PSVR Roundup

Review

Developer: Survios (Raw Data), Tarsier Studios (Statik), CCP North America (Sparc)
Publisher: Survios (Raw Data), Tarsier Studios (Statik), CCP Games (Sparc)
Available On: PC (Raw Data, Sparc), PS4 (Reviewed)
Released: July 4, 2016 (Raw Data), April 24, 2017 (Statik), August 29, 2017 (Sparc)

“Varied Revelry”

I spend more time on the fence about picking up PlayStationVR games than I do with almost any other kind of game, and with good reason I think. There are a lot of extra concerns people have when considering when looking for a new VR game. How much actual game is there in this game? How does it control? Is it going to make me violently ill ten minutes in? It’s been a while since I felt so strongly that games should have demos as a rule if not some kind of refund policy, but it just makes sense for PSVR.

So allow me to be your guide through the wilderness of the PlayStation store as we examine the handful of PSVR games I’ve assembled here for us today.

First up is Raw Data, a game I never thought I’d actually play. Not because it didn’t look good, it looked awesome, but because I didn’t own either an HTC Vive or a computer powerful enough to play it. So I noted Raw Data’s release on the PlayStation store with some interest. Having finally picked it up, I’ve found Raw Data to be every bit as good as it looked, even if “as good as it looked” is far from perfect.

Raw Data has a very familiar, very simple arcade structure; kill all of the enemies and don’t get killed. To aid you in this noble endeavor, you have a gun with which you kill enemies by pointing at what you want dead and pulling the trigger. Yep, pretty basic really. But as with other lightgun games like Time Crisis, House of the Dead or PlayStationVR’s own Farpoint, the appeal lies in the execution, and while Raw Data frequently struggles against the current limits of VR technology, it still manages to deliver a fun, action-packed experience.

You play as one of four mercenaries who, at the behest of a generic cyberpunk hacker and generic comically oblivious A.I., infiltrates the headquarters of shadowy, world-spanning corporation Edencorp on a mission to prove their involvement in the disappearance of countless missing people. Raw Data’s story is more like a setup, keeping its story almost entirely to radio conversations in the between-mission waiting room and leaving the player as a silent protagonist who takes over for the combat.

Playing a first-person shooter without joysticks or a keyboard to move around takes a lot of getting used to as you might imagine, but Raw Data deals with this issue admirably with the Teleshifting system. Pointing with your off hand at any nearby spot on the floor and pressing the Move button will teleport you to that spot and there are several warp points in each level in key areas of the map that you can warp to from farther away than you’d normally be able to go. Teleshifting isn’t the most elegant movement system, and I have a feeling that a superior control scheme for VR shooters is still waiting to be discovered, but it’s a perfectly functional system and one that never took me out of the game.

Combat is a bit of a mixed bag on account of the game’s four different characters and how differently they play. Broadly, the four characters represent different action hero archetypes and your favorite will probably come down to which one you’d most like to role-play. There’s Saija, the jedi, Elder, the Hawkeye (or Legolas, depending on your preference), Boss, the Doom guy, and Bishop, the character for those of us still holding on to the dream of seeing a decent Dark Tower adaptation within our lifetimes.

The two characters who use traditional guns, Bishop and Boss, both fare pretty well due to their relatively simple point-and-shoot mechanics. Elder on the other hand, who on paper should be one of the most interesting characters, is regrettably the one I ended up using the least. Taking on legions of killer robots with a cool sci-fi bow that forges crystalline arrows out of thin air should be pretty damn entertaining, but the execution lets it down in a big way. One out of approximately every ten shots would go completely wide of it’s mark because the game frequently had trouble figuring out where my string-pulling hand was.

It was Saija, with Bishop in a close second, who ended up being my favorite character. Saija’s primary weapon is a Flash Blade (You know, it occurs to me that “Light” and “Saber” have got to be close to the top of Thesaurus.com’s most searched words) and can force-pull enemies with her free hand into walls, each other or off ledges. Her Flash Blade is a boatload of fun to use and only really runs into trouble when you try to throw it, as it tends to fly off at weird angles. The blade can also reflect basic projectiles back at their sources, a much cooler and more practical option for dealing with ranged enemies.

Unfortunately, you don’t cut robots exactly where you hit them like in Metal Gear Rising, so fighting with the sword sometimes feels like hitting them with a baseball bat, but who cares because HOLY CRAP I HAVE A FREAKING LIGHTSABER!

If you’re someone who gets motion sickness from VR games, all that fighting and blinking around the battlefield would probably invoke the wrath of your stomach. Thankfully, Raw Data includes a suite of options for easing the discomfort of people susceptible to motion sickness such as smoother turning and the option to walk rather than teleport by pointing with your off hand and holding down a button. Though, as you might imagine, removing the ability to teleport will dramatically reduce your combat efficiency. For science, I tried a mission with all of the motion sickness-combating features switched on and confirmed that yes, not being able to turn 180 degrees in an instant and having to take one hand out of play for prolonged periods of time to move around is, in fact, like entering a gunfight on quaaludes by comparison.

