Dodgeball. It’s a high school gym class sport that we all used to either love or hate, but we’ve all had the experience of getting beaned by those rubber balls. Smashbox Arena is a virtual reality game that lands somewhere squarely between dodgeball and paintball, a bizarre mix of an arcadey shooter with the evasion based physicality of dodging those red balls that made gym class such a terrible time for me. It’s execution is sheer simplicity, but the gameplay holds a surprising amount of intensity that makes it fun to come back to.
Pitting players against each other in a variety of 3v3 arenas, players pick up balls scattered around the playing field and shoot them at their opponents. One hit is an elimination, and the first to eliminate the other three wins the round, with five round wins completing the match. Gameplay is handled using two guns, so you will need two Move controllers (sorry DualShock 4 only players!). These guns are used to suck up the nearby energy projectiles and shoot them at others, along with allowing you to hold the balls as pseudo deflector shields against other players’ shots.
In the original Vive release these balls were actually represented by the same textured rubber dodgeballs that have pummeled so many kids, but for some reason they were updated to these energy spheres and that’s the model that made it into the PSVR release. This leaves it more generic feeling and much less like you’re playing a huge crazy game of dodgeball, which hurts the impact it could have by removing that subconscious connection people have to years gone gym class bruising. Instead of a futuristic version of dodgeball, it ends up being a discount elimination shooter all because of a simply visual change.
To move around the arena, you can tap the Move button to shoot out a little beacon that you will teleport to after a brief delay. Turning is done incrementally by tapping the X or circle button on whichever controller is on the side you want to move. I would have much rather used X to turn left and circle to turn right, no matter which controller I wanted to use for turning, but there’s no way to change the controls at all, and I found it awkward to separate direction of turning by which controller I was pressing buttons on. In fact, there really isn’t any kind of menu at all. No comfort settings, no pause menu, nothing. To exit back to the main area during gameplay you simply hold down triangle.
There are additional types of balls that come together with the arena’s obstacles to create interesting strategic gameplay that can get quite brisk in execution. Stone balls will grow in size and roll around the arena, sniper balls mean you don’t have to account for the ball arcing when firing at an enemy, and grenades… well, grenades explode. There are a couple of other power ups including a fireball and the end of round missile that spawns in the middle of the arena once the timer expires, creating a mad scramble and yet another strategic element to the game.
Divided between story mode and online multiplayer, there’s actually not much difference between the two. Story is a very loosely used term, and is effectively a series of about six battles with AI bots. Multiplayer should hypothetically be versus other players, but within the last few days that I have been playing Smashbox Arena since launch, I have never been in a full match. In fact, The most I’ve ever had was four players, being padded out with two bots. Most of my online matches consist of one on one battles with AI for teammates, or worse yet, 2v1, with the unbalanced team needing to deal with having two awful AI partners. The lobby does tell you how many players are online in the region you are in, but I always need to change regions to find where people are playing, and the most I’ve seen online at any one time I could count on both hands with fingers to spare.
While the VR tracking works exceptionally well, the same can’t be said for many other technical aspects of the game. Too often AI would get stuck in weird loops or freeze up altogether, whether in the story mode or online matches. A number of times I found myself warping inside of objects or off the map. This seemed to happen more while playing online, but I can’t be sure what was causing it. Often times lag in the online matches can also turn what should be a light, yet tactical competitive game into something that feel frustrating and unfair. When it works, it works great, but the issues hit the essential parts of what Smashbox Arena is supposed to be. How can you physically dodge something when the netcode determined it hit you split seconds before you can even see it coming?
Smashbox Arena is not the type of game you expect to like. I thought it would be a quick and easy game to write off and call yet another mediocre attempt at utilizing the virtual reality platform. At a glance, it looks like some college programmer’s senior project that they hammered out over a couple of semesters. In practice, Smashbox Arena ends up being a lot of fun, with precise tracking and fast paced competitive gameplay that hides a lot of depth and strategy, but it’s ultimately held back my a number of technical issues and the lack of a strong online community.