With every new console or peripheral launch, there’s always a couple of experimental new releases made available to show off the new technology. Some are great. Some fall short. But they all do something a little bit different. Given the nature of PlayStation VR, it could be said that most of the titles on the PlayStation Store fall into this experimental category. There’s absolutely no doubt that Frame Interactive’s Headmaster most definitely does.
Headmaster’s premise is simple. As a recruit at the Football Improvement Centre, soccer balls are fired toward your head from varying directions and using the PlayStation VR headset, you have to head them at targets which are positioned in front of you. Three overall score targets exist in each lesson, allowing you to obtain one, two, or three stars depending on your performance. Collecting stars allows you to unlock and take on exams that may or may not allow you to leave the FIC when all is said and done.
I said the premise was simple and it really is no more complex than just described, but that doesn’t mean that the fun is thin on the ground. From the outset, the developer’s description of the game being “the strange love child of Portal and Wii Sports” makes a lot of sense. The ever-present but never-visible head of the facility gives commands via a loudspeaker positioned in each arena, and controls are – if anything – even simpler than in the likes of Wii Sports.
Indeed, once you’ve selected whether you want to play in single or local party mode, you can put your DualShock down until you’re done for the day, since the entire game is controlled with the headset. Menu options are selected by simply looking at them for a second or two and though that initially sounds as if it might be fraught with issues, it works absolutely perfectly here.
It’s little touches like this that push Headmaster toward the top of the PSVR pile in terms of usability, but when you get into the game proper, you’ll find that it’s up there in terms of gameplay, too. The game recommends that you play from a seated position, but as someone who’s played a fair amount of football in their day, I preferred to stand. Headmaster works beautifully in either case and no matter how you decide to situate yourself, the level of fidelity that you have in your control of the direction of the ball is genuinely surprising.
As in real life, adjusting your head position or stance ever so slightly can have a dramatic effect on your result. There are a few times when you’re trying to reach higher targets when the ball feels a little bit too light – like a cheap plastic play ball, as opposed to a regulation weight soccer ball – but these occurrences are rare and can be dealt with by being a shade more careful than usual with your approach.
Were Headmaster simply a game of hitting score targets over and over again on a standard soccer field, it would probably be a little bit dull. The developer has worked to avoid this outcome though, mixing things up by providing all manner of challenges to make things more compelling. At first, you’ll be nodding a ball at a goal. Then you’ll have to clear some obstacles in order to make higher scoring targets appear. Then you’ll be playing beer pong, smashing a piñata, taking part in fairground-style games, ten pin bowling and heading a ball made of knives at a dartboard.
These more varied challenges are unlocked as a result of completing more run-of-the-mill tasks, but even when things appear to be a bit more vanilla, they often require thought and planning to overcome. If your minimum score target is 300 points in 10 shots and you start with only two 20-point targets on display for example, you’ll have to work out the order in which you need to take them down in order to unlock the targets that will grant higher scores.
There’s a good chance that even if you do overcome each challenge, you’ll need to go back and play levels again in order to improve upon your earlier scores to get enough stars to unlock the exam levels. Obviously, there’s a threat that could become dull or frustrating, but the degree of control that you have and the level of skill required to pick up those treble star awards mean that isn’t the case. The challenge is entertaining enough to survive the grind.
Headmaster also does a good job of providing a solid chunk of atmosphere. The first time you step onto the pitch, you’ll be struck by the sheer sense of location that you have. If you’ve ever stood on a pitch in front of a full-sized soccer goal, you’ll note that this really isn’t far away from the experience. Well, apart from the spotlights, the facility’s watchtowers, and the barbed wire sat atop the walls which suggest that things aren’t all that they seem for your character, that is…
There’s also support for multiple players, though this seems somewhat lackluster when compared to the single player mode. Up to six local players can compete in a single lesson (though four more are listed as “Coming Soon” at the time of review) to see who can get the best score. Passing the headset from player to player is the main obstacle to enjoyment here – though the game can’t be faulted for that – but it would have been nice to have online competition, leaderboards, or even something as basic as a local records list. As it stands, everyone is simply referred to as their player number and once the match is over, their performance is forgotten. Multiplayer is essentially just a throw-in when it comes down to it, but it would be hard to penalize the Headmaster too harshly for that when the single player action is so much damn fun.
This review is based on the PlayStation VR version of the game, which we were provided with.
Headmaster is simple, playable, and incredibly fun. It’s easy to pick up but still provides room for more skilled players to excel and there’s enough playing time here to ensure that your money is well spent. An excellent effort overall.