Drunk and disorderly
Sports Bar VR is certainly an enticing package. From the outset, Cherry Pop Games’ latest PSVR release offers what seems to be the perfect fit for social virtual reality gaming. The game invites up to six players to run amok in a sports bar to sip digital brews and compete in a collection of activities ripped straight from your favorite sports bar. That is, if you can fight the urge to hurl beer bottles across the bar, throw darts at your friends, and generally behave like a gallivanting jackass set loose in a surprisingly convincing representation of a virtual pub. However, while the premise is certainly promising, nagging control issues and technical hiccups occasionally turn this tipsy good time into one bad hangover.
Without question, pool is the star of the show in Sports Bar VR. Players can pick up a cue and sink balls to their heart’s content in either 8 Ball or 9 Ball pool against friends or the game’s incredibly aggressive AI. Exercising your inner pool shark is a great deal of fun when you come to grips with the controls, which have you using the Move controller to hold the cue with one hand, while you bring the stick back and forward to shoot with the other. Lining up shots is a bit cumbersome at first, but after a few games you’ll be surprised at just how natural it becomes. An impressive physics model goes a long way towards grounding the experience, too, making each shot feel incredibly satisfying and natural as you attempt to dominate the table.
Of course, dominating the table is only going to happen if you’re playing against another human. As I said before, the game’s AI is simply ruthless when it comes to Sports Bar VR’s pool component. Even on the easiest difficulties, the computer will sink four or five shot combos in rapid succession. I often felt as if I were playing against a beer-cooled version of Deep Blue that had retired its chessboard for a pool cue, claiming the scalps of any hapless bar patron foolish enough to cross sticks with him. However, laser-focused AI aside, shooting pool with your friends in the game’s virtual pub is a blast, and after awhile feels pretty darn close to the real deal, and that’s a sentiment I never thought I’d have towards video game pool.
Another great example of what Sports Bar VR does right is the way it handles air hockey. Picking up a striker and slapping a puck across the table is effortless. And when played with a friend, it’s easy to sink an hour at a time into rallying that plastic platter back and forth. Watching your cadre of patrons gather around to table to take in a heated match as you compete is an awesome feeling that’s made all the more satisfying when you realize each of those cutesy headsets gathered around the table is an actual set of eyes soaking up the excitement.
While pool and air hockey are absolutely fantastic when you come to grips with their mechanics, not all of the games included in Sports Bar VR are executed with just as much finesse. Playing darts seems like a grueling exercise in futility that would test the patience of Job himself. Aiming with the Move controllers feels staggeringly inconsistent, often to the point that I wondered if my virtual avatar had been slipped a roofie when I wasn’t looking. Darts tumble from your hands like rocks with one throw, only to whiz wildly towards the other side of the bar the next. I tried adjusting my position, speed of my throw, and distance from the camera countless times, but never could make more than one or two throws land remotely near the mark on any given turn. It’s a shame too, as this was one of the parts of Sports Bar VR’s package that seemed the most appealing from the outset. Sadly, what’s here feels entirely too random and inconsistent to have any lasting appeal.
Skee-ball is another game that has a great deal of potential, but it has its own share of technical gaffes that manage to keep it from being mediocre. You would think that this one would have been a sure-fire hit, especially considering just how well the old motion-controlled bowling mechanics worked in Wii Sports a decade ago. The main issue is that the balls themselves feel as weightless as ping pong balls. This means you’ll need to barely flick your wrist unless you want to send your wooden projectile ricocheting around the establishment. To make matters worse, the table itself is positioned at knee level, rather than the standard floor height skee-ball games you’re probably used to. This inherently makes you want to hold your arm in a very unnatural way when rolling the ball, which hurts the immersion and just doesn’t feel right. Still, if you can get used to these annoyances you’ll find some fun to be had, but with how convincingly the pool and air hockey components have been executed, it’s hard not to be a bit disappointed in the way darts and skee-ball fall mostly flat. The potential is there, and with more time and polish they could have been some really exceptional experiences. As it stands, they just serve to make Sports Bar VR feel like a tremendously lopsided package.
While these technical quibbles are mostly relegated to the mini-games’ mechanics themselves, there were a few occasions during time with the game that other issues popped up to put a damper on the fun. The most annoying of these issues came in the form of objects occasionally shifting back and forth on the screen. Adjusting the lighting or re-calibrating the headset did nothing to alleviate the issue, with closing an re-opening the application being the only way to remedy the situation. Having this happen at all is annoying, but it’s especially infuriating when you’re forced to back out of the game at the height of a heated game of pool. That said, if there’s one thing that will have you wanting to chuck beer bottles and jukeboxes across the room, this is it.
Aesthetically speaking, Sports Bar VR is a pretty nice looking title. The bar itself is sizable, and full of little details like socializing patrons shmoozing around the establishment, hundreds of bottles lining the bar, and even televisions showcasing actual footage on their screens. Honestly, it’s a pretty authentic experience if you can ignore the floating headsets that hover around the place causing mischief. The sounds are just as convincing too, with pool balls making a satisfying sound as they collide on the felt and skee-balls rumbling down the chute after you plunk a credit into the machine. It’s just a shame that the music that plays on the jukebox is pretty uninspired, making me wish you could import your own tracks and share them with your friends instead.
It’s a shame that so many technical issues crop up to sour Sports Bar VR’s experience like a skunky beer, because when things are working without a hitch the game can be a tremendous amount of fun – especially with friends. Shooting pool with your pals is addicting and feels surprisingly natural, and clacking plastic pucks against your striker in air hockey is a blast that anyone can pick up and play without a hassle. However, while these two parts of the package are a ton of fun and showcase the strengths of social VR gaming, half of the games on offer in Sports Bar VR are too poorly executed to be entertaining for more than a few rounds.
Beneath the scuffs and bruises, there’s a sturdy foundation here. And if developer Cherry Pop Games can incorporate new games into the collection with a the same level of quality as the pool and air hockey components, Sports Bar VR could be a great watering hole for casual players looking to soak up the barroom atmosphere without spending $6 on a pint of watered-down brew. It’s not quite there yet, but there’s still time for the developer to turn this dive bar into a bustling brewpub worthy of your patronage.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PS4 (reviewed) ; Publisher: Perilous Orbit ; Developer: Cherry Pop Games ; Players: 1-6 ; Released: October 25, 2016 ; ESRB: E for Everyone ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Sports Bar VR given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.