We offer our verdict on the official videogame of - supposedly - the greatest show on Earth...
After watching the genuinely magnificent opening ceremony, the world has enjoyed a week of competitiveness, dogged determination and that most noble of traits - the human spirit. With that in mind, the prospect of playing Athens 2004, the latest Olympic-branded game to coincide with our fleeting enthusiasm for all things sporting seemed quite appealing, until you realise that your country is determined to flaunt sporting ineptitude like it's going out of fashion.
Not that I'm one to criticise though, especially seeing as I'm about as athletic as the malformed mascots for Athens 2004 who look as though they can't clear a hurdle without tearing themselves in half. Still, it's nice to think you've done your bit and represented your country, which is probably why sports games, and in particular Olympic brand video games, are so popular; taking your nation to victory is probably as good as it gets without actually competing for real, whilst all the gruelling training and injuries that our athletes endure just to reach the Olympic stage are incurred by us gamers too.
No, really. Bleeding thumbs, blistered fingers and sore wrists are our badge of honour. Though it is slightly odd that this is the way it's been since the early 80's, with the introduction of Konami's Track and Field to our lives. So it was with some unease that I booted up Athens 2004, expecting the same kind of injury laden experience that track and field games have been espousing for years. But fear not - Eurocom, the developers of Athens 2004, have seen fit to readdress this most painful of gameplay mechanics.
From the outset, the game menus do a reasonable job of capturing the dignified tone of the Olympics, incorporating rousing music and clean, Eurosport-esque interfaces. Naturally, these menus also require the inclusion of the aforementioned 2004 mascots - limbless freaks who've got all the sporting potential of someone with their arms and legs stitched together. Still, it's here that you realise just how much there is on offer - 25 events covering both the usual roster of track and field (100m, hurdles, javelin, long jump etc), swimming, gymnastics and the other, lesser-known events like shooting, archery, weight lifting and even…dare I say, equestrianism (horse riding to you and me). It sounds like a fairly varied selection of mini-games and for the most part they are.
The track and field events still subscribe to the button bashing system, though it's far more tempered this time round. Instead of just mindlessly destroying every bone in your hand in order to achieve victory, there's a certain rhythm to which your bashing needs to be done. No longer shall you incur injuries that will arouse suspicion in your friends and family that you "really need to get a girlfriend", because there's an element (albeit small) of skill involved. All the same though, the track and field events are fundamentally the same as what you've come to expect, in that the controls aren't going to take more than 5 minutes to get acquainted with. Whereas Konami's previous efforts separated the men from the Playboy - subscribing boys, Eurocom have readdressed this most uneven of balance and made it wholly enjoyable for all.
Though those lesser-known events I mentioned earlier are very much different. Taking Skeet shooting as an example, you need to be able to judge the correct path, distance and speed of your targets before pulling that trigger; Skeet shooting, just like the equestrian events and Archery, rely heavily on your ability to adequately time your actions. At first this might seem a little tricky, but it doesn't take long to figure out the best approach to each event. Again, there's adequate room for everyone to enjoy these events, and a just-steep-enough learning curve to make persistence worthwhile.
When you're not busy falling to your knees and declaring yourself "The Championz!!!!1", you might want to take in the view. All of the locales, including the stadium, are authentically rendered in this game, though you can't help but smirk at the capacity crowd - weren't Eurocom optimistic, eh? Still, locales aside, the rendering of the Athletes is a little bemusing - whilst the men have received fairly realistic and commendable renderings, the females bear the shame of having the same protruding top lip as the notoriously lame Jar Jar Binks. Maybe it's the lighting or perhaps they've just put the faintest hint of a "tash" on the fairer sex, but they often look quite bizarre. Bizarre-me-do's aside, there's an attention to detail present that really is rather admirable, especially with regards to the representation of different nations and their different physical attributes.
Whilst the mechanics of this game are a relative breath of fresh air, issues of longevity threaten to hamper all of the hard work Eurocom have done. Much to my bewilderment, there are an increasing number of games that cater exclusively to multiple players and disappointingly; Athens 2004 is one of them. Now don't get me wrong, I've championed multiplayer gaming and it's beneficial social aspects on many occasions, but Athens enjoyment effectively ends the moment your friends walk out the door. You might feel compelled to beat your personal best record in a few events, but no sooner has your competition left than you're relegating this to the shelf till you've got something to prove again.
What grinds is how easily this problem could be remedied. Given Sony's uphill struggle to compete with the behemoth that is Xbox live, you'd have thought online functionality was a dead cert. Hell, the mere prospect of uploading your records would've been enough to make this an essential purchase, but nothing - absolutely nothing. Instead, we're left with a game that hurtles past the opposition, only to limp across the finish line.
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