The EVE Fanfest a couple of weeks ago was, as the name suggests, dominated by EVE Online, but developers CCP have other eggs in other baskets. EVE Valkyrie, the dogfighting multiplayer space shooter, is the company’s flagship VR title, and though I’ve only played it at events rather than at home, it might well be my favourite goggle-game. It’s not the only egg in that particular basket though, and the virtual sport Sparc [official site], with its full body dodging and blocking, is even more impressive in its use of the hardware.
Here’s how the game works.
There are two players, standing at opposite ends of an arena. It’s a simple thing, that arena, with no obstacles or distractions. Essentially it’s a corridor, with no goals or endzones or targets to aim for. To score a point, you must hit your opponent with a ball.
If you’ve ever played dodgeball, kingy, foursquare or any digital variation of the Tron disc game, you’ll be able to pop on a VR headset, grab the motion controllers, and dive straight into Sparc. Heck, if you’ve ever thrown a ball, you’re half-way there. The smartest thing about Sparc is that it relies on a very simple set of actions, but what really makes it work is the way that the tech brings out so many possible complexities around those actions.
Spin is a good example. Sparc feels quite a lot like tennis, though with notable differences that I’ll dig into shortly. If you’ve ever played a traditional joypad-controlled tennis game, you’ll probably have come across control methods that place different kinds of shot on different face buttons, or use thumbstick pressure to apply spin and the direction of a shot. In Sparc, you apply spin precisely as you would if you were throwing a real ball. I couldn’t even tell you how it works – I think it’s all in the wrist – but I didn’t need a tutorial to tell me how to do it; I just did it.
Rather than figuring out how to pull off a specific type of throw, you skim across the surface of your muscle memory and pull new tricks out of the bag on the fly. Underhand lobs, unpredictable ricochets off the side-walls, topspinning clangers that make their way down the aisle slower than a bride with a severe hangover. You can put all kinds of balls into play simply by experimenting with your throwing technique, and most will happen instinctively.
The other trick is figuring out how to block or deflect incoming shots. You have two options here, either punching balls as they approach, or using a shield to deflect them. What quickly becomes clear is that you’re going to be using both of your arms; I tended toward using one for protection and the other for attack, but that’s not hard-coded. The first glimmer of high-level play that I stumbled across involved blocking my opponent’s ball and then throwing my own in its immediate wake, disguising its presence and trail, and potentially causing enough confusion to score a hit.
Sparc’s simple ruleset does have a few wrinkles. There can only ever be two balls in play at a time, one for each player, but the way you interact with them depends on their origin. An opponent’s ball must be deflected or dodged, while your own ball can be caught as long as your hand is in position as it approaches, then lobbed back into play. I didn’t have any difficulty differentiating between the balls – they’re colour-coded so you don’t need to track their point of origin – but a couple of people I spoke to who’d played the game for the first time found the distinction between the balls distracting.
That, I think, ties into the lack of rallies in the game. Sparc is tennis or Pong, until it isn’t. A standard sequence involves me throwing a ball, you deflecting that ball, and then me catching the ball as it returns to my side of the court. Miss the catch and the ball disintegrates and reforms in front of you, stationary at about waist height, from where you can grab it and begin again. If I could deflect my own ball, a rally would begin, the sphere bouncing back and forth until it hits somebody. By having each ball active only briefly, Sparc does two things: it makes throwing rather than deflecting the key mechanic, and it obliterates the idea of discrete rounds of action.
There are no breaks in play, as you get between points in tennis or Pong. Instead, you can either hurl your ball back into the court immediately as soon as you’ve got your mitts on it or hold onto it waiting for the perfect launch window. This allows for control of pace and I saw a couple of matches that had long, tense stand-offs, during which neither player was willing to release their ball. My style was more aggressive and that seemed to work well, but I imagine there’d be much more tension against an experienced opponent.
And then there’s Pro mode, which might be how the game is supposed to be played. Balls can’t be punched away, though a shield can still be used for protection, spawning when you hold your own ball and shattering on impact. Pro players will need to move more than their arms, dodging, crouching and leaning. Sparc gets the intricacies of pitching a ball right, but it’s the body awareness that is the most effective use of the VR hardware. Little details like having to shake hands or bump fists to start a round create a real sense of facing off against a real person, and being able to read their body language, either through the intent of gestures and play-acting or unintentional flinches and tells, is fantastic.
That, I think, is the key to Sparc. It’s not just a game about throwing a ball, it’s a game about fooling your brain into thinking you’re standing opposite another person. Inhibited and British as I am, I didn’t feel comfortable posturing at first, but when I managed to score two points in quick succession by deflecting my opponent’s ball back at his face and curving my own into his stomach in the same movement, I did a little victory dance. My virtual avatar probably looked like an absolute wanker, but at least I hadn’t prepared a choreographed routine. That’ll come later.
I’m a little bit on love with Sparc. CCP are calling it a v-sports game and if that is to be a genre, this is a fine example of the form. It’s intuitive, with short, mildly energetic rounds, and just enough complications in the basics of play to allow for tricks and tactics to emerge. My love is somewhat sedated by my continuing doubts about VR hardware though. It works fantastically for the game, once I’m in the game, but I’m not convinced enough to spend the cash just yet, or to clear a sufficient space in my little front room for virtual ball-dodging.
CCP acknowledge these doubts, and reckon they’re a natural part of the tech’s evolution. CEO Hilmar Pétursson, who has been interested in VR for decades now, says the current iteration of the hardware reached maximum hype and is now in a period of expectation adjustment. The dial has slipped toward disappointment and disinterest for many people, but he thinks that’s a natural part of the cycle, and a happy balance between hype and pragmatic understanding will be reached eventually. He and Ryan Geddes, CCP’s VR brand director, also feel confident that the hardware will improve rapidly from one generation to the next.
For that to happen, there will need to be games worth sticking around for. Sparc may seem like a simple proposition but it shows the full range of motion that VR allows to great effect. It might not be what Wii Sports was to waggle, but it offers a good argument for the precision that the motion controllers allow. Geddes told me that the team behind the game, based in Atlanta, had done some retooling of Kinect hardware to make an early version of Sparc that didn’t require any controllers in the hand at all. I suspect that’s still the dream. For now, we have a reality that involves chunky visors and cables, and while the exterior view and feel still looks retro rather than futuristic to me, the interior is exciting, especially when developers work to build something strong within its obvious limitations as CCP have done here.