Design by Marty Smith
Sports gamers are a lucky lot. Unlike fans of series such as Halo, EverQuest, and Metal Gear Solid, sports fans are guaranteed sequels to their favorite sports titles every year. Even better, sports gamers don't have to brave two-hour lines packed with profusely sweating "fans" to grab the latest sports releases. These are things that we should be grateful for, especially during this time of year, when giving thanks is the first thing on our minds.
Sure, there's a lot to complain about in some of the games in this year's lineup of sports titles, including bad game controls, less challenging play, shaky online performance, and ugly franchise modes, but the reality is that the good far outweighs the bad. Amid a few sports duds in 2004, gamers have also been treated to some releases that pushed the bar in terms of innovation, fun, and longevity. Even better, sports gaming has become decidedly less punishing on the wallet, mainly due to the heated pricing war between two of the genre's biggest players.
During this official kickoff to the holiday season, it's nice to look back and reflect on all the things we have to be appreciative of. Here, we've put together a list of eight reasons for sports gamers to be thankful in 2004, touching on everything from innovative control schemes to addictive and involving features that raise the bar for sports simulations. As you'll see, it's easy to be grateful when you're a sports gaming fan.
1. Swing season
Let's face it. The challenge level in the recent Tiger Woods PGA Tour games has taken a decisive nosedive. After just a couple of hours with the game, even a golfing novice can be smacking the ball around the game's courses like a pro. Part of the blame for this in the console versions of Tiger Woods can be laid on the game's swing mechanic. While it's an easily accessible system to newbies, which also provides a good degree of advanced control for experienced players, it's simply too easy to strike consistently accurate shots, regardless of weather conditions. This is exactly why we're so excited about the upcoming Tiger Woods game for the Nintendo DS. Accompanying the game's slick presentation and attractive graphics is an innovative stylus-based swing mechanic that just may be the next big leap for the series. Using the stylus on the DS's lower touch screen, players will trace the stylus across an onscreen arrow to swing the club. Once struck, the ball will appear in the lower screen as it flies toward the flag. By tracing the stylus over the ball in any direction, you'll be able to control the spin of the ball before it lands.
While we haven't spent a great deal of time with the DS version of Tiger Woods, we're excited to see how this swing mechanic affects the overall quality of the handheld golfing experience. For now, it's nice to know the developer behind Tiger Woods for the DS is attempting something new with the series.
2. 82 is too many
Playing out every single game of an 82-game NBA season in a video game is akin to finishing off the rest of the Thanksgiving turkey simply because it's sitting there on the table. It takes a long time to get through, and you'll be in a lot of pain once you're finished. While most sports games have traditionally given you the ability to simulate games in a virtual season, you have so little control over the outcome of these simulated games that it's hard to keep a winning streak going. Spend too much time simulating games and you just might watch in horror as your first-place team slowly descends into the basement of its division.
With the release of two of this year's pro basketball titles, EA Sports' NBA Live 2005 and Sega's ESPN NBA 2K5, some of these sim-related pains have been relieved. With NBA Live 2005, gamers can interrupt a simulated game at any time to take control of the situation. If your team isn't performing up to snuff, you now have the option to take over and lead it on to victory. On the Sega side of things, ESPN NBA 2K5's franchise mode has an interesting simulation option known as "full authority." Instead of merely simulating the game and waiting for the results, full authority gives you the opportunity to control the outcome of the game by making key tactical maneuvers twice per game quarter. These team orders can include changes to offensive and defensive schemes, the employment of man-on-man matchups, and even a determination of the number and types of shots each player will take per quarter. Once you've made these executive decisions, you can watch the game unfold until your next turn comes along, at which point you can then adjust your game plan accordingly. All told, a full-authority game takes just a few minutes to get through, compared to the half hour or more a typical full game occupies. At the same time, it gives you a modicum of control over your team's chances.
3. Crash and Bang
There's a certain visceral beauty to car-chase scenes in movies. Otherwise, why would Hollywood directors revel in filming them? That sense of speed and power, combined with the ever-present danger of a horrific wreck, creates an incomparable sense of excitement and thrill that's hard to top.
