At the end of February, CCP Games announced a new game that has nothing to do with EVE Online or even the EVE IP. Named Sparc, the new VR game is being pitched as a virtual sport environment with competitive online gameplay and an online social space. It has the aesthetic of the Tron-style cyberspace world that movies promised us throughout the 80s, and uses motion controls to deliver full-body VR gameplay. Even the social space will have a bit of an 80s arcade vibe, with players able to gather around and watch others compete and challenge the reigning champion to a match.
Anyone who’s been to EVE Fanfest in recent years will recognise Sparc immediately. The game made its public debut as Disc Arena in Fanfest 2015’s VR Labs demo section alongside three other VR experiments, and made a re-appearance the following year with motion controls as Project Arena. Just as Project Nemesis became the release title Gunjack, this game has now graduated into a full production title with its own development team and budget. Sparc is due for release at some point in 2017 on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, and we managed to get some hands-on time with an early version at this year’s Fanfest.
Read on for a brief account of my experiences with Sparc and opinions on it from the press-only hands-on demos at EVE Fanfest 2017.
How exactly does sparc play?
The core gameplay of sparc involves two players standing on platforms at either side of a hallway hurling energy balls at each other, though it’s a lot more tactical than it sounds. Each player can only have one ball in play at a time and also has a shield that can block or deflect the enemy’s ball, and your own rebounded ball is just as deadly as the enemy’s. The shield also breaks after it deflects a shot and only recharges when you pick up your own ball again, so you’re encouraged to catch your own deflected or rebounded shots to regenerate your shield. We played on a novice difficulty setting that also allowed us to punch the enemy ball for a free deflection rather than dodging with your body, though you still had to be pretty accurate to pull it off.
The physics of the game feels much tighter than the old Project Arena, and the throws felt more predictable. This is probably partly due to switching from a throwing disc model to a spherical ball, as even in Project Arena the disc was actually using physics for a ball under the hood. The velocity and angle of a throw depends naturally on the movement arc you make and when you release the trigger, and you can even put spin on the ball or deflect an enemy’s shot in a particular direction. The balls ricochet off the walls with a satisfying thunk, and they’re destroyed on contact with the back wall so you never have to turn right around to defend your rear, which is good for tethered VR.
Feeling your virtual self
Anyone who’s followed my EVE work over the years will know that I can be pretty critical of game design problems, but I can safely say that CCP has hit the nail on the head with the feel of Sparc. Holding the Oculus or Vive controllers in a grip stance feels almost like you’re putting on a pair of virtual boxing gloves, and the in-game representation of your gloved hands maintain a solid one-to-one relation to your own movements. The fact that they respond like this and are held in the same grip you have the controller in is enough to trick your brain into thinking that these are your real hands, which is a little spooky at first but incredibly immersive.
When you see your character in the mirror during the calibration test, everything from the body and hands to the arms and head appear to move just as you do (an impressive accomplishment given the limited data it’s working with), and you can see your opponent’s movements as clear as day. There’s a moment before the match where you and your opponent have to reach out and bump fists as a sign of sportsmanship, and I caught myself waving to my opponent and watching him psych himself up for battle, but it’s not just an immersive visual gimmick.
Part of the game’s strategy is in reading your opponents movements and even misdirecting them by pretending to throw one way and then quickly throwing another. There was an amazing moment in a match I was spectating when someone quickly passed the ball from one hand into the other and threw an unexpected left-hander to score a hit. As a real world spectator cheering next to the demo station at that moment and waiting for my chance to take someone on, I began to see the appeal that Sparc’s virtual social space could bring to the game.
What’s the verdict?
Sparc legitimately has the potential to become the Wii Sports of VR, a collection of competitive activities transmitted via the internet and experienced in VR but played in real space with real athletic competition. The game’s tagline of “Virtual Sport, Real Competition” makes a hell of a lot of sense in that respect, and it’s something I didn’t fully appreciate until I saw my opponent psyching himself up in his serious throwing stance and reacting in frustration when hit just like in a real life sport.
I’ve often complained that VR has no killer app, no must-have game that absolutely needs VR to work, but I think Sparc might be it. With the way it uses motion controls and represents the opponent’s real body in a virtual environment, this is the first thing that has truly tempted me to invest in roomscale VR for gaming. What I would hope to see now is more games being planned for this virtual sports hall, some kind of official tournament system, and perhaps even a real e-sports tournament.
Massively Overpowered is on the ground in Reykjavik, Iceland, for EVE Fanfest 2017, bringing you expert coverage from EVE, Valkyrie, Gunjack, and everything else CCP has up its sleeve!