When I first heard about Racket: NX, my first reaction was the same as many. “Another racket game? Is this just another version of Racket Fury?” Racket Fury, for those who haven’t downloaded it: Its competitive ping pong. Racket: NX, by developer One Hamsa, is not ping pong, and the two are not even remotely the same. Well, ok…Both have a racket, and both use a ball. That’s where the similarities end.
Racket: NX markets itself as a combination of racquetball and pinball. I feel like that’s a little too simplistic. For one thing, the arena is a giant geodesic globe. You stand in the center, like the charming snowman in the center of a giant hexagonal snowglobe. The graphics are immersive. You feel like you’re in a giant futuristic arena, even if your play space is only a few square feet.
Thankfully, there isn’t a lot of lateral movements on your end. I was grateful for this. I don’t have a ton of room in my apartment and having to move even a few feet in any direction would end in me slamming into something, guardian be damned. However, the arena is a 360° play space. Consequently, you are turning around quite a bit during gameplay.
There are pinball elements to the game, like gutters, bumpers, and stoppers, but they’re more tributes inspired by pinball rather than anything that really gives you the feeling that you’re in a pinball machine. You never lose the ball, you only have the one racket (as opposed to multiple controls), and it lacks the whimsy of a pinball game and gives off a more intense feeling.
Your goal of the game is to hit all the targets before your time runs out. Your time is determined by an energy bar located near the bottom of the dome. If you hit boosters in the arena (represented as blue + signs), your time increases. If you hit the red-power draining hexes (that look like space invaders), your energy decreases, as does your time.
In the Solo Mode Campaign, There are four levels (basics, advanced, hardcore, insane) each containing 5 challenges, increasing in difficulty as you progress. The targets eventually start snaking around the arena and become a lot harder to hit; bumpers/stoppers are introduced that prevent you from hitting at certain angles; the number of boosters in each wave decreases, etc. Each challenge has several “waves” to complete before you pass. The faster you clear all the targets in each wave of the challenge, the higher your score. Simple enough? Not so fast.
The physics in Racket: NX are internally consistent, but not earthly. The ball only appears to adhere to some of the rules that apply to the rest of us. The ball never stops moving unless time in the arena has also stopped. The ball never just falls to the ground, but it will always eventually come back to where you are, standing in the center of the arena…from no matter where it is.
If you hit the ball, it might bounce off the walls of the dome…or it might travel across the dome, sticking to it as if controlled by magnets. However, this isn’t consistent, sometimes you might hit the ball gently, and the ball will ricochet several times, but you also might hit the ball quite hard, or rather, use a lot of force in your swing, since the ball isn’t actually there, and the ball will simply bounce off once.
The ball will go where you hit it, but the aiming in Racket: NX is very strange and not like any other racket sport I’ve ever played. There’s a sweet spot on the racket, and if you aim with that spot on the racket, the ball will go where you hit it. Otherwise? Good luck. This takes some getting used to. Because the physics of the racket and the ball are so unlike anything you would find in reality, it does somewhat dampen the illusion.
One handy tool you are given is the ability to press the trigger of your controller and draw the ball to you from wherever it is in the arena. This helps when you accidentally send your ball flying into an energy-draining red-hex, or if you don’t have a lot of energy left and need to send your ball into a few boosters. This is also insanely helpful during multiplayer gameplay, as you have to take turns and you don’t want your one shot to be missed because you can’t locate your ball.
At first, I admit I was annoyed when my energy drained before I beat a level. But as the days passed, I became grateful that I did in fact, have a time limit. It would be far too easy to lose track of time hitting that glowing ball all over the place and just keep playing until I cleared all the targets…and be late to work.
There are two multiplayer modes: competitive and friendly. After playing both, the only difference appears to be who you’re playing against: a friend from your list or a stranger the game picks out for you. I will say that competitive multiplayer gameplay is not so smooth. The game froze often, and often my opponent or I will get booted out of the game. When they get booted, I win by default, and I’m not about to complain about that, except I didn’t get to play that person and have to re-start the multiplayer mode find someone new to play with.
There is no way to practice for multiplayer competition. I was utterly blindsided the first time I entered a multiplayer game. I didn’t know what the objective was or what the rules were. I didn’t know that I was only to hit the ball when it turned my color. I didn’t know how to win, how not to lose, or what could make my opponent lose. I had to guess, and that’s a flaw the designers could quickly fix, though the general concept is buried in a text-only tutorial area. I’d like to see a multiplayer practice game, an AI opponent would add a lot to the game if I didn’t feel like having to interact with a real person.