Raw Data’s biggest issue is probably it’s price. Raw Data goes for fifty three dollars Canadian at time of writing, and for a pretty basic shooter with ten smallish survival maps in it, that’s just too much. Not that I think it needed more levels, I’m perfectly satisfied with the overall package, I just don’t think it’s worth fifty bucks.

Something to keep in mind is that this is a review of the PS4 version of Raw Data. It’s entirely possible that a lot of the technical issues discussed here either aren’t present in the PC version or aren’t nearly as pronounced.

I might ultimately recommend Farpoint over Raw Data. It certainly has a better campaign and tells a more interesting story than Raw Data does, and it’s recently-released, completely free multiplayer expansion is good enough that I probably would have given Farpoint a better score had it been in the game when I reviewed it.

Being the most ambitious PSVR game on this list, Raw Data also ends up being the clunkiest. That isn’t to say it’s a bad game by any stretch, but Raw Data demonstrates exactly where VR tech currently is and how far it has yet to go by virtue of what it’s trying to do, which is basically, putting us as far into the matrix as it’s currently possible to go; or at least that one episode of the X-Files where the writers pretended they knew what video games are.

Moving on, Statik is pretty much the opposite of Raw Data and a game I’ve had my eye on for quite a while. Long enough for me to forget about having apparently bought it sometime last year until I went to go buy it again. I’m probably more selective when it comes to puzzle games than I am with any other genre. I can enjoy the odd baseline competent shooter like Homefront or Quake 4, but a puzzle game really has to grab me from the outset, which is exactly what Statik did.

Each level of Statik finds the player strapped to a chair in a laboratory environment, with their hands locked in a different box-shaped device. Each device is completely unique and I was impressed by how neither the mechanisms of a box nor the puzzles they’re used to solve never repeat themselves, especially considering most boxes contain multiple puzzles. A lot of the challenge in each level is derived from just figuring out how each box works and usually this involves examining not just the box but your surroundings as well.

A game wherein the goals, control scheme and types of puzzles change every level could easily make for an awkward, wildly incoherent experience, but Statik keeps things consistent by sticking to a simple set of rules; every button on the controller does something, figure out how the device works, use the device to solve the puzzle. And for the most part, Tarsier Studios pulls it off. Every level is mechanically and visually inventive by nature and the drive to see what the next box looks like is often as compelling as solving the game’s puzzles.

If you play a lot of video games, you’ll probably find Statik to be strongly reminiscent of Portal, both puzzle games cast you as a test subject in a lab overseen by a humorously dry-witted observer. So which one’s better? Well, comparing their gameplay is pretty much pointless when they’re trying to do such different things, and Statik tells an interesting, if vague story, where the first Portal was mostly just trying to be funny. In short, we can have both.

Statik has its problems of course. I occasionally ran into instances of drifting, where the on-screen representation of my hands slowly slid away from where I was holding them; a problem not unheard of in PSVR games and one that can be easily remedied by shaking the controller for a second to remind the camera where it is.

Statik also boasts a local multiplayer mode in the vein of Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes. After downloading Sony’s Second Screen app onto your smartphone and connecting it to your PS4, your smartphone screen will be filled with a suite of unmarked buttons, at which point players will have two sets of obtuse controls and must figure out not only what each one does, but how they work together to solve each levels puzzle. And in case you’re wondering if having two people putting their heads together makes the puzzles too easy, I was actually in a group of three when I fired up Statik’s multiplayer for the first time and the three of us still took upwards of half an hour to solve each puzzle.
There are only a handful of multiplayer puzzles, so don’t go into Statik looking for a substantial multiplayer experience, but their inclusion is a cool bonus and one my friends and I had quite a bit of fun with.

Much like Portal, Statik’s main game is robust enough that you could never accuse it of being too short, but you’ll be crying out for some extra levels not long after completing it. I was looking forward to a sequel, or at least some level packs immediately upon finishing Statik, and when your biggest criticism of a game is that you wish there was more of it, you know you’re looking at a pretty good game.

Finally there’s Sparc, and I have to commend CCP Games right off the bat for not only creating a fun game that feels like a legitimate sport, but one that can be played by standing in a circle with maybe a four foot diameter. That isn’t to say you’ll be playing Sparc standing still, hell no, I haven’t gotten this much of a workout since the last time I went rock climbing. Sparc is officially the first time since Wii Fit that I’ve had to break out my workout clothes to play a video game.

Played in a narrow rectangular court, the goal of Sparc is relatively simple, get your ball into your opponent’s zone while keeping your opponent’s ball out of yours. Hitting your opponent earns you a point, and getting your ball into your opponent’s zone without hitting them gives you a “Strike”, making your ball larger and faster.

