Sprint Vector: A Solid Start with a Ways to Go

Intro

As someone who’s found an appreciation for fast paced, flying games like Eagle Flight and Windlands, I charged headlong into Sprint Vector with sky high expectations. With people hailing it as the “Mario Kart of VR” you would not be totally at fault for imagining a level of quality that very few games ever reach. While Sprint Vector does eventually find its stride, to say it ascends into the genre defining heights of Mario Kart is a pretty generous overstatement in my opinion. Sprint Vector does provide a fun, motion controller-centric thrill ride and does so with style and a lot of heart. So without further ado, let’s get this show on the road.

Locomotion

In SV, as the name suggests, you move through the world by swinging your arms in a sprinting motion while pressing the respective trigger in time with your swings, sort of like ski poles. It’s a bit of a mental exercise, but you get used to it pretty quickly and it smartly frees up your hands for other interactions when the time calls for it. When you start building up your rhythm and hit that max speed, moving through the world feels great and being driven by your body’s natural movement makes the motion disconnect a little easier to handle for motion sensitive players.

The game employs a snap turning feature by tilting the right analog stick for reorienting yourself, and there’s a little graphic on the floor with an arrow pointing toward the front of your playspace. You can also turn on a field of view reducer if motion sickness is rearing its ugly head. As someone who is moderately susceptible to motion sickness, beyond a few gut wrenching moments as I struggled to learn the controls and occasionally during drifting, the game is surprisingly comfortable.

The movement system is also a tremendous arm workout, just today I put in about 2.5 hours across two play sessions and burned 1200 calories according to my Apple Watch! :O

Gameplay

Overall, I found SV to have bitten off a little more than it can chew mechanically speaking. In a game like this, finding that perfect balance between simplicity and complexity is a real challenge, and I’d say Sprint Vector slips into the overly complex category. You’re keeping track of your arm swinging pace and hand position, your double jump, glide boost, break stomp, many diverging paths, items to collect and use accordingly, and tons of obstacles to avoid. Keeping track of everything takes a lot of mental and finger dexterity. After playing for about 4 hours or so I had just started to get a good feel for all of it and it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable 4 hours as you’re pretty much running into things the entire time. I suggest playing through all of the tutorials first thing, and then some of the challenge courses where it’s less stressful and more open to experimentation to really help nail down how to move.

So with the comparisons to Mario Kart you might think a race is composed of 3 laps around a course. That’s not the case, there’s a definitive start and end point with multiple checkpoints in between. It feels a little bit like SSX or similar downhill type game in that regard. The problem with this style of race within the battle context, is that your traps have a less significant role to play. In lap based combat, as the race progresses, players will naturally create more hazards lap after lap making it more chaotic and interesting. Here, once your opponents are past your trap, that’s that; which leads me into the power-ups in general, they’re pretty generic. You’ll find your typical arsenal of speed boosts, things to shoot at your opponents, and traps to lay. They get the job done, but don’t have much character or variety to them, either activate the speed boost, or point and shoot the projectile/trap. Having quirky and interesting power-ups could have inspired more emergent gameplay opportunities. Give me a grappling hook that flings me past an opponent, or helm a super fast mutant dog sled team, or a boom box that spits out sound waves knocking players away from you, or a remote that teleports every racer to your location, these are probably terrible examples, but ideally the items would be brimming with as much personality as the rest of the game.

By far, the most frustrating thing about SV is that activating power-ups requires double tapping either trigger… you know, the thing you’re hitting over and over again as you swing your arms. The power-ups can feel pointless at times because it’s likely you will accidentally fire them off before you find a desired use. And when you don’t have a power-up, double tapping the trigger fires a little energy ball that can deactivate certain traps. So if you see an obstacle incoming that could be disabled, but already have a power-up in hand, you have to figure out how to avoid it, which is occasionally impossible because some of these traps are gigantic. For these reasons, the triggers feel overloaded with responsibility.

And then there’s the AI. Over the races I played I’ve seen characters get stuck on walls or ledges, just stop running completely out in the open, or even turn around and run the wrong direction. At one point I thought I was going the wrong way because two characters ran past me going the other direction. Because there are no difficulty modes, I’m guessing the system is trying balance the race on the fly and this is the result. Sadly, it comes off too algorithmic and can feel disingenuous when you place well. Once you get a better feel for the systems and can power through the courses without too much trouble, the AI does start to feel better in single player. In multiplayer, the AI are basically just set dressing as you’ll be much more engaged with the other real players.

Single Player

In single player you can progress through and unlock all 12 races to enjoy at your leisure a’ la carte and a series of challenge maps too. There are a few different settings like turning off the AI opponents or turning off the power-ups. Sadly there is no Grand Prix mode, that goes for multiplayer too. The game feels structureless without it, just you racing with no definitive goal beyond reaching the finish line so you can do it again next race. Hopefully they can add this mode in a future update.

Due to the lack of a Grand Prix mode and the aforementioned AI issues, single player is little more than a practice mode to sharpen up your skills and learn the tracks before heading out into the wide open web for some multiplayer mayhem.

Multiplayer

I’m happy to say, it’s here that the sneakers really meet the road. Having actual opponents that don’t give a toss whether you can keep up or not really gives perspective on how well you’re doing and following opponents can be a great way to figure out the best routes. The drama in multiplayer is also amped up. On the straightaways at the end of each level, hearing the sounds of your opponents as you all furiously pump your arms to try and pull just a little bit ahead is devilishly exhilarating. It can make wins feel hard won, and there’s usually some laughs to be had when it’s all said and done. I did notice a few network connection issues and even a full on crash in multiplayer, but nothing so frustrating that I gave up trying to play.

