Review: Smashbox Arena

The classic red school ball is one of the most versatile toys ever made. Kickball, dodgeball, four-square or just bouncing it around for that wonderful *spoing!* sound it makes are all valid activities, and kids have been improvising new games to use it in for decades. They generally don’t have access to guns that pull in and shoot out the balls, though, or teleporters for that matter, so maybe it’s understandable that it’s taken this long for Smashbox Arena to happen.

Smashbox Arena is a team sport in VR where the object is for your crew to have the last member(s) standing. It’s played 3-on-3, with bots filling in when real people aren’t available, and you take out opponents by spang!ing a dodgeball off their heads. (Note- Spang!ing is a real word that’s only usage comes from hitting someone with a classic schoolyard ball. Its dictionary entry is only being held up by resentful editors.) Point one of your two guns at a ball in range using the VR motion controller of choice, pull the trigger to instantly pop it into the muzzle, then aim and fire as necessary. The gun also shoots a teleporter pad that’s the only way to move, and both ball and teleporter are fully subject to physics. When up against a team that uses this to full advantage the game gets much trickier than the rule-set makes it sound.

A ball in the gun, for example, doubles as a shield. A small, ball-sized shield, but quite handy for blocking enemy shots if you can see them coming and have the manual dexterity to use it. The teleporter is also a physics object, bouncing off walls and other obstacles. Finally, of course, you always want to be armed, ready to fire on any targets of opportunity. Those keeping count realize this means that shoot, block, and teleport are three functions for your two hands. It’s also worth noting that, while holding one ball and firing another sounds like a good idea, it’s really not. The arenas aren’t built for camping and you’ll need to keep mobile to stay alive.

Each arena is designed with plenty of open area requiring the player to look in every direction at all times, and even the safest spots are fairly vulnerable. At the start of each match the teams are set at either side of the map, housed in relative safety, and a rain of balls drops down giving the arena a plentiful supply of ammo waiting to be used.  Once the opening bell sounds it’s time to grab a ball and get moving, positioning yourself for maximum effect.  Everyone is moving for the best spots or making a dash for power-ups, and an effective strategy is as much about knowing the strong points on a map and how the opposing team will use them as it is about aim.

While the bulk of the ammo is the standard shot, there are also a nice variety of weapons to exploit.  The power-ups help counter any gaps in strategic knowledge, spawn in set places around the arena, and a well-placed shot with one can completely change the battle. Drop an exploding fireball between a couple of opponents who shouldn’t have been quite so close to each other and that’s two thirds of the team wiped out. Stone boulders grow to massive size and roll through anyone in their way, the sniper shot is incredibly precise, and the shield gives far better coverage than waving a ball in front of your face to block an incoming shot. The game could use a few more beyond the six that currently exist, but there’s also something nice in knowing there’s no waste in their design.

The three-on-three battles lend themselves perfectly to quick matches, and if things run past the time the game spawns a missile cluster in the middle of the arena that’s as much problem as opportunity for the team making a break for it. The cluster shoots out a missile for everyone on the opposing side, ignoring walls or shields between it and the player, but it still gives several seconds before landing the hit for the other team to pull out a victory.  The time limit on a match is short but the arenas are small and built for confrontation, so missiles don’t happen too often but add a nice tension to overtime when it happens.

And that’s pretty much everything, with the rest of the game found in exploiting the simplicity for best effect. Move, shoot bouncy balls while keeping trajectory and physics in mind, grab and exploit powerups when available, and always keep an eye on your team’s collective butt. The matches I’ve played in have had people operate independently, but there’s a ton of room for strategy when everyone works as a unit.  The only real issue, in fact, is the art style, which isn’t so much a “style” as it is “functional.”

It’s also worth noting that, despite Smashbox Arena being “done,” changes and updates come at a regular pace.  The latest one this week allowing for a third ability from the ball gun to shoot-cancel any teleporter landing too close the player, making it harder for an enemy to work crowding tactics against an attentive opponent.  Another recent change reskinned the balls from being the classic, iconic schoolyard toys to flashy but generic energy spheres, but kept the bouncy sound effects intact.  There’s a fair amount of talk in the forum about bringing the original design back, though, and the developers are constantly listening to and interacting with the community.

Closing Comments:

Smashbox Arena is a fantastic take on dodgeball, combining the classic playground activity with an arena FPS to make something fast enough for good competitive gaming while remaining appropriate for all ages.  There’s an incredible amount of room to develops skills for high level play but the simplicity makes it instantly accessible to just about anyone.  The arenas are few but very well designed, open enough to be dangerous but with enough cover that a little careful placement can provide a good advantage.  The VR implementation is just about perfect, with precise aiming based on your own personal skill and movement being as close to no-risk for motion sickness as it’s possible to get.  Smashbox Arena combines an FPS with team sports to create a fantastic fusion of the two genres, pointing the way forward for competitive multiplayer in VR.