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October 2021

Smash Ball

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Online Multiplayer
Publisher: VRGEN
Developer: Game Pill
Release Date: 2021


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PC Preview - 'Smash Ball'

by Cody Medellin on Aug. 12, 2020 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Smash Ball is a high-speed hybrid of arcade-style air-hockey played with customizable mech athletes.

Sports are better with robots — or that's the prevailing idea in video games. In Cyberball, football is better since players can hit each other harder, and they can also be blown to bits if they don't score quickly enough. In Base Wars, robots mean hitting the ball harder and further, while point-robbing catches can be made sky high. Throwing robots into a game of tennis seems novel enough, but throwing them into a completely reimagined version of the sport is what makes Smash Ball intriguing, and we saw that in the latest preview build.

The best way to describe Smash Ball is an amalgamation of tennis and air hockey with a bit of Windjammers mixed in. Both you and your opponent are set in a small, closed-off arena, and by using smashes and lobs, you try to send the ball into the goal on the opposition's side of the court. The different shot types give you plenty of opportunities for tricks, and you can use the walls to create different shot opportunities.

There are additional differences that dramatically alter the game. For starters, the ball can enter the goal area, but instead of ending a rally, it is treated like a wall, so it returns at the same velocity. It gives the game a feeling of one big non-stop rally that is only interrupted by a match timer. Before the match, you can select power-ups to periodically deploy, such as goo that can slow down your opponent. You can also bring in a robot partner, which can have a strategic effect since every robot has distinct advantages and play styles. They aren't on the court at the same time as you are, but you can tag them at any time, much like one of Capcom's Vs. titles.

You can gain a lot of points by blowing up your opponent. While you have a chance at smacking your opponent with the ball, you have a better chance of hitting the sides of the opposing goal, which discharges electricity to damage your opponent. Just like the Vs. games, this also forces your opponent onto the field. Those changes to the base game make matches frantic and can turn them into impromptu fighting games if you're so inclined.

Like many modern games, there is an XP system for your profile, but the more exciting element is the cash system, which is earned in every match, win or lose. While you can get some cosmetic stuff this way, you can also get new robots and substantial upgrades to any of your body parts. Ten available robots are a decent roster, but the customization adds more combination possibilities.

What's surprising is the balanced AI. Each match may let you score a few points at the beginning, but the AI suddenly ramps up to make you fight for every point. The more you keep up, the more ruthless it gets, to the point where you may barely eke out a win or only get a win after one of your teammates bites the dust. Losses also feel close, so it never feels like you're being obliterated by your opponent. In a way, it adheres to that old Midway arcade sports ethos, where all games need to be close and blowouts are a rarity.

For now, Smash Ball is packed with a number of expected modes for a sports title. Both local and online play are present — with and without having power-ups — and while no one is online at the moment, the leaderboards show a decent number of people who have played during a closed session for a lengthy amount of time. There's a tournament mode that can also be run locally or online, and there's also a practice mode. A campaign is also available; it is quite substantial and spans several chapters, each with its own levels that can take a while to play through due to the aforementioned AI.

The only question remaining for Smash Ball is why it hasn't been released yet. On the surface, everything seems ready for prime time. The presentation is solid with commentary in place, and a few of the arenas look quite nice. With the exception of the unknown online performance, the mechanics are tight, the modes are fleshed out, and there's considerable depth in the customizations. There are even fully functioning achievements and bells and whistles like Remote Play support. Smash Ball is scheduled to hit sometime in late 2020, and we're interested to see if more features are introduced by then.

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