Design and Feel

The cast is colorful and interesting. The entire premise of the game is sadistic and silly. The music nails the style it’s going for. The UI is clean and intuitive. The art style feels like something out of a bubblegum ad, bursting with blobby, juicy colors. The only gripe I have is that the two announcers, from the moment the game loads up to the moment you quit, are chiming in with these little advertisements from their ‘sponsors’. They’re pretty funny, and they play a crucial role in conveying a deeper sense of the world, but you’ll have heard all of them after a few hours of play. I can already tell it’s turning from cute to annoying, just like real ads! And I am learning to tune them out, just like real ads! Perhaps limiting when and how often they trigger would help extend their longevity.

Conclusion

Overall, despite a solid first try at this subgenre, I found Sprint Vector has a ways to go before it takes home the gold. A vanilla power-up selection, overburdened control scheme, and shallow single player, trip up its otherwise compelling locomotion, great multiplayer experience, colorful characters, interesting world, and a great workout to boot. There’s still plenty of fun to be had if you dedicate yourself to learning the systems, and I’d consider it to be a must-play for anyone interested in a fresh racing experience built from the ground up for motion controllers.

That’s all I’ve got, stay safe out there travelers; hope to see you at the starting line!

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Impressions: Huge Robot’s Freedom Locomotion System

George Kong of Huge Robot recently released a video detailing his solution to VR locomotion. The demo he references in the video can be downloaded from here and I would highly advise checking it out when you get some time. The system seemed very compelling to me upon watching and I was eager to check it out. It was developed and designed for the Vive, so not everything works perfectly with the Rift, but the piece I was most interested in trying still works fine. It’s called CAOTS, a form of locomotion in where bobbing of your head translates to movement speed.

Also to note, I’d say I’m moderately susceptible to motion sickness,  the most intense style I can handle is free movement with snap turning, sometimes even those can get to me if there happens to be a lot of vertical traversal in the level design.

Things That Worked

The system really seems to hit its sweet spot when you’re jogging or running. In fact, the way it incorporates your hands into the mix creates a very compelling sense of motion. There was a point in the demo where I was running along a zigzag pathway. I was at a decently fast jog pace, and actually felt a wave of presence hit me. My brain was totally fooled into thinking I was actually running along the path!

When this video first released, reddit user hotvrz smartly pointed out that the bobbing head movement scheme would be a detriment to moving smoothly and tactically in a game like Onward. I spent a fair amount of time sneaking around the town level and found that tactical movement was very doable. Steady movement can be obtained with a very slight motion of the head. Take this with a grain of salt though, it would be hard to say how much of an impact it would have until you actually implemented it in a highly competitive scenario like Onward.

Now this next point could be a bit of contention as to whether it’s a positive or negative, but using CAOTS definitely gets your heartrate up and breathing pace increases. For whatever reason, I’ve always thought fitness and video games would never be able to co-exist but in VR, the physicality contributes to the overall experience for first person games.

Things That Didn’t Work

While jogging and running are great, CAOTS struggles with the most basic of human movement, walking. When I tried to use a relaxed, gentle pace, my translated movement speed was way too slow to be useable. This is due to most of the motion being in my feet, not my head. So you end up using this jazzy jive movement and that’s about as close as you can get to walking. It’s not terrible, but it takes some getting used to and doesn’t feel totally natural or comfortable. Strange side note: I noticed myself timing my bounce pace with the in-game music and that was oddly satisfying.

Another downside is, because movement is dictated by your head moving up and down, if I were jogging through town and I suddenly crouched to take cover behind a car I would lunge forward in the game world. The same is true if you are crouching and jump up to a standing position, you’ll fly forward a good 10 yards or so. It also happens to a lesser extent when you suddenly look up or down while moving.

Another use case of incongruent real motion to game motion is when you come to a stop after running. My running pace has a more controlled bounce pattern to it, and as my legs relax and break to stop, the bounce becomes more aggressive. This results in odd sudden jerks forward. Conversely, if you release your movement button as you reach your destination, you will immediately stop with no period of deceleration. This is very jarring and usually leads to throwing off your balance.

After a couple different play sessions, I think overall, it does help fight motion sickness albeit probably not enough. My first play session was about 40 minutes long and I felt just a little bit woozy afterwards. That could be attributed to me simply adjusting to a new locomotion system though. My second play session I did much better. Going up and down steep inclines seemed noticeably less averse in particular.

My wife graciously agreed to try out the system as well. She has a more timid walking/running style and couldn’t get the system to really move as fast as she wanted.

What This Means For Locomotion Going Forward

The one thing this experience has driven home for me is that, if we want a more complete, natural feeling locomotion system in VR, we need to better understand what is going on with our feet. In the long term, I still think something like Telaria VR’s solution would be more natural and intuitive. But given the current state of VR hardware, this system does an admirable job and brings us closer to a more ideal locomotion system for first person games.

Thanks to Huge Robot for spending time and effort on this issue and sharing your results with the community; I can’t wait to see what games you create with it. Thanks to all for reading! Apologies for bad grammar, it tends to go out the window when I excitedly type. Let me know your impressions of CAOTS if you’ve given it a spin, and feel free to share thoughts on VR locomotion in general. 🙂