Allow me to tell you a story. A story of my first real venture into the world of volleyball, a sport I have only been exposed to via gym class and the Olympics, now becomes a world I am prepared to dive in to through the medium of Spike Volleyball for the Xbox One.
Unfortunately, my first few steps into the sport were shaky, to say the least. Spike Volleyball has adopted the strange sports game tradition of placing you into a match straight from the off to serve as a tutorial, a confusing as hell one at that. These type of introduction simply throw too much information at you at once. Instead of placing you in an isolated arena to build up your skills, repeating activities one by one until you are confident and comfortable in your ability, you read a block of text, give it a shot, promptly mess it up, and the game carries on regardless by introducing you to the next, just as confusing, technique. Without this feedback (I’m losing, but why?), I lost the tutorial game, already having a bitter taste in my mouth towards this title.
So after my humiliating first defeat, and still woefully unprepared, I decided that the next logical step in my journey was to become world champion, naturally. This is the game’s career mode, which sees you coaching an international team to the top spot in the world rankings within three years; no pressure there. Even this form of design seems somewhat archaic in the modern sports game landscape though, with titles like FIFA tailoring your career goals to your team of choice.
The absence of this feature hit me hard when I selected the French team I had just played as, to ease my experience a little by using with the best players on the game, only to find they had been replaced by a bunch of low-rated randomly generated nobodies. Sure, there is reward to be found in building up this ragtag bunch into world beaters, but it just misses that personal touch.
Nevertheless, adversity makes champions, and I dive headfirst into my opening match. Australia, 15-8, 15-11. Humiliating loss. Match two, against Brazil, gulp. A 22-24, 15-17 victory (am I getting better?). Game three, China. 15-8, 11-15, 15-13, defeat (maybe not). I’m out the tournament, that was quick. This is how my experience continued: losing a game, winning a game, losing streak, winning streak. Scouting new players, creeping up the world rankings, but mindlessly and through no real plan.
Okay, enough of the story gimmick, since here lies the crux of the major issues Spike Volleyball. The gameplay is just straight up vacant of any thoughtful engagement and even downright broken at times. After two in-game years, I couldn’t tell you a tactic that is effective, or why certain plays work whilst others don’t. The gameplay feels more like a lottery, pressing an action button and rolling the dice to see whether or not your players will execute it how you desire, mess it up, or be blocked by the opposition out of your control. Well, that is if the game’s programming actually works in the first place.
Too many games are decided by points that come from broken physics, with the ball often flinging itself into the air without a care for the laws of physics, or shots being spiked from arms that are yards away from making contact. On a technical level, players often freeze in place or enter the now iconic T-pose when trying to react to these abnormalities in the ball’s movement. The fact that the game insists on showing you replays of each point too, results in some absolutely hilarious clips.
Other aspects within Spike Volleyball are just poorly thought out and implemented even worse. For example, before or within a game you can adopt specific plays for your team to execute on court, or substitute players for those with more favorable attributes. At least, in theory you can. God only knows what the endless specified stats on a player actually translate to when controlling them. A 60 rated player controls the exact same as an 80 rated one, with every single one being able to play unrealistic passes to anywhere on the pitch regardless of direction, velocity or distance. Yes, this does mean that players float across court to reach their destinations, reaching Looney Tunes type speeds to keep play going. No, it is never not funny.
Okay, I had reserved this spot of the review to talk about the online mode of Spike Volleyball. However, after attempting to find someone to play against on three different days, I was unable to match up against anyone. I’m somewhat relieved. This game has been out for a little over a month and the online community is already non-existent. I think that’s your review right there.
How about some positives instead then? In terms of presentation, the graphics are passable enough, with robotic but functional animations and sound design that passes the barrier for entry. The game really excels in its menus, which are slick and easy to navigate between the various modes. The selection of these on offer is pretty extensive too, ranging from the aforementioned career and online seasons modes, to local single and multiplayer solo matches and tournaments, plus a constantly updating challenge mode which sets tasks to be completed to encourage variety in gameplay; such as scoring three aces in a single match.
There is a foundation for a good community here. If Spike Volleyball worked consistently I really could see some fans, both of the sport and newcomers such as me alike, latching on to this title as the go-to. It’s undeniably satisfying to pull off a successful spike, giving your opponent no time to react to it or to hit a Mario Tennis style perfect serve.
The simple fact though, is that this kind of play is the rarity, instead of the rule. Even outside of the gameplay, the menu music is generic and the loading times noticeable. This general lack of polish or passion permeates throughout the title, bugs that should have been ironed out in development plague the experience, with the game never overcoming that initial confusion and sense of being overwhelmed that the introductory match hits you with. The biggest indictment I can give Spike Volleyball, as with any, is that it is simply no fun. Do yourself a favor and ignore this one.