At its core Racket: Nx is a game about a racket, a ball, and a futuristic dome. Players will come to love all three: the thwack of a good hit; the sweeps and whooshes of a ball whizzing overhead; the pop and fizz of particles as a target is hit sweetly right in the centre. Here comes the ball again… line yourself up and take the next shot. It succeeds in making you feel like an heroic player as you unleash fierce volleys and subtle dinks.
We have written about Racket: Nx a couple of times before. Now, launched today into Early Access on Steam, (ahead of an anticipated late 2017 full release) we have a chance to revisit the latest version, this time with the much anticipated multiplayer support enabled.
I’ll cut right to the chase: the multiplayer is a blast. Fast, fun, satisfying and guaranteed to bring out the competitive streak in anybody. The avatars are really expressive—I’m going to go with ‘Alien Lizard Robot with Sound Activated Brain’ as the best descriptor here—so you can see the effect of play on your opponent as they lunge for a fast moving ball or pull off an impossible seeming back hand while the integrated chat makes sure you’ll hear every grunt and curse as play progresses. And there will be cursing, believe me.
Unfortunately, due to a last minute issue, it looks like Racket: Nx will launch with a small bug that sometimes hangs the game when you opt for a rematch. Exiting back to Steam and restarting the game gets it working again. It’s the only blight on an otherwise very impressive Early Access debut, and hopefully can be resolved soon.
In the multiplayer mode the arena moves through a set number of waves and, at the end of the final wave, the player with the highest score takes the win. Each wave features a different set of target types all around the players and offers a unique challenge. Every point you score takes a point away from your opponent, and vice versa, so there’s a lovely tug-of-war aspect at play here after you both start with 50 points. You will take it in turns to strike the ball, whose excellent and very satisfying physics haven’t lost anything in the months of tweaking since the demo.
Each time the ball hits the wall surrounding the arena it will change colour, alternating between your colour and your opponent’s, and will then return towards the appropriate player with the angle and speed determined by the previous shot. In this way you can make life difficult for the opposition simply by applying excessive power to a shot or ensuring the ball will return from an unfavourable angle. If they miss their shot the ball will pass them by, hit the wall, and then it will be your turn again and they just lost a chance to put points on the board.
In essence when you strike the ball its trajectory feels real, controllable, and believable. When the ball is returning, however, it’s more game-like as it homes in on the next player and you really feel like you’re inside a futuristic sport arena playing hyper-Squash.
There is a welcome element of gamesmanship and far deeper tactical play than I was expecting, in terms of shot selection and thinking a few hits ahead and taking advantage of a slip (literal or figurative) from your opponent. Added to this, the game features power-ups: cells that require multiple hits to break down with the player that lands that final shot reaping a bonus, warp cells that suck the ball in and spit it out randomly through another warp point, hit streaks, moving targets, and the ability to angle your shot just so and see it slide across multiple cells thus raking in the points; and later on there are negative cells that drain your score….
At time’s it’s breathless entertainment, and a good rally will have you laughing at the sheer thrill of it all. It feels very pure, very old school, and very polished. For a game in the vanguard of the initial VR wave—embracing the most modern gaming tech—in the hands, it whisks you back to playgrounds and simpler times.
After spending an hour in the new multiplayer mode with developer One Hamsa’s Community Director Carsten Boserup (and despite being heavily beaten by Carsten in every game we played) I had a great time. As the matches ebbed and flowed I did occasionally find a flurry of good form that felt very rewarding.
One Hamsa describe this as a VR Sport game, and they want player skill and ability to be front and centre. It’s easy to see how, with regular play, I could evolve and improve as a player to the point where I would be far more competitive, as with any “real” sport.
Despite an hour of energetic but friendly competition, the game didn’t leave me exhausted. Obviously a lot will depend on your individual build, level of fitness, style of play and what you want out of the game. Those simply looking for a fun sports game can just play it in a more relaxed way. Those looking for a moderate workout, or as a way to burn some calories, can play it more energetically.
No matter how you game, you will want to make sure your play area is sufficiently spacious and clear. I’m quite tall, with a long reach, and was conscious at all times that a sudden lunge or desperate swing could end in disaster. Equally, it’s all too easy to potentially get caught up in the trailing cables if you’re not careful. By now most VR gamers are accustomed to this but newer players will want to take extra care.
