My column in Friday’s newspaper is a review of Sony’s new motion controller, the PlayStation Move, plus short writeups of four Move launch titles. I’ll be doing things a bit differently on the blog. I’ve already written up a longer post on the Move hardware. Here, I review “Sports Champions,” the new controller’s top launch title.
On Friday, I’ll review “Start the Party!” with “EyePet” and “KungFu Riders” to follow either later Friday or early next week.
Launch lineups for new gaming hardware rarely feature games that go down as classics. Developers need time to familiarize themselves with the new consoles or gadgets, so the best games tend to be released after the hardware has been on the market for a while.
The PlayStation Move is no exception. Though three of the four titles I played were solid, there’s nothing in the Move’s launch lineup that’s going to drop any jaws. As of right now, the Move is a fantastically accurate controller with a decent, if unspectacular, lineup of games.
That said, “Sports Champions” is far and away the best showcase of what the Move can do. Although it’s not without its flaws, its controls are every bit as good as the best games on the Wii, and there isn’t a dud among the six included sports.
“Sports Champions” (rated E10+, $40 or $100 when packaged with one Move controller and Eye camera) is similar enough to “Wii Sports” and “Wii Sports Resort” that anyone who’s seen or played those games will feel instantly at home. The collection of simple games includes table tennis, bocce, beach volleyball, disc golf, archery and gladiator-style fighting with a sword and shield.
Of these, table tennis was probably the deepest and most challenging. The gameplay can be tough, as your character doesn’t move into position automatically to make return shots. You’ll occasionally need to move your feet or at least lunge to return a shot properly. (Despite the presence of the camera, the location and positioning of your body appear to be irrelevant. The position of the glowing ball atop the Move is all-important.)
Archery, on the other hand, was a cakewalk, at least on the lower difficulty levels. Often, you and a computer-controlled archer will be competing side-by-side, aiming at the same targets. I found the computer-controlled opponents were simply too tentative on the easier difficulties, which meant I could easily hit every target first and get a shutout. If you have two Move controllers, archery, gladiator duels and volleyball are set up so that you can use one controller in each hand. When I did this, archery suddenly became much more challenging.
The single most satisfying feeling in “Sports Champions” is spiking and serving in beach volleyball. It’s a lot of fun to toss the ball in the air with a flick of a wrist, and then slam an overhand serve between your opponents for an ace. If you get your timing just right on your serves and spikes, the ball makes a whooshing sound and has a comet-style tail as it flies over the net. The presentation and motion controls gave me a little rush I wouldn’t have experienced had I played with more conventional controllers.
That said, the presentation in “Sports Champions” could be a little more robust. A lot of the environments in the game feel soulless and deserted. The gameplay is always fantastic, but when I’m playing bocce in an urban park, I should see people walking their dogs or stopping to watch my next roll. Additionally, the characters, though they look like real people and vocalize their glee and disappointment, don’t talk. I’m guessing it’s because Sony wanted “Sports Champions” to be ready for launch and didn’t want to deal with the time and expense of recording dialogue in multiple languages. But once you’ve heard Jackson, the tall black guy who looks like a basketball player, say “Yup yup!” for the umpteenth time, it gets a little old.
Speaking of that, the characters in “Sports Champions” seem like they just got off the bus from Stereotypesville. You’ve got a tall black guy dressed like a basketball player, an Asian girl who celebrates her wins with martial arts moves, a Brazilian woman who dances and a big, burly-looking Samoan wrestler guy, among others. It doesn’t really detract from the game, but it is a little odd and impossible not to notice.
This might come down to personal preference, but “Sports Champions” felt as if it had more value as a solo game than a lot of sports games for the Wii. The use of the Mii avatars in games like “Wii Sports” and “Wii Sports Resort” is a lot of fun at parties, particularly when everyone takes time to make their own Mii. But in solo games, the cuteness can be a little too cloying. The more realistic-looking characters in “Sports Champions” have actual hands and feet and vocalize a little more emotion while they play.
Additionally, “Sports Champions” makes great use of the PS3’s trophy system. I actually feel motivated to keep playing until I unlock all the game’s trophies, which means several more hours of getting my butt off the couch and moving around. While “Wii Sports Resort” added trophy-like awards you can win, they only exist inside of “Wii Sports Resort.” With “Sports Champions,” I see that little “19 percent complete” reminder every time I look at my PS3 trophy collection, even when I’m playing other games. For those of us who are obsessive about trying to achieve as many in-game goals as possible, it’s a nice motivator to keep playing.
Sony couldn’t have picked a better pack-in game than “Sports Champions.” Though its roster of preset, realistic-looking characters lacks some of the charm of Nintendo’s Mii avatars, the gameplay and controls feel as sophisticated as anything you’ll find on the Wii. If you’re a PS3 owner who’s missed out on the motion-control craze thus far, “Sports Champions” makes for a great introduction. If you’ve done this sort of thing on the Wii, you may want to hold off for some later Move games, unless you’re a trophy hound like me.