Historically, not many people read articles about VR on PC Gamer. The tech is still way too expensive to be widely accessible, and hearing other people’s VR stories is a bit like telling someone about a dream you had. Fun for you, deeply boring for the listener. I was something of a virtual reality evangelist for a while, banging on about it whenever anyone would listen. I even wrote a weekly column, including about the disturbing world of VR sex games. But my enthusiasm slowly faded away, and can now only be detected by a high-powered electron microscope. Yet I found my interest in the technology stirred once again by a new game from CCP called Sparc.
CCP makes EVE Online, the infamous space MMO that generates incredible stories of piracy, espionage, and backstabbing. So it might seem strange that it’s turning its attention to a fun, accessible VR sports game. But it isn’t really, because CCP is one of the most dedicated virtual reality developers in the business. Its enthusiasm for the tech has never faltered, and Valkyrie and Gunjack—both set in the EVE universe—are some of the best-selling VR games released so far. And they’re pretty good too, because the company has poured a lot of time and money into figuring out this new technology.
Last year at Fanfest, CCP’s yearly celebration of all things EVE in its hometown of Reykjavik, Iceland, I played a prototype of Sparc called . I called it an “incredible VR experience” and hoped it would become a full release. And, likely spurred on by the overwhelmingly positive press the demo received from almost every outlet that covered it, they’ve done exactly that, renaming it Sparc and making some changes to how it plays. It’s the first CCP game not set in the EVE universe, and they’re calling it a ‘vsport’, which I’m not sure will catch on. But it is an accurate way to describe the game, because when you play Sparc you’re gonna sweat. Especially if you’re an out of shape games writer who sits on his arse all day eating pies.
But what the hell is it? Slip the headset on (both Vive and Oculus are supported) and you’ll find yourself standing in a corridor facing another player. In my case, a journalist from a rival PC gaming website, who starts dancing a jig in an attempt to intimidate me. The way the holographic avatars perfectly mirror the movements of your opponent is really impressive, and I respond by dancing a jig of my own. It’s like TRON meets West Side Story. Anyway, the match begins and a hovering ball appears in front of me. I pluck it out of the air with the Oculus Touch controller and hurl it at my opponent, who lifts his arm and activates a small shield on his wrist, deflecting it back at me.
Then he tosses his own ball, which bounces off a wall and pings around the arena like a ricocheting bullet. I bring up my own shield and twat it back, and suddenly we find ourselves in an intense back-and-forth rally, with the two balls bouncing madly around our heads. I can’t remember who scored the first point, but when one person gets hit the next round begins. And the first person to hit their opponent five times wins the match. As I’m playing, one of the game’s developers is encouraging me to move more, and seems a bit frustrated that we’re both basically standing still. So I loosen up and begin lunging for the ball as it hurtles past me, and I soon start to realise why they call it a vsport, because I’m bloody knackered when the match is over.
One of my biggest problems with VR is how uncomfortable it is. The headsets have improved massively since the early devkits, but having a piece of foam pressed against your face by a tight strap is never going to feel totally natural. Everyone who tries the Sparc demo removes their headset to reveal a red, glistening face, and I ask the developer if he sees the inherent discomfort of the tech as a problem. But he dodges the question and says that getting hot and bothered is part of the Sparc experience. I think about all the sweat that’s been absorbed by the foam eyepiece on the Rift they’ve been using to demo the game all day and feel a bit queasy. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve been diving after an imaginary ball for fifteen minutes. I look at my Fitbit and my heart rate’s in the fat burning zone. I need a sit down and a beer.
Sparc might be the best VR game I’ve played. It’s beautifully simple and easy to pick up, but at the same time there’s genuine skill to second-guessing your opponent and angling the ball to send them in the wrong direction. I lost the match, by the way, but our very own Steven Messner was at Fanfest too, and he won a rematch, saving the PC Gamer brand from complete embarrassment. Sparc reminds me of Wii Sports in the sense that it’s a perfect game to bundle with the hardware to show off its power in a fun, accessible way. If someone doesn’t really get VR, give them a go on Sparc and they’ll be sold instantly. Providing they can actually afford a Rift or Vive, which remains one of the biggest hurdles in the way of the technology becoming more than just something for moneyed tech enthusiasts and early adopters.