Since launching last November, we’ve seen a great many experimental titles appear on PlayStation VR. At the same time, we’ve also had our fair share of familiar game formats come to Sony’s new tech albeit with a virtual reality spin.
Smashbox Arena is definitely part of that latter camp, fronting as an arena-based shooter. It sees two teams of three clash across a decent spread of maps with one fun and unusual twist. Instead of mowing down enemies with assault rifles or shotguns, players need to grab and throw glowing orbs strewn across the map. It’s basically dodgeball, with the added ability to deflect incoming projectiles if you happen to be holding one yourself.
One of VR gaming’s biggest stumbling blocks is player navigation. Although some developers have opted for on-rails shooting such as Until Dawn: Rush of Blood and Archangel, others have allowed bigger, freer levels to move around in. In Smashbox Arena, players can toss a teleporting device using their free hand, beaming them to a target location. It’s a simple way of getting around though lacks the speed and finesse you’d want from a fast-paced competitive shooter. Turning, repositioning, and shooting are all awkwardly cumbersome; the teleporting itself can also take a couple of seconds too, preventing players from dodging enemy fire, even if they have the time and reflexes to respond.
Alongside energy orbs, there are various weapon power-ups that can help turn the tide of these 3-on-3 elimination matches. These include heat-seeking missiles, grenades, fireballs, and a giant boulder. While they help add some much-needed variety, moving to grab these items often puts you at risk. As much as I despise camping, it’s by far the best and most comfortable way of winning a match.
Although Smashbox Arena offers a single player “Story Mode”, this amounts to little more than a series of bot matches with no plot whatsoever. Gradually ramping up in difficulty, they serve as an extension to the tutorial, albeit with two AI companions backing your team. While it’s nice to have some company, watching your computer-controlled squaddies at work can be painful. Somehow, they manage to fudge point blank shots and – even worse – will stand idly between you and an enemy, completely blocking your line of sight.
It’s a game clearly built with multiplayer in mind but therein lies Smashbox Arena’s biggest caveat. PlayStation VR may have shifted over a million units, but the number of users who regularly strap themselves into a headset and hop online is comparatively small. There are a few games that enjoy niche followings like Rigs and Eve: Valkyrie, but after several days of trying, I haven’t found a single other person playing Smashbox Arena online. Not one.
The truth is, even if the servers were packed, it wouldn’t do much to save this shooter. Developer Bigbox VR has some interesting ideas though these are bogged down by mediocrity at every corner. You may be able to squeeze a few minutes of fun from Smashbox Arena, but beyond that it’s an incredibly hard sell.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 Pro