so they didn’t provide the option of playing against an AI. In fact, they go so far as to not call it a “video game” but rather a “virtual sport – a unique physical sport only possible in virtual reality”.  While this probably saved them some development time, it’s a risky choice. It’s seven months since the launch, and there are some scattered reports of servers being down or users not being able to find opponents for long periods of time. My own experience has been hit or miss. At certain times of the day I’ll be waiting in an empty lobby for 10-15 minutes before someone joins. But other times of the day I get matched up right away. The dilemma of having to find opponents is largely helped by the fact that you can play against opponents on any VR platform, a welcome development that I hope continues.

The best way to describe Sparc is that it’s sort of a combination of racquetball, handball, and dodgeball. The rules are a little quirky, so you definitely do need to go through the tutorial a few times to get it. To summarize:

  • You and your opponent are standing at opposite ends of a court. One of you has a blue ball, the other an orange one. You pick up the ball by grabbing it with your hand and pressing the trigger button.
  • You hurl your ball at your opponent by releasing the trigger button as you make a throwing motion with your arm. They’ll hurl their ball at you. If your opponent gets hit by either ball at any time, you’ll get one point.  If either ball hits you, your opponent gets one point. The player with the most points after three minutes wins.
  • If your ball doesn’t hit your opponent it’ll come back to you. If it first bounces behind your opponent’s wall in an area marked as the “strike zone” it’ll come back to you bigger and faster.
  • Once you catch your own ball, it becomes a “shield” that you can use as a racquet to block your opponent’s balls and hit it back. Or you can simply throw it and it’ll become your own ball again.
  • Ultimately as you get more advanced in the game you’ll start devising ways to strategize against your opponent, for example by deflecting your ball off walls at odd angles or by trying to confuse your opponent by throwing your ball at the same time you’re deflecting their own ball back at them.
  • You can dodge out of the way of balls, although your playing space is limited to only about 2 feet to your left and right.
  • If you’re playing in beginner mode, your fists can also be used to deflect your opponent’s balls.

The controls are very intuitive, although some of the mechanics do require a bit of a learning curve. For example,  I eventually found that throwing in a backhand motion tends to get your ball moving much faster than attempting an overhead throw.

In the video you see here, I found myself getting beaten mercilessly by my opponent who quickly discovered my weakness–I was unable to deal with her bouncing balls up and down off the ceiling and floor. But in our re-match game I quickly adjusted by figuring out how to dodge them and throw her off by doing my own side-to-side bounces. Even though we were both obviously extreme rookies, being at comparable levels we managed to play some pretty competitive and exciting games.

There are two levels, Basic and Advanced, both with the same gameplay and rules and a few alterations to let players compete with or without assistance.

Once you select a level, you’ll ostensibly be matched with someone at your skill level to play again. It was great whenever I was matched with someone of equal skill, but more often than not I’d be matched up with a seasoned player who’d wallop me in a shutout. I wish the developers would have done something to ensure that matches were even–the current system leaves it much too open for Advanced players to come into the Basic queue to bully new players, and I’m sure it’s frustrating for players of moderate-to-advanced skill to have to deal with other players who are just learning the game.

I love the details of the game. You can customize your avatar to some extent, and then during the game it mirrors your physical movements exactly, from your throwing and blocking motions right down to body language so you start to get a little bit of a sense of your opponent’s personality (or at least their humanity).  Every match won’t start until you give your opponent a virtual “fist bump”. As you’re waiting in the queue to start a match, you can be a spectator watching the current match take place in very cool miniature form. After each match, there are lots of stats you can view to savor a victory or look for areas of improvement after a loss. They put a lot of thought into every detail.

Can you get a great workout from Sparc? Absolutely! Your arms are constantly in motion, of course, but you’ll also be working out your core as you crouch and dodge out of the way of incoming balls. I found myself sweating after just two or three 3-minute matches.

My biggest gripe is the one I mentioned before; I wish they’d built an AI you could play rather than forcing you to go online and play human opponents–this would allow you to truly practice first before challenging a human. The mini-games are supposed to be like “batting cages” or “automatic ball launchers for tennis”, but they’re so far from the real game that they don’t really help you except in learning basic mechanics.

