StarBlood Arena takes the heart of Descent, the VR piloting chops of Eve: Valkyrie and the arena shooter feel of Unreal or Quake, and wraps them up into one delicious package. StarBlood Arena is the latest attempt by Sony to develop a long-lasting virtual reality-based online multiplayer game. After the relative failure of RIGS to maintain its popularity after launch, Developer WhiteMoon Dreams has the challenging (and some might say unenviable) task of creating a game that not only is excellent on its own merits, but proves the market for a multiplayer-only VR game.
With only about a million PSVR units sold worldwide, can this game be enough to convince players that VR is where multiplayer is at?
Fortunately, WhiteMoon Dreams have created an extremely compelling product. It’s different enough from Eve: Valkyrie to stand on its own, but does not forgo some of the design considerations that made that game so compelling.
But really, why couldn’t this be a standard “2D” game on a flat monitor? There have been plenty of spiritual successors to Descent over the years that surely take up the exact same mantle as StarBlood Arena does?
The answer is simple: head tracking. This, in my opinion, is the game’s killer feature. It’s organic, it’s natural and it adds immensely to the experience, both in terms of the game’s mechanics (helping to create a spatial map of where enemies are in your head) and its ability to immerse you in the game world. While this innovation is not limited to StarBlood Arena (see Battlezone, Eve: Valkyrie and RIGS), it is still compelling enough to make a strong case for its existence, and when put together with a full six degrees of freedom creates a killer product.
But let’s say this upfront: StarBlood lacks a proper single-player mode and this is the game’s biggest downside.
StarBlood is very exact and upfront with what it offers, but I still pine for the game that truly delivers on the tantalising glimpse of what is possible, best shown in the Star Wars Battlefront X-Wing Mission. The developers have, at least, smartly included an offline mode, both for training before you face real enemies and as a safeguard against the eventuality that the multiplayer mode rapidly subsides into Battleborn-type levels of abandonment. I’m not afraid to say that I was pretty bad at this game and the offline modes were especially helpful in stopping me from being demolished in the multiplayer proper.
But for the most part (hopefully), you’ll be choosing from Deathmatch, free for all and team options, a socceresque mode, and a horde mode that you can play co-operatively. Ships are varied and run the gamut of the usual class options: an all-rounder, the beefy but slow guy, fast but weak one etc. The designs are fantastic, and with a huge range of options in cosmetic upgrades, each character and their ship stands out just as well as Overwatch’s heroes.
The smart, tactical combat is the star of the show, but is brought down somewhat by the limitations of the PSVR’s relatively low-resolution display (960*540 per eye), which does affect your ability to see what’s happening at a distance, identify enemies and consequently define your strategy ahead of time. What differentiates this game from others in a similar vein is that combat takes place in a variety of arenas. Weaving in and around obstacles, chasing enemies through tunnels, kiting enemies into a mine you just laid and boosting out of a chase is thrilling. Smartly using all your abilities is essential. Combat is high energy to the point of being frenetic but once you’re in the flow state pieces fit together for some truly great moments.
Where StarBlood Arena failed to impress me was with its relative lack of distinctive character. Yes, everything had its own unique design, but it feels just a little bit generic.
Still, there’s nothing quite like it on the market today, and the attraction of a modern-day 6DOF combat arena shooter with up-to-date visuals, and in VR no less is, to me, irresistible.
The developers have been extremely co-operative with the community on sites like Reddit, and I think that this bodes well for its future, such as taking direct feedback on the games’ HOTAS support, which some players had an issue with at launch. This commitment to maintaining the goodwill and interest of the community will be paramount – almost the entire success of the game rests on its ability to maintain the player base beyond the initial burst of interest.
There are already signs in the long waits for a multiplayer match this may be the case. With hundreds of compelling multiplayer games popular at the moment, competing for players’ long-term attention is extremely difficult, and with PSVR being a niche market to start with, the chance of success is precarious at best. It’s difficult, because it is unfair to the game itself, but at the same time, it’s hard to recommend a game where the single player is limited and multiplayer hit-or-miss.
Cockpit combat games have been plentiful on Sony’s headset, but for me, StarBlood Arena is the best of them all. Perhaps its nostalgia for playing Descent with a cheap joystick on a Performa 5500 during the school holidays, but the tight combat, varied ships and mechanical possibilities unlocked by VR come together for an immensely enjoyable experience. It’s priced to be a relative impulse purchase for VR owners, and what you get for your money is a highly polished, complete package.
Released: April 2017
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PSVR
Genre: Action, Virtual Reality
Developer: WhiteMoon Dream