I’ll be honest: when I heard that the game of Speedball was going to be available in VR with the release of Speedball Arena, my first reaction was “What’s Speedball?” Well, I’m glad I asked. I quick Google search showed that Speedball is a mix of cocaine with heroin or morphine taken intravenously or by insufflation. That didn’t seem quite right, so I tried again. The second try was more productive; I found that Speedball in the context of something not drug related is a quick, fast paced sport that combines many aspects of other sports. Points are scored by throwing or kicking the ball into the opposing goal. It is played with two teams of five or more, each with one goalie on a basketball court or soccer field.
Well, there you go. It’s basically a dozen other sports glommed into something new. Wikipedia had more to say on the subject, so I am going to just share their description:
The main objective of speedball is the objective of soccer/football. There are two goals, each guarded by the opposite team members or a goalie. Each team attempts to throw the ball into the goal. However, unlike soccer, there are multiple ways goals can be scored. Goals can be scored by kicking the ball into the net or through goal line markers with one's feet or throwing the ball into the goal. "Kicks" are worth two points while "throws" are only worth one. The team that scores the most goals by the end of the match wins the game.
With that understanding of the basics involved in high school Speedball, I had just one remaining question: given that player motion in VR is, to say the least, problematic, I wondered how that aspect would be implemented. The easiest way to find out was to launch the game and see what happened. Spoiler: the clever developers invented the Hoverbike. That addressed the issue mobility, but how would we kick, carry, and throw the ball? Spoiler #2: they also invented the “hook claw.” It sounds a little complicated, but was actually pretty easy to pick up.
It started with a brief tutorial that demonstrated the use of the Rift Touch controllers for movement and ball control. Movement is handled with the left controller, with the trigger operating as an accelerator, the grip button as brakes and reverse, the X button to jump, the Y button for boost, and a twisting motion of the controller to steer. I remain unclear as to why no one just uses the thumb stick for this kind of thing, but the trigger and twisting works well enough. The right Touch controller is for ball handling. Your hook claw shoots out a chain with a grapple on the end of it, so grabbing the ball is a simple matter of aiming at it with you right hand and using the trigger to grab the ball.
Just to be clear here, you don’t have to be right up near the ball to grab it; the grapple chain has a pretty good reach. That said, the current generation of VR headsets do not lend themselves well to finding and capturing hand-sized objects, so the ball while it is not in your grasp is huge. Once you get hold of it, it shrinks down to a more manageable size. You can also steal the ball from another player, and they can steal from you as well. Your vision flashes to black & white for a brief moment to let you know that someone else has taken the ball away. Helpfully, the ball looks big again when someone else is carrying it, so you have a pretty good chance of getting it back.
The grapple hook has another salient feature: there are “hook point” balls floating above the playing field that can be used to provide faster travel down the court; you just hit one with the grapple hook and it pulls you along quite nicely. This also has the effect of making the arena into a three dimensional playing field. It’s all very futuristic looking, which ties in well with the still science fiction-ish hoverbikes.
The playing field itself adds some additional tactical opportunities. There are booster pads you can run across, and there are painted zones in each of the teams colors. If you can get off a shot from inside one of your team's zones, your shot will be a lot more powerful. It seemed like a good way to pass the ball downfield, if you were able to coordinate with your teammate. You can also power up a shot by holding the trigger longer, but you're a bit more at risk of having it stolen from you while you're charging up the shot.
The game can be played single-player against pretty decent AI, or it can be played as online multiplayer. In single player, it is 2v2 with you and an uncontrolled teammate. It is very playable this way, but you don’t get the best use out of the AI teammate. You can pass the ball to him and he is pretty good at taking shots at the goal, but he is also extraordinarily selfish with the ball - if he ever tried to pass the ball to me, I must not have noticed. To be fair, it’ a pretty hectic game and I couldn’t tell if the AI opponents were any better at sharing.
In multiplayer, it is also a 2v2 game, but with the added bonus of having, presumably, a better teammate. There is a matchmaking system in place, although it's still early days for being able to find enough players for a foursome. It helps that the matchmaking allows for cross-platform play; the, uh, rift between Oculus and Vive owners is big enough already. The VR headset market is probably only going to get more fragmented, so being able to accept all comers appears to be a very forward-looking.
One side effect of the rapid pace of play and the constant spinning around looking for the ball after it had been stolen from me did, at times, make me a little queasy. I don’t normally suffer from motion sickness in VR, so if you do, you might need to be careful to not play for too long. That won’t be easy - this one is also hard to stop playing. It is also possible to play without an VR capabilities at all - the game plays just as well, although not with the compelling degree of immersion, on just the PC itself.
I found Speedball Arena to be a well designed and well implemented porting of a real world, arena-based game into the VR world. This is a tricky thing to get right: the challenges of motion and ball control are difficult, but so well done in this game that you really don't even notice them. The game itself is so engrossing that you soon start controlling the hoverbike and the ball without conscious thought. While it is fun to play as a single player, it is the multiplayer that is going to be the strongest attraction. I would hope to soon see leagues forming around exactly this kind of game.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.