Another gripe is the reliance on PSN and online multiplayer. Granted, the cost isn’t something the developer could control, but as we’ve seen with other active motion games in the past, the typical player of Sparc isn’t going to be the hardcore gamer that tends to pay the fee for PSN every year, so ultimately I think this is going to hurt the game, especially among people like you and me who are less interested in play as a “competitive sport” as we are trying to get a workout. Again, the “solution” would have been for the developer to allow players without PSN to play against a bot, but all indications are that they’re not going that route.

All said, the game gets a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars from me. It’s clearly the best developed of all the “racquet sports” games for the PSVR, and you can get a solid workout from it. If you have a PSN account and a lot of patience to practice and get good at the “sport”, there aren’t many better motivators than real human players to get you playing again and again.



Review of Knockout League for PSVR

VirZOOM is the best fitness game for working out your lower body–everything from your thighs (quadriceps) to the back of your legs (hamstrings) to your hips (flexors) to your butt (gluteals), as well as your abs. But what to do if you want to work out your upper body? Here’s the game for that.

If you’re old like me, you can remember when an arcade game called Punch-Out!! came out in the mid-80s, followed by a port of the game to the Nintendo Entertainment System. It had you fight against round after round of interesting characters, each with their own signature moves to figure out. In 2001, Konami released Mocap Boxing for arcades; a game where you held two boxing glove controllers and the image on screen punched and bobbed and weaved with you. In 2006, the Wii was released along with Wii Sports and its addictive boxing game. Microsoft and Sony followed with Kinect Sports Boxing and The Fight: Lights Out in 2010.

The Fight: Lights Out and Sports Champions 2 by Sony had been the closest video gaming came to real boxing, especially when you played the games in 3D. But Knockout League for PSVR takes video game boxing to an entirely new level.

When you start up the game, you see a message: “This is an active game. Please make sure that your play space is clear. Stay in the center of the cleared play area and do not walk around.” This was great news for me, as I’m playing in a tiny space, so if I were to move a few inches to the right, I’d likely punch a hole in the wall, and a few inches forward and I’d punch that same hole in my TV screen. To meet the minimum space requirements for Knockout League, you need to be standing 6-8 feet away from your TV, and being able to stretch out your arms and move them around without hitting anything or knocking anything over. At first I was concerned that I wouldn’t get as good a workout if I couldn’t use move around, but that concern went away very quickly.

The opening scene has you in a gym that’s both cartoony and realistic, like a Pixar movie. You can look all around the gym and see trash cans, bulletin boards, water bottles, weights, trophy cabinets, shelves, posters, and mats, with florescent lights above just like a real gym. Your hands turn into boxing gloves, where you can examine them close up down to the laces (okay, I still geek out over just exploring VR worlds…I’m sure my grandkids will look at me like we look at those people in the 1800’s who spent hours looking in amazement at movies of horses running).

You select “New Game” and then you’re asked to enter your height (presumably for the game to get your play area right) and optionally, your weight (for the game to track your calories burned). You then set a name–you get to choose from a pre-determined adjective or honorific (big, little, mr., etc.) and a noun (rebel, princess, lightning, etc.). I suppose this is their way of making sure online leaderboards never have naughty words.

Next, you see a message saying “Get Ready“, with blue arrows of increasing size on the floor leading to you, and a green circle under your feet. This is where you need to double-check if you’re comfortably away from walls and furniture–the green spot marks the place you’ll be standing throughout the game. If you want to change positions, you can select ADJUST.

Next, you find yourself inside a boxing ring face to face (and I mean face to face) with your trainer, “Doug Johnson, the greatest fighter in the history of the Knockout League”. The developers (thankfully) decided not to go down the road of The Fight: Lights Out, which took themselves a little too seriously but it all came undone when you saw the image of tough guy Danny Trejo holding two magic wands. Knockout League channeled Punch-Out!! by creating characters that are over-the-top caricatures, each with their own signature boxing moves and styles.

