Virtual reality is still an evolving media, which means that there are still some basic challenges which we haven’t yet managed to solve. Movement is one of the biggest issues; how can you explore a huge area without wandering outside the boundaries of your playspace? Teleportation has generally become the industry standard solution, but Survios, the studio behind the hit game Raw Data, hopes to shatter the status quo with their VR platformer, Sprint Vector.
Sprint Vector was developed around the Fluid Locomotion System, which has been built to allow you to race at incredible speeds within virtual reality while leaving behind the effects of motion sickness. Instead of using your legs to propel yourself, you’ll be using momentum created by swinging your arms. Imagine yourself pumping your arms while on rollerblades and you’ve got the basic idea. The longer and smoother an arc your arm follows, the more speed you’ll build up. The advantage of this system is how natural it feels, and the swaying motion of moving your arms helps combat or even eliminate motion sickness in most players. I say most because I am, unfortunately, one of the few who can’t stay in the visor for more than a single race without feeling the need to spend some quality time with a porcelain bowl. Fortunately, I have an office full of VR fans of various levels of skill at my disposal, and I put them all to the test.
Of the dozen or so people in my office who played, I was the only one to suffer any serious motion sickness. Survios really has found an effective way to create a highly mobile virtual experience while simultaneously keeping you standing still and tricking your brain into being ok with with that. Some elements are more comfortable than others, sprinting forward was no problem for just about everyone, though one person had to jog in place, physically moving in order for his body to accept the forward motion. Jumping is another story, as the descent after the jump caused most people experience some unpleasant but not game-stopping vertigo.
Sprint Vector is a parkour lovers dream, allowing you to jump, fly, climb and generally defy gravity, all while leaving trails of Jet Set Radio-esque neon light in your wake. It’s also a highly physical game, requiring you to actively turn and duck your body while pumping your arms to build and maintain speed. The physicality of it helped bring out the competitive spirit of just about everyone who tried it out, resulting in whoops and shouts. Everyone got into the motion of pumping their arms pretty quickly, and not a single person finished a race without breaking a sweat. Even those who have physical impairments can get in on the action, so long as you’re able to swing both arms, you’ll be able to skate, climb, parkour and fly with the aid of the Vive wands.
The game also incorporates a whole series of fairly intuitive uses of the Vive wands, which allow you to break, jump, use items and more. Pulling both hands to your chest while squeezing the wands allows you to break and stop sharply, while tapping the circle pad on the top allows you to jump and double jump. It’s easy to pick up and easy to apply, which is good, because you’re going to be focusing on the course itself; dodging obstacles, making sharp turns, grabbing powerups, using items to sabotage your opponents, hitting speed-boosting vortices, and hunting down shortcuts and alternative routes makes Sprint Vector feel less like a race to the finish and more like a room scale Sega Genesis-era platformer.
The courses are diverse, and Survios succeeded in making each one felt like a unique location, featuring their own flavor and challenges. I also found that certain levels were more prone to causing motion sickness than others. The bright colors and neon lights of Pharaoh’s Scrapyard, the flashy course used during demos of the game, left me far more woozy than did the Aesir Village course, whose snowy trails featured muted colors and far less aerial action. Getting to know each track is a challenge and half the fun, finding a hidden boost, figuring out how to avoid a certain obstacle altogether, or launching yourself through the air and staying aloft for a huge portion of the race adds a sense of discovery, and makes it as much about the journey as crossing the finish line. That said, just getting to the finish line quickly can be a challenge early on, as courses can be quite difficult. Challenge courses, in particular, encourage you to think outside of the suggested boundaries of the track, rewarding you for taking the chance to jump, fly, climb, and parkour your way into the unknown.
While you’ll never get truly stuck, things such as losing momentum, hitting a particularly large obstacle, or falling off a platform can require you to backtrack or even respawn, eating up a surprising amount time. While one person who slipped on the visor, having never played any kind of VR game before and shot past the finish line, nabbing 5th place without even completing the tutorial, the rest of us generally ended with our AI opponents having virtually set up camp at the finish line as they waited for us to catch up.
The lobby of Sprint Vector perfectly matches the colorful, upbeat atmosphere of the courses themselves, and like the races themselves, comes with the hilarious commentary of the game’s hosts. You can run the game’s dozen courses solo, with customizable settings which are designed to allow you to learn the course, perfect your form, or just play around, or go online to test your stride against other racers. Sprint Vector offers both public and private lobbies, so you can have fun with your friends, or take on the best of the best to put your name at the top of the global leaderboard. While lobbies were often empty before launch, they do allow you a playground to skate, climb, parkour, and generally explore while you wait, helping alleviate the boredom while the system locates a worthy opponent.
As for staying power, Sprint Vector was a little more hit and miss with my crowd than was Raw Data. Everyone who saw it being played was eager to try it themselves, forming both an audience and a line, exchanging tips and observations as they waited their turn. Once in the visor, the more competitive types found themselves eager to power through race after race, hooked on the adrenaline rush or intent on claiming a top spot on the leaderboard. The majority of people tried a race or two and decided it was fun, but weren’t overly excited to play much more. One person even stopped half way through a race and announced it was a cool, novel experience but he didn’t really see how it was fun.
Part of the problem Sprint Vector faces is that it’s something that feels ahead of its time. It really wants to be a party game where you and one to three friends all play together in the same room, pulling off visors to high five and talk smack once the race is over. The party game effect was incredibly potent at conventions, where Survios had two players racing side by side in front of screens mirroring what the racers were seeing. It was magic, and even with a group of onlookers, the lack of side-by-side play was noticeable.
Sprint Vector has eight characters, and you’ll pick one to serve as your avatar while in the game. You can freely switch between any of these weird and wonderful characters while in the lobby, from Nikki, a lady whose neon pallet is bright that she could put the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cast to shame, to the gangster Hendrix, who gives me flashbacks to my childhood watching Street Sharks. Avatar selection is purely cosmetic, and they don’t come with character-specific boosts, handicaps, or special skills, though each has additional skins which can be unlocked by taking on the game’s nine challenge levels.
Sprint Vector has come a long way since I first played it back at E3, it’s become a full fledged, entertaining and engaging game, and has seen no small bit of polish since we tried out the beta. It’s certainly a community-driven game, and simply begs to be played as an eSport. It’s evolution has been topped off with the addition of an intergalactic game show backdrop, complete with snarky announcers. It’s vibrant, flashy, and irreverent, it has a great, fun soundtrack, and is incredibly fun to watch, though it seem to fall short of addictive with the majority of people who tried it out. It will make you feel like you’re Sonic the Hedgehog with a healthy dose of Jet Set Radio mixed in, zooming through a room scale platformer at high speed, but if that doesn’t appeal to you, you can always ditch the skates and help me gun down androids in Raw Data.
Sprint Vector is unlike anything else on the VR market. The Fluid Locomotion System allows for high speed virtual movement without motion sickness for most people, and the game's ubeat, irreverent tone encourages both casual and competitive play. It does seem to be hit or miss, and sadly seems to lack that addictive quality for most people. Meanwhile, my competitive friends and platformer fans can't seem to get enough of it, and it's just physically demanding enough to provide a bit of a workout to boot.