I was hoping for some kind of co-op mode from the friendly multiplayer mode, but nope: It’s just a friendly competition. In multiplayer, you and your opponent take turns hitting the ball into the walls, and whoever reaches the high score first wins the set. Whoever wins the most out of 3 rounds wins the match. I have to admit, I feel like multiplayer could be done a little better. For one thing, you get one shot at your ball at a turn. If that ball goes into the wall before you’ve had a chance to hit it when it changes to your color: no turn. When you’re not the only one in the arena, the ball can get hard to keep track of. Watching others play in multiplayer did help me become a better player myself, and I did learn how to use the tractor-beam control more strategically.
The competitive mode of multiplayer comes with the same risks as challenging any stranger on the internet: sometimes, you can get creeps and jackasses as your opponents. Sometimes the skills aren’t equally matched. Sometimes they’re much better than you and vice versa. Personally, I would have liked more options with the multiplayer mode. I think having team challenges would have added an enjoyable experience…maybe something akin to tennis doubles?
Finally, you can go into Arcade Mode at any time. Arcade Mode has two subsets: Zen and Classic. The classic mode starts off simple and increases in difficulty with each wave. The waves are infinite, and you can keep playing until your energy runs out. The further you get, the harder your game becomes. Eventually, the session will get difficult enough for you, and you lose. Again, I don’t see this as a bad thing. I could play this game for hours and still be entertained. But this also means there is no winning in classic arcade mode. No matter what, eventually you lose, which felt a little crushing.
That being said, if you want just to practice or don’t want to die at all, Racket: NX has you covered. Zen mode gives you immortality until you decide you’re finished. In Zen mode, every target, booster or energy drainer you hit turns into a pink lotus blossom. Personally, I took out some of my anger and aimed at those stupid red hexes quite a bit since I knew they couldn’t kill me in Zen mode. It is, however, tough to stay angry with upbeat music pumping into your ears and lotus blossoms everywhere.
When you decide you have had enough in Zen mode, you’re surrounded by Lotus blossoms and treated to an ancient proverb. I’m not sure what the point of that is, but I have to say, I don’t mind it.
If you look at Racket: NX purely as a VR sport, this game has excellent longevity potential. It offers the same appeal as racquetball. The rules and gameplay are relatively consistent. The game comes with an upbeat soundtrack of its own, but you can also add your own music, which could make for a reasonably good workout, at least as for one arm.
I think that the main thing that could keep many players coming back is the fitness aspect. You do get a great workout in Racket: NX. My iWatch will often buzz while I’m playing and ask me if I’m doing an indoor run. I still don’t know how I feel about sweating so much in my headset, but the fact that I’m working up a good sweat can only bode well. Of course, you could spend weeks just making it through the Solo Campaign playing each level several times before you even pass or repeatedly play the same level simply improve your score once you do pass. Even after you’ve played through the entire campaign, the arcade modes give you a new experience each time.
Multiplayer will always give you a different experience each time, as every player has a different style, as well.
But there are some drawbacks. For one, the game is relatively static. While the gameplay increases in difficulty, unless you’re playing one other opponent, you’re always standing in the middle of an arena, hitting a ball by yourself. You can’t customize your Character (which appears to be either a red or blue robot), your racket, your ball, or the arena, which eventually feels a little monotonous because the main gameplay is solitary.
Even if you’re playing for fitness, once you’ve mastered the game, playing can feel more like being in a tennis court hitting balls with a ball machine–a machine with upbeat music, but a machine no less. One significant advantage of playing a virtual sport, as opposed to a real one, is the infinite possibility for variety. I think just being able to change some colors would be a nice change.
There is strategy involved, but it’s limited in scope. Once you’ve mastered hitting the ball where you want it to go (which admittedly can take a long while because of the wonky internal physics), the most involved strategy is merely staying alive long enough to finish a level, and even that becomes a bit easier. Each game goes for about 3-10 minutes, and that’s a good thing because, after that, it can and does get repetitive.
Racket: NX really shows the potential of VR to create sports that simply couldn’t exist in the real world. It’s a fun experience, a great way to bond with friends, and an excellent way to work up a good sweat in the comfort of your own home. The gameplay can get repetitive, and over time I found myself popping in for only a swift round, losing in about 10 minutes, and going about my day without the desire to return until I was ready to work up a good sweat the next day.