[Review] Sports Champions
I recently dug up: Sports Champions. Over here in the UK where I am, the Commonwealth games have recently come to an end. For those of you not aware of what they are, think of them as a smaller version of the Olympics but for countries that at one time or another were under British rule.
One of the particular sports at the event was Lawn Bowls, a sport older than time itself. As a kid, I was always fascinated by this sport and would religiously watch the matches televised on the BBC. The premise of the sport is simple: A small yellow ball known as a jack is rolled down a flat field of green and where ever it stops, each team/player then must roll much larger and heavier balls down the green to be as close to the jack as possible. After each team/player has finished rolling their balls, the team with the ball closest to the jack wins the round and scores points based on how many balls they have closest to the jack.
For me, such a simple premise proved to be incredibly addictive viewing so imagine my surprise when I found a variant of this sport called Bocce playable on Sony’s Sports Champions, released back in September of 2010 on the PS3.
I think looking back on the time spent on that game a majority of it was spent playing Bocce and upon going back into it again recently, Bocce was the first thing I played. Ironically, Bocce was not the reason I bought Sports Champion in the first place.
Prior to the release of Sports Champion, I had bought a copy of Eyepet, which came pre-packaged with the PS3 camera, as a gateway game for my younger brother. At the time he had been showing an interest in video games and rather than introduce him to the likes of Fallout or Uncharted, I decided to go for something more age appropriate.
For those of us familiar with the EU 2009 original version of Eyepet, you will understand when I say he was bored and disinterested within the hour. Undeterred by his disinterest, I chose to stay with the game a little longer as I saw the potential it had, and since I saw what it had been trying to achieve because, for the few instances when it worked, it worked well. But even I had to admit that the god awful track card that came with the game and was vital to playing it was just that: God awful.
In 2010, a new version of Eyepet was released to coincide with the launch of Sony’s PlayStation Move and instead of the useless track card, you would now be able to use a move controller, which Sony had been touting to be the next revolution in gaming…if you ignored the existence of the Wii (that launched with the Wiimote in 2006) and the Kinect. The Move was clearly doomed to failure, but because I secretly liked Eyepet and already had a camera, I figured I may as well get the PS Move and at least see if it was worth the effort.
Short answer was yes. The PS Move made Eyepet a thousand times much better to play and to interact with and convinced me that the Move was something I would be interested in on the long term. Therefore, I started to look into other games that were Move-exclusive. Tumble was one of the games that was and still is touted as the definitive Move required game. Whilst the Move had plenty of PSN bite-sized games, it lacked on the full-length side of things, and only one game stood out for me: Sports Champions. Made by San Diego Studios and Zindagi Games, this looked to be a cut above the rest. Boasting six different and varied activities: Archery, Table Tennis and Gladiator Duel were the games that garnered all the attention.
Table Tennis, because most felt it was a direct response to Wii Sports’ Tennis. Archery, because there was no greater feeling in that game than reaching behind your back with your Move controller to pull out your imaginary arrow from your invisible quiver -I remember feeling about 0.1% cooler every time I did that. Lastly was Gladiator Duel, a game which in my opinion justified the existence of Sports Champion.
Gladiator Duel was clearly designed to be played with two controllers but at the time I only had one. Even then, the gameplay was still engrossing enough to keep me coming back so much so I started to feel I was cheating myself of the full experience by not having a second controller. Essentially, it was Gladiator Duel that convinced me to get a second Move controller.
Along with those three games, were other three less popular games that were arguably just along to make up the numbers: Volleyball, Disc Golf and Bocce. Volleyball was by far the least popular of the sports at the time, with Disc Golf being a novelty more than anything else and, finally, Bocce, which was a plodding and tedious affair that I only turned to after I’d had a workout with Gladiator Duel and Disc Golf until I realized I was actually good at it. Eventually, I stopped playing Gladiator Duel and Disc Gold and just skipped straight to Bocce.
It was relaxing yet engrossing at the same time. But like everything else, I would eventually stop playing it until recently when I dug it up again. Upon replaying the game, the first thing that I notice is the amount of “Calibrating” I had to do. I remember this being a pain when I first played the game, I guess I must have repressed the memories of it because IT IS ANNOIYING!
Any time you try to start a sport – Calibrate
Exiting and re-entering a sport? Calibrate
It gets old REALLY fast, especially when you consider it does not help one jot with Archery. Playing with one controller is somewhat manageable but with two? It somehow becomes nightmarish. It shows just how the PS3 camera sucks at tracking the Move during rapid movements.
The second thing I notice are the weird and often grotesque character designs. To this day I still don’t understand the decision to go with the malformed yet stereotypical characters who were plentiful but unimaginative in their bios. Special mention goes to Jackson, a 25-year-old male from New York who is a “flashy basketball player.” Tatupu, a proud and spiritual Samoan, who joins the Sports Champion competition in hope of bringing glory and fame back to Samoa.
It’s funny looking in depth into the bios, since it highlights two more problems with the characters: No matter how much personality they tried to inject into the characters, a little voice acting would have gone a long way. The lack of voice work just makes the grunts and gasp seem awkward and extremely out of place and off-putting. Secondly, they tell you what each character specializes in. For example, Dallas is excellent at Accuracy and Strength which would make him the perfect choice form something like Gladiator Duel but it doesn’t makes a difference who you choose because your personal abilities, and the calibration of your controller, determines how well you perform. In retrospect, it seemly makes all that effort pointless.
But my return to the game was not all bad. I forgot just how good the AI was in the different modes. In each of the disciplines, there is a gradual increase in difficulty and at no time did I feel there was an unfair spike or any visible attempt by the game to cheat. Anytime I lost a point or match, it was either because I made a mistake or because my camera/controllers were misbehaving.
As much as I disliked the character design in the game, it seems they made up for it with the spectacular designs of the background imagery. Special mention goes to the amount of variety that can be found in the Bocce games where the Bocce Fields themselves become integral parts of each match. There is actual noticeable differences between playing on an official looking Bocce field to playing at a local park with all the detailed bumps and groves added to give the park level a life of its own.
I think this is what I missed and remembered about the game the most, because the attention to detail ends up going a long way to making a potentially frivolous experience seem more in depth and carefully crafted. It was always going to be difficult creating a motion controlled game during that time. Not only was it being released on what many considered a Wiimote rip-off but, at the same time, many expected it to fail miserably.
In my opinion, Sports Champion was never going to be an A star, 10 out of 10, Game of the generation affair or even something better than Wii Sports for that matter, but if you removed all those pressures that had been placed on its shoulders and just looked at the game on its own merits… it was potentially a fun party game and playing it again makes me appreciate this fact even more because when everything is working exactly as it should, the game is perfect.