The PlayStation VR has developed a nice collection of experiences that make great use of the burgeoning medium. As much as I love my PSVR, the current version of virtual reality has exposed limitations and development roadblocks that require creative workarounds. This is especially so for games with multiplayer components. There have been a few games that have done this well--EVE Valkyrie and Star Trek Bridge Crew come to mind--while others...not so much. Whether it’s dogfighting in space, commanding a massive interstellar starship, or even soaring through the skies over a post-apocalyptic Paris - conventional control systems, playability, and fun have to be rebuilt and retooled for the virtual environment. Smashbox Arena is one of those games that doesn’t do either particularly well. Designed as a three on three arena shooter, its slow pacing, clunky movement, and “ho hum” gameplay hurt what could have been a fun, Unreal-lite action game. Instead, it stands as a treatise on the challenges of virtual reality game development.
Smashbox Arena experiences death by a thousand cuts. There are so many things playing against the game that make it difficult to fully enjoy, let alone justify the cost of the game. By and large, the biggest offender is character movement. A lot of VR games have employed teleportation as a means to cut down on motion sickness and free up controller buttons for different functions. Smashbox is no different. Using a pair of PlayStation Move controllers, you move around the map by dropping small teleport pads in the area you want to go (the distance is limited to a nearly a dozen feet in one direction). This affords some element of strategy as you’ll want to warp someplace out of an enemy’s line of sight while being cautious of those that could potentially sneak up from behind.
Attacking enemies with the Move controllers is more interesting than getting around, at least. Each player is armed with a gun that attracts nearby energy orbs when the trigger is held down. These orbs can be launched at other players, and one hit is all that’s needed to knock someone out of the game (there is no respawning). The one-hit-kill system makes standing your ground and deflecting attacks with your own orbs, Discs of TRON-style, an achievable means of survival. Doing this against the AI is pretty easy because they never play aggressively. I’ve dueled my fair share of computer controlled avatars that do little beyond standing in front of me and just sit there for awhile before attacking. If these AI players could talk, they’d be saying, “Hey man, I’m really sorry about this, but I’m going to shoot, you know. Is that OK? You can totally deflect it, though!” By themselves, the dance of teleporting/attacking, teleporting/attack gets old pretty quick. Smashbox at least tries to liven things up with the inclusion of special weapon pickups like heat seeking missiles, giant boulders, sniper rifle scopes, and grenade-like bombs. They’re nice pieces of flair and are a good change from flinging orbs around, but it doesn’t make the action any more fun. Ultimately, I found Smashbox Arena to be little more than Pong on Valium.
Visuals don’t make the game but they certainly help. In that regard, the game’s aesthetic just screams “PlayStation Home.” The 3D character sculpts are generic and boring (if not ugly) and the “zany” avatar heads, which run the gamut of comically large fruit, Second Life-esque human heads, and stylized animals, don’t do any favors. They have the look of items that would be given out for free or (god forbid) sold from one of Home’s many useless virtual store fronts. During the tutorial, I found it funny that my host, a large fruit with a cartoon face and robot body, didn’t move its lips when it spoke but rather his whole body hopped in place at every word like some VR puppet show. Map design is also a little subpar because of fairly standard layouts, pathfinding, and special particle effects.
Smashbox Arena proves that not all game genres can weather the transition from a console game to immersive virtual reality. This is something you could easily play without the headset, though it wouldn't do the game any significant favors. With or without VR, it doesn’t change the central concern that this game just isn’t fun to play. The shooting part is pretty okay and almost fun for the first few rounds. What kills the game is the lack of meaningful challenges by way of playing against other humans. There is a single player campaign but it's not enough to justify the time you'd put into it. I could never find people to play with and the resulting skirmishes with AI bots made the whole thing regretfully unenjoyable.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.