Sony’s PlayStation VR has had some real hits (Resident Evil 7) and misses (Rise of the Tomb Raider) so I had no clue what to expect when I booted up CCP’s Sparc for the first time, despite their excellent EVE Online. I have this habit of looking at a game’s options, settings and customization menus before anything else, and the moment I opened the character menu on Sparc, I knew the game wasn’t just a $30 tech demo. Picking outfits and colors is intuitive and simple – grab a piece or color from a shelf next to you, place it on a pedestal in front of you, watch it apply to your character. Then it was off to the races. I hit up the tutorial first, which teaches you the main mechanics of gameplay.
Sparc is a bit like the disc fights in Tron and a bit like tennis with two tennis balls, both in play and its visuals. You and your opponent inhabit opposite ends of a court, which felt to me like a racquetball court but much deeper. You have a ball and so does your opponent. Using the PlayStation Move controllers, you throw your ball and try to either hit your opponent, to gain a point or a small circular area around them for a strike. Points go towards your score in the game, and every strike you get on your opponent makes your ball bigger and faster. Ricocheting your ball off the walls like air hockey on its way to your opponent is highly recommended. Once your ball hits the far wall, it comes flying back to you regardless of the outcome, so you need to keep your eye on it so you can catch it (if you miss, a new ball spawns after a second or two). As for defense, while you hold your ball an energy shield appears on the back of your wrist. This can be used to block and deflect one incoming shot from your opponent before it loses its charge. To recharge the shield you have to throw the ball, which (along with a penalizing shot clock) adds a lot of incentive and motivation for you not to simply play goalie the whole game. Finally, on the game’s basic mode, you’re always equipped with knuckle guards you can use to try to bat the opponent’s ball away, but the shield is far bigger and a much better guarantee for defense.
With me so far? Good. Once you learn the basics in the tutorial, there are a number of offensive and defensive challenges to practice before you go online and play against real people. I probably spent 45 minutes just trying to beat my best times on them before even bothering to go online – they’re fun by themselves, if not $30 fun. Good thing for you and me there’s the main component of the game: the 1v1 online matches.
At the moment, there are three gameplay modes in multiplayer. The basic mode plays how I described it above, complete with knuckle guards to bat away incoming attacks. Rounds go for three minutes and whoever has the most points wins. The advanced mode removes the knuckle guards and is a race to four points, regardless of the length of the game. Finally, the experimental mode is in a court that’s been rotated 45 degrees into a long diamond-shaped hallway, which really switches up the average wall-bouncing strategy. In my time playing Sparc online, I found myself going up against players of very different skill levels, showcasing an eclectic range of tactics and play styles. While you’re in the queue to start a match, you and other waiting players will find yourselves in a virtual space watching a miniaturized version of the current match. Voice chat is open and you and the other spectators are visible to one another, adding to the sense of immersion. It often feels like being at a rec center and watching a game of squash or racquetball from the other side of the glass wall.
Alright. So the graphics are great. The 3-D visuals and sound bring you into the world and so do the very responsive 1:1 full-body motion controls. The sport itself is engaging and original – it’s basic enough to understand quickly but with enough depth to drive you to play more. Now for a bit of bad news.
First, some aspects of Sparc are under-explained. The shot clock, for instance, I had to look up on the game’s official website’s message boards to understand. If you hold your ball too long without throwing, a meter builds up and eventually your opponent gets an automatic strike against you. Learning that affected how I played afterwards and seems like a component worth getting into further in the tutorial (which a staff member said they’re thinking of updating in a patch). Second, and I hesitate to even mention this, CCP are currently working out bugs with cross-region matchmaking. And of course this happens and sometimes you don’t know it until you launch a game (see also Friday the 13th), and they are working on it, so it’s not as though the online doesn’t work at all. It’s just a hiccup they should overcome soon. Third, part of me would really like to see more content in the coming months. According to Sparc’s official website, CCP are committed to providing additional content post-launch, so I trust that it’s incoming (they’ve mentioned doubles matches specifically), but I have to write about what we have right now. Online, I’d love to see the option of adjusting the match length in Basic, the points goal in Advanced and to see more variables in Experimental, like different gravity or ball speed or court shapes. An unlockables system would be great too, since there’s such a wide array of character customization available at the outset. Or maybe a single-player mode vs. bots on the court. There are talks on the Sparc website of tournaments coming to the online mode, which would also be a welcome addition for most players.
All in all, these are pretty minor gripes. In fact, if you notice, CCP has said they’re working on every issue I mentioned. And maybe, like its closest real-life counterpart, tennis, a lot of the beauty of Sparc is in its simplicity – the arc of the swing, the psychology of offensive moves, balancing stamina with effective defense – so it’s hard to genuinely complain about the title. When you buy a sports franchise title like Madden, NBA2k or MLB: The Show, you don’t need a lot of wacky, arcade, outside-the-box frills – just a finely-tuned sports machine. As I mentioned earlier, given the eclectic looks for your avatar, part of me feels like there should be more unlockables – more variety in courts, ball and shield appearances, etc. But maybe it’s supposed to be all about the gameplay. CCP rightly (and very clearly) focused on nailing the physics and mechanics of Sparc as a new vSport, and overall it paid off.
Bottom line? Plain and simple, this game just works. It’s engaging, challenging, fun, original, immersive, intuitive and pretty. It’s worth the $30 as-is, but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t looking forward to seeing what new components they add to it. I’d call it an 8 out of 10.