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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.

 

 

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