On the single player side there is a Solo mode featuring five challenges, each of which has a different and escalating combination of waves to master. This is a great mode in its own right, and very difficult to beat, but also acts as a primer for the multiplayer. The enemy here is the clock, as you fight against time to clear each wave, making just a little more progress each time.
When playing solo you can squeeze the trigger to change the ball’s trajectory by attracting it to the racket like a magnet, and the risk here is that the ball can shatter your racket if you don’t release the trigger in time, costing vital seconds as it regenerates. The reward is that you can potentially set up some crucial shots that keep you in the game.
There’s also an Arcade mode offering infinite play against the clock, but the Custom mode (whereby you can build and share your own set of waves) is currently unavailable, clearly intended for a later version.
Racket: Nx is available via Steam for the HTC Vive initially, though the developer has confirmed to Road to VR that they plan to add Rift and Touch support later this year. Though there isn’t yet “official” support, apparently people have been able to play it on the Rift through SteamVR, but I’d advise waiting a while to see the extent to which it’s playable in this way (as the game is built for 360 tracking, which not everyone with Touch has). As we move through the three planned quarterly Early Access updates (with tweaks and hotfixes as necessary in between) One Hamsa’s feature and post-Vive plans should become clearer.
It’s in those plans that the potential of Early Access could be maximised. While the developers have their own vision of where they want to take the game in the coming months, they are very much looking to the community to help shape their priorities and suggest new avenues that the game might explore. Modding is potentially on the table if there’s enough interest, and—given its Unity underpinnings and presence on the Steam platform—I’m certain there would be no shortage of people keen to experiment.
It’s a shame we have to wait until the end of the year for the finished article then, but there’s already enough here to warrant your consideration if you enjoyed the demo (available for free on the game’s Steam page), and the promise of more to come.
At $20—a price that will likely rise throughout the year as features are added—it falls into what we might consider the lower middle tier of VR pricing. Some people might baulk at the value proposition, and on the face of it there are cheaper VR experiences, but in a dollar-per-hour analysis there is a lot of potential play to be had in the game and the production values are above the norm.
Most of you will know from trying the demo whether this floats your boat, and whether it’s worth twenty bucks to you or not. If it is, I hope to see you in the multiplayer. I’ll be the tall British guy with the insane power shot who is slowly improving, match after match.
The whole package is presented neatly with a front end that smoothly moves between modes, builds up the 360 arena around you at the start of each match and explodes it away at the end. The sense of presence is excellent and the sound is clear and precise, which lends an air of believability to the notion that you’re bounding a futuristic ball off of futuristic walls using a futuristic racket.
It’s not Discs of Tron (1983), but it is very much like being in the Tron universe. Everything seems very real and solid, from the game world to the simple act of hitting the ball.
The fact that you are always located in the same position whether selecting options or playing the game means that comfort is excellent throughout. You are always in control in how you move in your play area and where you look; the only discomfort might come from the act of exercise itself, as it’s all too possible to wind up for a really big hit and overstretch yourself if you’re not careful.
You’ll want to make sure your play space is on the upper end of recommendations. Don’t play this if your ceiling is low or there are walls close to the edge of your play area unless you can be very disciplined in your movement.
The whole experience is so comfortable that spending a lot of time in the game is very pleasant—at least until the warmer weather arrives, at which point you’d better have air-conditioning or things are going to get very sweaty very quickly.
We partnered with AVA Direct to create the Exemplar 2 Ultimate, our high-end VR hardware reference point against which we perform our tests and reviews. Exemplar 2 is designed to push virtual reality experiences above and beyond what’s possible with systems built to lesser recommended VR specifications.
In Racket: Nx the HTC Vive can claim another worthy roomscale experience. It feels like a real sport, and when you’re in there everything else just fades into the background as you find yourself in the zone trying to beat your previous performances or the opponent standing opposite you. Time will tell how much One Hamsa can evolve and broaden the experience throughout its Early Access run, but what we have here is a very impressive beginning. Even if you’re not quite ready to jump in now, this is one to watch.