Holding your ball in either of your magnetic gloves generates a shield that can reflect a single incoming ball before needing to be recharged by throwing the ball into your opponents zone. Gameplay wise, that’s pretty much it. It’s a simple game, but it works. Any real criticisms come from design decisions made around the central pillar of it’s gameplay.

Sparc’s gameplay is split between three modes, which might be its first mistake. I know it sounds weird to suggest an already dead-simple game should have even less versatility, but considering how few people are playing Sparc, it might have been a better idea to just have one mode and build it up as much as possible. The first two modes are Brawl and Advanced, with only two minor elements differentiating them. Advanced is first to five instead of three, and doesn’t feature the small shields on your gloves when you’re not holding a ball, which would grant you a little defense when your ball is out of your hands. The third mode is Experimental, which turns the arena 45 degrees on it’s side, and nobody seems to be playing it at all so…moving on, I guess.

Sparc also features an impressively robust character customization suite where you can edit nearly every aspect of your avatars appearance from your gloves, suit, mask, gender and more without the intrusion of microtransactions or even in-game currency. You can edit your home and away team colors as well, which also affects the color of your half of the court and your ball. But from where I sit, letting players change team colors is giving them too much control.

Maybe my neurons are just too old and calcified at this point to keep track of two moving objects at once, but after multiple rounds, when both my opponent and I kept changing between our home and away colors, l started to have more and more trouble keeping track of which ball I was supposed to be catching and which I was supposed to be avoiding, which in turn led to a lot of unwanted balls to the face.

Sparc’s gameplay is online only, so it’s nice that it features cross-platform play with the PC version of the game, as games like this live and die on the their player base. Unfortunately, Sparc’s community is pretty anemic, even with the merging of communities across it’s two platforms. That said, I usually didn’t have trouble finding a game and didn’t run into a single jerk the entire time I played Sparc. Upon entering the court for the first time my opponent greeted me with a friendly wave before we sat down to watch another game already in progress.

It actually didn’t occur to me until I sat down to write this how weird it is that my opponent and I did have to wait for the court to free up. This being a video game, it seem as if the game could have just generated one for us. While I would guess that our having to wait may have something to do with the amount of server space CCP Games has available for Sparc, just standing around the court watching someone else’s game greatly enhanced the immersion, at least for me. It felt as if I had really gone to a real sporting arena with another adult and that we were really waiting for our turn with the court. It felt real, or at least as real as a made up sport that looks like Tron can reasonably feel. That’s what we want from our virtual reality games, isn’t it?

If it sounds like I’m bending over backwards to defend an annoying part of the game, I’m really not. I fully understand that sometimes you just want to play the video game that you bought to be able to play, not to stand around watching other people have fun.

I think the reason I’m not bothered about it here is that Sparc isn’t a game that you pop into your rec room to play for twenty minutes before heading out somewhere. VR games in general require a slightly larger time investment per session than most other game since you have to suit up before you can play them.

My biggest gripe with Sparc is the same one I have with Raw Data. Namely that, considering the game’s asking price, there isn’t all that much to it. Sure, CCP Games came up with a cool sport, but it’s a pretty simple one and it’s two alternate modes are only slight variations on the basic formula. Add to that a lack of any kind of single player mode, even just basic bot matches, and it means that when the community eventually does dry up, Sparc is going to become literally unplayable.

As an aside, I think that if CCP really wants something like Sparc to really take off, they should release a sort of spectator app for free and find ways to build a community and keep them involved. As previously stated, games like this live and die on the health of their communities.

Sparc isn’t a bad game, in fact it’s pretty good. But it’s also a game I’m hesitant to recommend due to its diminishing playerbase, and one I’d urge interested gamers to wait for a sale to pick up in any case.

Of the three games before us today, I would most readily recommend Statik. Any worthwhile PlayStationVR game is a good game first and a VR game second, and Statik is a smart, creative puzzle game, enhanced by PSVR, unlikely to induce motion sickness and not dependent on other people to play. For those uninterested in puzzle games and seeking a more cathartic experience, Raw Data is a solid arcade shooter whose few problems don’t stop it from being loads of fun.

The PlayStationVR has had a good first year with a lot of worthwhile games and 2018 looks to be continuing the trend. Though lacking a true killer app, PlayStationVR is steadily accumulating enough smaller titles that anyone interested in the platform shouldn’t regret jumping in.

Raw Data
6.5/10
Time To Complete: 10 Hours
Challenge: Hard
Best Advice: Remember To Place Turrets
Also Try: Farpoint, House of the Dead: Overkill, Ruiner
Statik
8.5/10
Time To Complete: 7 Hours
Challenge: Moderate
Best Advice: Press Every Button
Also Try: Portal, Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes, Space Team
Sparc
5.5/10
Time To Complete: Infinity
Challenge: Yes
Best Advice: Stretch First
Also Try: Headmaster, Actual Sports

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