In order to really compete with the big hitters in the sports world, you need to try something a little different. There is next to no point in going up against EA and Konami in the football world, the team at HB Studios have pretty much taken the golf crown for themselves with The Golf Club series, and for all the bad found in the tennis scene, there are already a few options for gamers to take.
It therefore makes utter sense for Bigben and Black Sheep Studio to focus their time and effort on volleyball, a sport which is probably best known for its beach variety, with a fairly decent fan base helping push it along. But has development of Spike Volleyball on Xbox One really been worth their time and effort?
Well, it may well have actually been a better idea for Bigben to centralise their thoughts on that beach side of things instead, because what is found within Spike Volleyball couldn’t ever be thought of as a way of getting more players involved in the real-world game, with a decent mechanical idea overshadowed by numerous issues and an absolutely crazy purchase price.
I will however start with the positives and for the most part you may well find a reasonably enjoyable volleyball experience within Spike. Playing out in a 6v6 match-up, and with 50 national teams that cover both the men’s and women’s games, the mechanics behind it all work reasonably well. In fact, from the first serve, to every spike and then all the smashes, Spike Volleyball does, at times, manage to deliver an experience that many a volleyball fan would be after.
This means that the teamwork side of things is present and correct, and by utilising a variety of face button pushes (with a tad of trigger work in order to pull off the odd net block), you’ll easily find yourself pinging the ball around the court with ease, delicately placing it in order to find the required smash or dropshot that will see success be had. It has been a rather inspired choice by the development team to remove all the worry about having to control players positions on the court, leaving the AI behind it to place your team in relevant positions, with you then being left to decide on who is best placed to action every individual shot instead. It saves Spike Volleyball from getting overly messy and allows the player to focus on ball placements and tactics instead.
These mechanics don’t seem to work every time though, and throughout the single player campaign that is in place, button lag is a real thing that constantly raises its head. When the timing of button presses is key to the outcome of any shot that is made, this is obviously hugely frustrating, but strangely never enough for me to take umbrage. Perhaps that is because of the way volleyball scoring works, and with the opportunity to run between 15 and 25 points for a win, and a number of set takedowns required, the odd missed point rarely troubles.
It’s also good to see a fairly decent career mode in play, and whilst you will struggle to find anything overly exciting about working through a bog standard calendar system, taking a team from zeroes to heroes and being given the chance to build a squad of better players as you go is a decent addition which will ensure that your time with Spike Volleyball isn’t over in a flash. This career mode is a great way of utilising the variety of different in-game tactical plays that the game allows too, and whilst I’m not overly sure that sending agents out to discover new talent between matches is necessarily worth bothering with, the option to take on more of a management role will appeal to some.
There are also weekly challenges which rotate in and out of play, rewarding you with V-Credits should you be able to take down the opposing team, or hit a variety of simple plays, like taking home 3 points direct from serves. This is accompanied by both Friendly match and Tournament options, with the latter delivering national, international and world championships, cups and leagues. Should you find that the career is becoming a bit too much of a tedium bringer, then these do suffice.
For those few good things though, much of Spike Volleyball comes across as nothing more than average at best.
Visually and things are a bit of an issue, no matter whether you decide to run the camera at the rear of the court, or down one side. Each of the stadiums from around the world are well visualised, but background elements shouldn’t really be the focus of any development team’s work. This is what has seemingly happened here with Spike though as the on-court action is missing a beat or two, and an animation or five. While serving looks great, players are found struggling around the court like no hopers, occasionally flicking from a standing position to laying flat out on the ground, failing to reach an easy shot, with little rhyme nor reason. They’ll also ready themselves for a smashing serve by facing in the wrong direction, or seemingly getting ready to sprint from one side of the court to the other, for no real reason.
All of the players are pretty generic too, with little difference in facial features or body structure to separate one from another. Whilst the female anatomy obviously allows for a different look to the men, much more could – and probably should – have been done to allow the teams and the players to begin to feel real.
The sound effects that accompany these visuals are just as poor with in-match commentary taken straight out of something that EA or Konami would have produced a good five years back; constant repetition and commentary loops are only bearable for a short while. Thankfully you can switch it off and as you do so it’ll probably be best to throw the cutscenes in the bin too; doing away with point replays and forgetting about watching the same old team conversations during breaks in play will just make your life, and Spike Volleyball, easier to handle. In fact, switching off nearly all filler like this is the way to go, and will allow for focusing on the actual gameplay instead of the crappy dated bits that aren’t needed.
If you can look past the variety of issues, then I can just about see any ardent volleyball fan being able to find something of note in the solo campaign. However, it is when Spike Volleyball on Xbox One opens itself up to the online world when things get a whole ton worse.
I have to admit to being shocked at the ease of being able to find random match-ups with others across the globe and even though a slight wait is required in order for you to find an online opponent, as of writing, playing online against strangers seems to be a regular, unhindered, occurrence. Unfortunately things quickly go downhill from there on out and the dodgy animations of the single player game are multiplied ten-fold online. Players will disappear from view and then re-emerge in a completely different part of the court on a very regular basis, and this means that well placed shots into space that should be called as a winner, may well be found coming back at you before you know it, with the invisible man on the opposition team playing a worldie.
Further to this there are times when a player nowhere near the ball can magically manage to dink one up and over the net, leaving you blind to any response. The button lag that is already present offline is ever correct here too, and no matter how hard you try to return a smash, the odd lack of button prompts whenever Spike feels like it, means the whole online scene just turns into a totally random mess. At least that in turn makes the solo campaign a bit more appealing.
On the face of it, a decent volleyball game could well find a space in the ever widening sports market. In order to do so though, that game needs to be a hell of a lot more polished than Spike Volleyball is. A clear lack of proper player animations, a number of mechanical issues and an online scene which is just a mess, all come together to ensure that this is a game to keep away from.
Yes there are the occasional good bits, and it’s reasonably decent fun to be able to take a solo career team on a journey to success, but at the end of the day you’ll have to be a huge fan and follower of all things volleyball in order to really find enjoyment. And even then, it’s not a patch on what we find down at the beach, even more so when you take into account the horrendous price being asked.