We limber up and take a hands-on look at this summer's officially licensed game of the Olympics.
Ah, 2000. What a different place the world was back then. We never did get our flying cars or robot maids, but there was still a lot of interesting stuff going on. The PlayStation 2 was still hard to get hold of, and no one had any idea how the Xbox or the GameCube would turn out. Another little event accompanied the launch of the PlayStation 2 that year, a gathering of nations on the far side of the world that only the really motivated bothered to stay up late for. Yes, the 2000 Sydney Games was not the most exciting, and fittingly, neither was the game. This summer, Athens is in the spotlight, and UK-based Eurocom is handling its virtualization.
The first thing you'll want to note about Athens 2004 if you're only an Xbox or GameCube owner is that you're not getting any. Athens 2004 is being published by Sony, so only PS2 owners need read any further. Still here? Good. Then we can get on with it.
The preview build we've been playing still needs tightening - some events are no fun at all. That said, Eurocom must be commended for trying to give gamers a much more rounded line-up of events than previous Olympics games have dared. The usual track and field events are squished in with swimming, gymnastics, horse-jumping, weightlifting, archery and shooting. Controls are consistent within each category but also different enough between them to keep you interested.
By far the most physically tiring are the track events. The 100m, 200m, 400m and hurdles involve large amounts of X and O button pressing to control running speed. Thankfully, there's a bit of strategy in the rest of the events. The longer distance runs use both analog sticks; the right controls your speed while the left allows you to move laterally on the track as you elbow your way through the ranks. A stamina system adds strategy that almost manages to save these events, but not quite. By controlling your running speed, you can conserve energy for a last minute bout of all-out speed.
The field events-long jump, high jump, pole vault, triple jump, discuss throw, javelin throw and shot put-are the most fun. All involve powering up in some way (in the long jump it's by running, i.e. pressing X and O, while for discuss throw you rotate an analog stick as fast as you can) followed by timing either your take off or release point. The variety makes for an interesting mix of events. It's very easy to get started while still offering room for steady improvement.
The least fun events in Athens 2004 by far are those that take place in the pool. Whether it's freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke or butterfly, the breathing system is cumbersome, lacking any semblance of finesse. The usual O and X buttons are used to swim and breathing is care of a shoulder button. Once you're out of breath, the oxygen bar flashes and you set the new oxygen level. Setting it at the right level is frustrating, and since your speed is tied to your breath level, the whole system is vexing. The different swimming styles are controlled identically, making the presence of all four largely pointless. With any luck, Eurocom will clean this up before the game's July release, because as it stands now these four events are best left shivering in the corner.
The last major category is gymnastics, comprised of men's and women's floor exercises, rings and the vault. The women's floor exercise plays identically to rhythm-action games: the D-pad and face buttons form two directional systems for making timed button presses. It's an interesting setup, though it can be confusing when you're asked to press two directions simultaneously. The men's floor routine plays more like the field events: you power up for tumbles and then do spins and flips by timing button presses. The rings require more attention. Both analog sticks are used to align your body before the position is maintained by the now-familiar X and O buttons. Finally, vaulting is a two-step procedure, where first the speed is set by X and O, after which a series of button presses makes you complete the jump. You have no control over what type of spins you'll do, you simply repeat the on-screen directions.
The remaining four individual categories run the fun gamut. Horse-riding is simply steering and jumping, but the camera angle makes it anything but simple. The precision needed to place well is made impracticable by the third-person perspective, sucking any enjoyment out together with medal chances. Weightlifting--or more specifically the clean & jerk--is a three stage affair involving X and O bashing. Excessive amounts of it. While the mechanics of presenting the event in another way are complicated, the current button-pummelling setup seems needlessly tiring, even at the lowest weights. On the other end of the fun spectrum are archery and skeet shooting. Archery is a battle of wits between you and the wind as the target becomes harder and harder to hit. Scoring a bulls-eye does feel like a matter of skill and not chance though. Skeet shooting is rather simplistic: you choose where along the path you would like to shoot the skeet, call for it to be pulled, and then time your shot. The window of opportunity is wide-open enough to make a perfect run easily within reach, but it's still enjoyable to do.
So much for the gameplay. The point in games like these lies not in the excitement vacuum of the controls, though, but in taking on human challengers. Whether it's a single event or a full competition of all events, up to four players can take part at any time-provided you have a multitap lying around, that is. Eye-gouging and cursing your way to the top is the heart and soul of the Olympics and fittingly in the home version as well. There's no online support, sadly, but frankly the thrill of taking on your friends and being able to taunt them face to face is far more fun. One novel variant on gameplay is party mode, which allows for dance mats to be used in 10 of the events (100m, 200m, 400m, hurdles, long jump, high jump, triple jump, men's and women's floor exercises and vault).
The game's presentation is looking good, with decent if unspectacular graphics that occasionally blip onto the above-averageness radar. Horse-riding comes to mind. The player models are adequate, but the polygon count is a little on the low side. Sound is similarly capable, with a choice of languages available for the in-game commentary. Some smoothing is still needed to stream the country names into the scripted dialogue, and sometimes there are long breaks with no commentary at all, but overall the voice acting serves to better the package. There's little music to speak of right now, and what there is is cliched in its overblown grandness. Athens 2004 supports widescreen televisions and, more importantly, 60 Hz mode. This would have been a major plus if the graphics were great-to-excellent and not the average-to-good they are.
The 2004 summer Olympics are 66 days away as I write this. Delegates from 202 countries will be competing in front of an audience of 4 billion people. Some of those will be picking up this game to live out the Olympics for themselves, and right now it seems that Eurocom is on the right track. If the game is to be a masterpiece worthy of the Olympic legacy, a lot more work is needed. But if things stay the way they are, gamers can still look forward to a competent vehicle for some friendly-and not so friendly-home competition.
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