Your trainer is reminiscent of every boxing trainer you’ve seen in the movies. He’s tough on the outside, but you know he has a heart of gold (and if you peer closely into his mouth, teeth and perhaps a tongue of gold as well). You start out with some tutorial sessions where he teaches you the basics of punching, blocking, and dodging. The mechanics and simple–to punch, you simply throw your punches like you’re really boxing. To block, you need to hold your gloves in front of your face–but the gloves will glow blue, and then quickly turn pink, and then back to normal. You need to time it so that your opponent’s punch hits your gloves when they’re blue. To dodge, you just move your move out of the way of the punch.

It took me a while to get used to it, but I realized it was because I was trying to play “video game boxing” instead of thinking like a real boxer. Once I got more comfortable with the three-dimensional space, I found myself playing more effectively.

There are several rounds of tutorials and training, but you can go right to the fighting as well. Before you fight, there’s one last “Tip From Doug”: “Dodge or block attacks to create openings for your punches, but NEVER chase after your opponent if they stumble backwards“. This is where you need to block your instinct to chase after your opponent.

You start off in a room where you can see pictures of your next three opponents and watch “films” that talk about them (on a wide movie theater screen, no less). You’ll also see your current opponent’s name, the number of wins you have against him, the best time, the fewest hits, and the best score. Press the red RIGHT button to continue.

Your opponent comes face to face (and I mean face-to-face) with you. You can see your and your opponents health indicator in the corner.

As with Punch-Out!!, you’ll find yourself facing quirky opponent after quirky opponent. Also similar to Punch-Out!!, you’re not really “boxing” as much as you’re finding repetitive patterns in your opponent, and strategically punching, blocking, and dodging at the right times (in fact, if you try to punch your opponent’s face without blocking first, you’ll be hard-pressed to land a thing).

Those who are expecting a Wii Sports-like “flail your arms wildly at your opponent until he goes down” will be disappointed, as are those who might be expecting a completely accurate boxing simulation. But IMO, it was brilliant of the game designers to go with a winning formula introduced with Punch-Out!! Once you start noticing mastering the whole idea of studying your opponent’s moments weaknesses and attacking them, and studying your opponent’s strengths and finding ways to counter them, the game becomes boatload of fun–and very addictive. Also similar to Punch-Out!!, your opponent starts to annoy you so much that you don’t want to stop until you can get the satisfaction of kicking the snot out of him.

There is a bit of a learning curve with the game. It took me a while to even get through the tutorial in one shot, and it took me about a dozen tries before I figured out how to beat the first opponent, Tri-Tip (the epiphany for me was when I realized I can literally duck UNDER an opponent’s punch–glancing out of the corner of my eye at his glove going over my body–and then counter with a barrage of punches. This is not your grandfather’s boxing game.

The video doesn’t do the VR justice. With your PSVR glasses on, you can look right into the eyes of your opponent where it seems like his face is only a couple inches from yours.

As for fitness, wow. Up to now, the most sweaty I’ve gotten on a PSVR game other than VirZOOM was SuperHOT, where it’d take me an hour of play to build up a sweat. With this game, within seconds my heart was pounding, my arms were sore, and I was perspiring profusely (and this on a wintry day outside with the ceiling fan going).

From the first video game I reviewed on this blog many years ago, I’ve said that the holy grail for video game exercise is having a game so fun that you don’t realize you’re exercising. Knockout League represents the pinnacle of that dream. This is as real an experience as you can get without actually having to have your head punched in over and over again.

Knockout League was developed by Grab Games and Vive Studios. I love the fact that they decided to release the game for all major VR platforms, and not just the HTC Vive. So everyone with a PSVR, HTC Vive, or Oculus can play it, and at less than $30 it’s a steal compared to much lower quality PSVR games being sold in stores.

Knockout Leagues easily gets a 5 out of 5 stars. If you enjoyed Punch-Out!! on the original NES, and if you’re looking for one of the best upper body video game workouts of all time, you are going to love it. PSVR owners can download it at the Playstation Store.