Sports Bar VR PS4 Review
One of the most commonly used counterarguments used against VR, videogames, and just about any form of interactive entertainment (whether jokingly or mockingly) is the irony of engaging in a fictionalized activity based on a real-world one. As with most things in life, there’s a clever Simpsons joke that points this out, as Bart skips out on doing household chores only to excitedly play a videogame that simulates the very chores his mother asked him to do.
Sports Bar VR would be the PSVR launch game most skeptics would use as an example of keeping people isolated in their homes from experiencing the real life activity of playing pool, darts and other social activities with a group of people. Of course, there are legitimate rebuttals to why staying at home to simulate an activity is preferable: perhaps it’s a work week, where there isn’t enough time to get a bunch of friends to hang out at night. Perhaps two or more of those friends are tied up and can’t meet up. Or, more depressingly, perhaps someone doesn’t have enough friends to even attempt a social gathering. Morbid reasons aside, Sports Bar is the first console VR game to simulate a real world activity that can also be played alongside other headset-wearing players online (they even show up as literal floating VR headsets), foregoing fantastical simulations like gunning down monsters in a roller-coaster, driving space tanks or being Batman for something a bit more grounded in reality (but not entirely bereft of its own goofy quirks).
As the name implies, Sports Bar VR takes place inside a virtual sports bar. The sights and sounds are all on point, with a dimly-lit backdrop filled with televisions, bartenders and the distant mutterings of people and generic country music. The bar acts as a hub world of sorts, where players can move to various spots to engage in the local activities including pool, darts, air hockey and skeeball. These games can be played with AI or online players and at various difficulty settings (beware, as the AI opponents can be utterly punishing even on the easiest difficulty). Taking a cue from most games featuring an RPG-inspired unlock mechanic, every action in Sports Bar rewards experience points, even when losing a game, which unlocks various goodies that serve no purpose beyond cosmetics, such as visible hats for the VR avatar, additional table skins, foam hands for the on-screen controller, and so on.
Right off the bat, the biggest challenge in Sports Bar VR is mastering the controls. It can be quite the learning curve to remember which combination of buttons does what, especially when using two Move controllers, which can result early on in some admittedly amusing goofs such as pulling out a pool stick during a game of darts or (not quite as amusing) teleporting away from a game to face the opposite side of the room. Movement and positioning is also a major factor that requires lots of getting used to, an all-too-common problem seen in these early crop of VR games; players can use the teleport mechanic to instantly move to the highlighted destination, though this has limited uses and frequently will not suffice to get that ideal positioning around a pool table or otherwise. This is where the “Hulk Mode” comes in: rather than moving your perspective around a given area, Hulk Mode is all about grabbing and dragging the space around you to find that sweet spot, much in the way one would grab a nearby chair or table to suit their needs. Though this can lead to a minor amount of vertigo, Hulk Mode is still the much more useful of the two movement methods.
As for the games themselves, they are pretty self explanatory: pool has players manipulating a pool cue and is a two step process: the first is locking the position of the cue, the other is to apply the desired force to hit the ball. Darts is even simpler, with players summoning up to three darts at a time in one “hand” and pulling them out and throwing them with the other. Conceptually, these games work as intended, but those who are a stickler for precision might find the responsiveness unsatisfying: more often than not, the game would not register the force of the pool cue correctly, either hitting the balls too softly or too strongly. Darts was even more imprecise, requiring shots to be thrown tightly and more softly than what would feel natural in real life, while skeeball takes the crown as the most imprecise of the bunch, with carefully tossed balls frequently skidding right out of the cabinet. Of the four games, air hockey was the only one that felt perfectly authentic without requiring any physical compromises. There is also the space factor as well, as players will need to especially be mindful that there aren’t any nearby obstacles that could obstruct (or otherwise break) gameplay during frantic arm swinging and aiming.
Despite its lack of 1:1 precision, there is still an unmistakable appeal to Sports Bar VR. The most fun can be had when choosing to act as comically destructive as possible, such as summoning up beer bottles only to smash them across every nook and cranny. Other objects such as furniture and even the juke box can be tossed around without any repercussions, and in those rare moments where the games function as they should, it can lead to a fun time waster, especially when socializing with other online patrons. The music selection gets repetitive fast, but that’s where the PS4’s latest update to quickly access Spotify comes in handy. Treating Sports Bar VR as a distracting time waster reveals the game’s true worth, rather than treating it like a competitive sports simulation.
That said, it would have been nice to have the best of both worlds. As it stands, Sports Bar VR is more like a virtual hangout reminiscent of Playstation Home, a social gathering where few patrons indulged in any of the mini-games within and remained content to treat it as a console-based Second Life. It is perhaps for that reason that Sports Bar VR will turn into a cult favorite among early adopters, but for anyone hoping for even a semi-accurate recreation of competitive sports bar activities, they may consider sticking to the real smoke-filled hangouts until a more precise alternative is released.