Since the inception of its Trophy Bass line five years ago, Sierra Sports has been the proverbial big fish in the relatively small pond of fresh-water fishing simulations. About the only other PC bass-fishing sims have come from budget-software king WizardWorks. But even without the pressure of serious competition, each iteration in the Trophy Bass series has featured significant improvements, culminating in last year's stellar Trophy Bass 3D.
You'd think EA Sports would have challenged Sierra's supremacy in this subgenre a long time ago, but it's been only in the last few months that the company decided to venture from the world of big-time spectator sports into the great outdoors. Its first effort was Deer Hunt Challenge, which tried to jazz things up for hunters by adding a series of arcade-style "missions." These missions were quick, point-and-shoot affairs that started out with the prey in sight and that placed a premium on a quick, accurate trigger finger. Not every hunting-sim fan enjoyed these quick-and-dirty levels, largely because of the linear design - if you didn't win a mission, you couldn't move on to the next one.
Nevertheless, the overall response to this twist must have been fairly positive, as the same feature is a major component of Championship Bass. Championship Bass still gives cyber-anglers the usual options of heading out for single-day fishing trips and competing in bass tournaments lasting from one to three days. But the game's Bass challenge mode, comprising a sequence of five-event "levels," is the game's most unique feature. And for the most part it achieves exactly what EA Sports probably hoped it would: It gradually introduces bass-fishing techniques while stripping away long stretches of inactivity by placing you right where the big ones are biting.
With each outing, you're given access to a limited number of lures, but there's no need to worry you don't have the right rig - there's always something in the virtual tackle box that'll get the attention of those lunkers. All you've got to do is figure out which one you should use, where to cast, and what type of retrieval is best for the situation. Bass-fishing novices can access pro tips on all this stuff, but the text and audio presentation is a little bland compared with Trophy Bass 3D's video clips. Finish in the top three at the end of a five outings, and you move on to more challenges - and hopefully pick up even more knowledge and skills that you can use when you decide to enter a tournament against computer opponents or against real folks over the Internet.
But while these fast-paced angling sessions result in plenty of bites and catches, they start to veer away from anything even remotely realistic because of the addition of 27 challenge bonuses. They're the fishing equivalent of power-ups, and you earn them by catching a "bonus bass" - they're the ones with fiery red eyes. The bonuses include bonus timers that give you more time to find that monster bass to jack up your total poundage; bonus casts that increase accuracy or distance, or that provide you with specialized techniques like skipping or "no splash" landings; bonus boat modes that endow you with stealth or the ability to navigate shallow water; fish flags that point you to where really big bass are hanging out; and bonus lures that expand the contents of your tackle box, usually with just the right lure for the situation. The bonuses are all very silly, but they'll probably appeal to casual gamers. However, there's no way to turn off the power-ups, so hard-core simulation players or bass-fishing veterans will probably bypass the challenge mode and head straight for a fishing trip or a tournament - and it's here that it becomes apparent that the game is no serious match for the ultrarealistic Trophy Bass 3D. Only six lakes are featured in Championship Bass - Buggs Island and Lake Lanier in Georgia, Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Texas, Lake Mead in Nevada, Lake Toho in Florida (where's Lake Okeechobee when you need it?), and Table Rock Lake in Missouri and Arkansas. These are all top-notch bass lakes, but they're few, compared with the 15 in Trophy Bass 3D.
Then there's the game's perspective. When casting, you're presented with a behind-the-angler view - but once the lure hits the lake you're switched to an underwater view similar to Trophy Bass 3D's "lurecam." There's nothing wrong with that except for the fact that there's no way to switch back to a perspective from the boat, so you never really get the sensation of being outdoors. In Trophy Bass 3D, the third-person perspectives gave you a chance to see weather effects and watch your rod bend as your angler struggled to reel in a trophy fish. But in Championship Bass, the action is presented from cast to catch from a distance of about two feet from the lure or fish. This lets you appreciate the excellent fish graphics, but it doesn't make you feel very much like you're really fishing, and it seriously detracts from the most exciting part of bass fishing: watching a big lunker leap out of the water as it tries to shake the hook. You see the jump all right, but not from a very satisfying perspective.
While Championship Bass' water and fish graphics are definitely superior to those in Trophy Bass 3D, it falls short in another area that many PC fishermen will feel is more important: The game has no support for force-feedback joysticks. If you've never experienced great force-feedback effects in a fishing simulation, you naturally won't miss it in Championship Bass - but if you've played with force feedback before, you'll be praying that EA Sports puts out a patch that incorporates this vital feature. Fishing is all about the sensation of touch and feel, and as such, force feedback can be immeasurably effective for simulating it.
Championship Bass definitely won't replace Trophy Bass 3D on gamers' hard drives, especially since it retails for $39.95 (though you might find a better deal at your local software store). But it's a good first effort for EA Sports, and it will certainly provide satisfaction for casual fishing fans, whose main concern is seeing the fish take the bait.