To be honest, I'm a bit of a VR skeptic. It's not that I don't think the technology has huge potential – it's just that I remember getting really excited about it the first time around in the 90s, and it just fizzled. Of course, in those early days, the technology was very clunky and the graphics were ugly, but still. VR was truly innovative for the period, but it just wasn't quite ready for primetime.
Today's technology certainly is, but what still gives me pause is the expense of running a decent VR setup, and the fairly large amount of space that's required to play many VR games. The other thing is that I've yet to see a killer app; a must-have game that makes me really want to invest in a VR setup. Sure, there's some quality software on VR, and I've had fun playing the likes of Elite, Adr1ft, Battlezone, and WRC 6, but let's face it. They're all fairly normal games layered with a VR experience.
I'm thinking about this as I walk up to CCP's demo suite at GDC to check out an all-new VR game called Sparc. The Icelandic software house is best known for its space-oriented titles like Eve: Online and Eve: Valkyrie, but Sparc is something of a departure. Developed at its Atlanta offices, the game is described as a "VR sport" specifically designed for the medium. That sounds really interesting to me.
I don an Oculus headset and strap a pair of controllers to my wrists, and I'm transported into a corridor, at the far end of which is my opponent. He waves to me, and I wave back. My virtual arms match my movements perfectly as I examine my hands. A ball floats up in front of me, and I'm told to pick it up by reaching out and holding down the trigger. This I do, and then my instructor tells me to hurl the ball as I would the real thing. I make a throwing motion and release the trigger, and the ball floats slowly down the court, bouncing off a wall towards my opponent. He uses a shield on his arm to reflect it back to me, and I catch it with my virtual hand by holding the trigger.
He then chucks a ball at me, and I use my fist to bounce it back. It's easy and intuitive, and I throw my ball at him, using a much faster arm movement to send it speeding down the court. Again, he bounces it back to me and I catch it. We continue to practice until I've got the pitching and catching down pat, and then we start a game proper.
The objective is simple: I need to hit my opponent with my ball, and attempt to reflect his ball away from me using my fists, or the translucent shield that appears on my left arm. Every time I whack my opponent's ball with the shield, it disappears until I catch my own ball again, whereupon it's reactivated. It's a simple setup that reminds me of a cross between dodgeball, and the classic arcade game Discs of Tron.
As we exchange throws, I begin to pick up the subtleties of the game. I try underarm and overarm shots, and realize I can put a spin on the ball, both when I throw it, and when I reflect it back at my opponent. I also start to really chuck the ball at speed, trying to bounce it off the ceiling to catch my opponent unawares. He's clearly going easy on me, but as I hit his avatar and score a point, he steps up his game and sends his sphere fizzing my way. I try to block it, but it slams into me and we're even. We continue to trade shots, and I score a couple more points before my opponent starts making it really difficult for me, and I'm soon defending myself from incoming throws from all manner of trajectories. It's quite a workout, and I realize I'm beginning to sweat. So much for video games being a sedentary pass-time.
I get lucky, and hit my opponent twice more to take a victory – but then we start over and this time it feels like my opponent is playing properly. He hurls some difficult-to-avoid curveballs, and bounces the ball off the walls and ceiling to send it ricocheting towards me. I use my shield and fists to fend off his efforts, but he has me beat. I get in a couple of successful hits, but he wins the game 5-2.
It's really good fun, and I could happily play again, but unfortunately the demo is over, and I take off the headset and get my bearings. While throwing balls at an opponent doesn’t sound particularly thrilling, it really does work to deliver a competitive and enjoyable experience. Like I said, the game is incredibly easy to pick up and play, but has a level of subtlety to it that clearly gives a lot of potential for mastery. The accuracy of the arm tracking is very impressive, and it seems that you can throw the ball exactly where you want it to go.
What I particularly like about Sparc is that it's something that wouldn't be easy to replicate on a regular games console. Perhaps it might work to some degree with Kinect, or by using Nintendo Switch's joy cons, but the immersion, and being able to track incoming balls with your head is key to the fundamental gameplay. It's the feeling of "being there" that makes Sparc so entertaining to play.
While Sparc isn't quite the killer app I've been waiting for, it's nevertheless the most fun I've had with a VR game, and definitely a step in the right direction: A made-for-the-medium title that delivers a really unique experience. Its graphics and sound are very simple and straightforward, so it's not particularly impressive to behold, but it plays exceptionally well, and that's what ultimately makes it a winner.
Whether or not Sparc will actually take off as a VR sport remains to be seen, but I think it'll garner a competitive community at the very least. It's just too much fun to be ignored.
Sparc is set for release on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR later this year.