One of the closest things sports gamers have to this kind of knife-edge tension is the slow-motion pileups found in the excellent racer Burnout 3: Takedown. Despite having seen hundreds of these steel-ripping demolitions during our time with the game, that sense of hushed fury that is conveyed in these scenes never seems to lose its edge. That you can control the direction and outcome of your crash during these slow-motion replays by using the game's crashbreaker controls adds that much more to the experience. Never before has barrel rolling into a teeming urban intersection seemed like such a great idea.
4. Let's take a look at the videotape
This one's purely selfish. As game journalists, writing about games is only half the job. Gamers want to see the titles in action to help them make up their own minds. To borrow a phrase, a screenshot is worth a thousand words. The problem is, playing a game and grabbing attractive screens simultaneously can be a complex task. Thank goodness, then, for sports games' instant replay features, which give opportunities to easily slow down the action, change the angle of the camera, and grab the perfect screenshot. Thank you, instant replay mode. You make our lives much, much easier.
5. Good riddance, Athens
There are few better reasons for giving thanks than to revel in the fact that the Athens 2004 Olympic Games are now long behind us. No more horribly dull 200-yard-dash qualifiers to sit through, no more embarrassing shellackings for the US men's basketball team, and, best of all, no more inspiring stories of Olympic courage from Katie Couric. Also, it means that we can say goodbye, temporarily at least, to the crop of subpar Olympic games. Let's be honest. The genre hasn't really evolved since the old arcade Track & Field days, and now that the astonishingly dull PC version of Athens 2004 has finally been released (several months after the actual Games themselves, mind you), our reviewers can now take this time to fully rest and regain their sanities...until the 2006 Torino Winter Games arrive, that is.
6. Nice shot!
Manual aiming in hockey games can literally be a hit-or-miss prospect. With the realistic skating physics and punishing defense found in a game like ESPN NHL 2K5, it's hard enough to find scoring chances. Manual-shot aiming adds a degree of control to your shots. However, in the heat of battle, it's hard to determine exactly where your shot was aimed before pulling the trigger.
With the recently released Gretzky NHL 2005, 989 Sports has introduced a simple but surprisingly effective wrinkle to the manual-shot system that comes in the form of a target icon. With manual aiming on, holding down the circle button on the PlayStation 2 controller brings up an icon that's superimposed over the net. It then gives you up to nine possible placement areas for your shot. If you know that a particular goalie is weak on the left side, why not go with a top-shelf shot? Now you can effectively take advantage of the goalie's weak spot. This icon makes a big difference in that it helps you place your slapper or wrist shot exactly where you want it. Whether it gets past your opponent's goaltender is another matter entirely.
7. The battle for your wallet
By now, everyone knows how it went down. First, Sega announced that its premier ESPN sports titles would launch for a mere $20. EA scoffed, saying this price drop was indicative of an inferior quality game...until the ESPN lineup was released. Just a few weeks later, and after ESPN's games were discovered to not be shambling code wrecks, EA Sports retaliated with both a buy-two-get-one-free deal and a general sports lineup price drop of its own.
Who knows for how long these sports offerings will be this friendly to our wallets? The important thing here is to seize the moment, as well as the discounted games, by enjoying the windfall while it lasts.
8. The PSP's bottom line
Speaking of getting something for (next to) nothing... How about that PSP price point? Sony's debut portable gaming system is looking to take the fight directly to Nintendo's overwhelming market share with a system that is gorgeous to behold, features a strong lineup of games, and, best of all, is around $100 cheaper than many people (including industry analysts) were anticipating. The handheld system, which will arrive in Japan in mid-December at a price of $185, won't hit US shores until sometime in 2005. If the PSP can maintain a similar price when it arrives in America, and if it can confound the system's naysayers by offering a solid battery life, sports gamers may be celebrating Thanksgiving well into next year.
The sports genre isn't perfect, but as fans of it, we've still got it pretty good. With great games, fun features, a pair of brand-new handheld systems, and lower prices on the biggest names in the genre to boot, there are many reasons to be thankful during this time of year. So after you've downed all the turkey and ham you can handle, and after you've settled into your easy chair for a long afternoon of football and friends (and maybe a gaming session or two), take a moment to think about what a good time it is to be a sports gaming fan. It's well worth a "thank you," don't you think?