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Not So MMO: Sparc (PS4) Review - New Balls

Columns By Gareth Harmer on October 06, 2017

Sparc (PS4) Review - New Balls

It’s an hour since I started my latest Sparc session, and I’m an exhausted, sweaty mess. Crouching, sidestepping and waving my arms around - all while wearing a PlayStation VR headset - have taken their toll. I can only hope I’ve left my opponents in the same condition, wherever on the planet they might be. But, as we’ll explain, there’s more to it than just getting a workout, for this is our Sparc (PS4) review.

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As the second VR title from CCP Games (following on from space dogfighting sim EVE: Valkyrie), Sparc is described as a virtual sport where players hurl a glowing energy ball at each other, rebounding it off the court walls to hit eachother and score points. Part tennis, part squash, part dodgeball, it’s a concept that would be impossible to replicate in the real world, where the harsh mistresses of gravity and friction dominate.

Crucially, however, Sparc is a game where real-world coordination and skill make for a naturally better player. To dodge an incoming ball you literally have to move out of the way, with Sony’s VR headset and camera tracking your movement in the play space. Likewise, to throw a ball at your opponent, the PS Move controllers in each hand track your arm movement as you sweep an arc, with the controller trigger being used to signal when the ball is released. It feels instinctively natural to play, avoiding any of the motion sickness I’ve experienced with other VR games.

Besides the stack of console hardware, Sparc also requires a hefty amount of space to play, and it’s this requirement that gamers might find challenging. In order to track a wide range of movement, the play space is set up roughly 2 metres or seven feet away from the camera. Likewise, you’ll need a metre or 3 feet on all sides to allow space for movement, gestures and so on. For me, this involved pushing around some furniture and moving the camera position in order to get the distance required.

Despite the hassle, it’s all worth the effort to get a sweet Sparc setup. After pulling on the visor, I’m immediately transported to a clean and futuristic landscape that’s reminiscent of TRON’s gladiatorial arenas. It’s also very immediate - my virtual avatar responds as I do, echoing my every movement. It makes for some interesting encounters when meeting an opponent for the first time, but it also feels a little less anonymous. After all, you’re virtually there.

After getting in-game for the first time, Sparc took me through a voice-guided tutorial in order to share the basic rules and moves, teleporting me to a long, square corridor that serves as the game’s court. Dodging incoming balls is simple enough, as is knocking them away with a  handheld shield. Throwing them at a target proves to be a little trickier, as I need to move my hand in a deliberate arc in order for the tracking to work out which way to lob the ball.

It’s a technique that I decided to continue practicing once the tutorial finished by selecting a single-player challenge, aiming to hit a number of targets in as fast a time as possible. The leaderboard showed that  I needed significant practice, but regular practice helped to speed up my performance to something a little more average. Even so, it’s tiring stuff.

There’s no better trainer than playing against a real opponent, and Sparc comes into its own during online play. Spectators crowd around the court like gods, their giant-sized avatars watching the match play out in front of them. Getting in on the action is as simple as adding your name to the order of play, which is basically the equivalent of putting a coin on the pool table to queue your place. If anything, actually playing a match is even more intimidating as the pantheon of players watch your skills (or lack of).

Basic online matches only last three minutes, but they’re incredibly exhausting. Because each player has a ball, and there’s no concept of having to get it over the net, the action can be relentless. An early technique I encountered was to aim two balls at your opponent - batting their own ball back at them from one angle, and sending yours at them from another, so that blocking or dodging both becomes twice the challenge. Much like taking cushion shots in pool, learning where to aim the ball in order to get perfect rebounds towards your opponent was another trick I grappled with. There’s a lot of depth that the tutorial doesn’t teach you, which makes online play even more satisfying.

I also gradually got to recognise my courtside challengers, but that’s largely because each one had a unique avatar. An abundance of customisation options for gloves, suit, visor and so on are matched by a huge range of dye options. Want to look like like you fight for the users? Go right ahead.

As a new concept, however, Sparc is not an experience without issues. A couple of times I’d have issues with motion tracking, although I believe that this is as much to do with my setup as anything else. More annoyingly, however, is that challenges and online play seemed to be completely separate. I’d prefer the option to take part in challenges while waiting for an opponent, helping to keep me in the game and making best use of my idle time.

Ultimately, though, Sparc absolutely hits the mark at being a futuristic athletic sport, where my opponent can be in the next city or even the next country over. It’s an enjoyable, wholesome alternative to conflict-heavy PvP games without feeling substandard. Plus, the minimalist rules set allow for expanding depth of play as players develop new techniques. Sparc’s only drawback is that it needs more players - something that will hopefully grow as Sony releases a new PSVR bundle, and if the title lands on other VR platforms that support cross-play.

As for me, I need to go work on my serve.


Score: 8


Pros

  • Great futuristic sport experience.
  • Mix of game modes and challenges
  • Evolving depth of play

Cons

  • Occasional tracking issues
  • Challenges can’t be completed while queuing online
Gareth Harmer / When he's not blasting or fireballing his way through a virtual world, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer can be found dissecting the mechanics of online games. Chua at heart, he's also our resident columnist for all things WildStar.