Sydney 2000 Preview

With Sydney 2000, Eidos aims to give gamers the chance to experience vicariously the thrills of Olympic competition.

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Make no mistake: The lure of Olympic gold is powerful indeed. Athletes across the globe log hours of daily practice over the months leading up to the games, sacrificing all in an effort to earn the right to prove they're the fastest, strongest, and most skilled competitors in the world.

But it isn't merely athletes who crave Olympic gold. Every four years, we see yet another software publisher attempting to cash in on the excitement by giving fans the chance to try their hands at the sports they'll be watching constantly over the course of a fortnight. Unfortunately, creating a truly satisfying computer game based on the Olympics has been as elusive as nabbing a gold, silver, or bronze medal is for the real-life competitors.

Take 1996's Bruce Jenner's World Class Decathlon, for instance. Even though the game's release date wasn't based on the Summer Games in Atlanta, it was obvious that publisher Interactive Magic was aiming to give fans a cure for their Olympic fever; after all, the decathlon comprises ten of the most challenging individual Olympic events. But while World Class Decathlon gave players a break from the button-mashing endurance tests of earlier track-and-field games and instead emphasized timing and strength management over ten events, the result was the same as in just about every other game that simulated classic Olympic Sports: a flash of fun, quickly replaced by tedium.

So why has Eidos Interactive decided to make its own run for the gold with Sydney 2000, the only officially licensed video game of the 2000 Summer Olympics? Mike Kawahara, executive producer for Sydney 2000 at Eidos Interactive, thinks this Olympic Games simulation has what it takes to give it a broad base of fan appeal. "The casual gamer can enjoy the arcade play where he can just enter an event and start playing," he notes, "while the more serious gamer can build his athlete up from a local hero to an Olympic champion through training and different levels of competition."

Sounds good on paper, but the real test will be in the game's execution. Can Eidos and UK developer Attention to Detail (Rollcage, Blast Chamber) create interfaces for each of the 12 events that will put as much of a premium on skill as on sheer endurance and the occasional test of timing?

Looking Good: But Will It Play?

The dozen events featured in Sydney 2000 cover a broad variety of sports, from timeless classics like track-and-field (100-meters sprint, 100-meters hurdles, javelin, hammer throw, high jump, triple jump), water sports (100-meters freestyle swimming and 10-meters platform diving), and weight lifting (super heavyweight division) to skeet shooting, sprint cycling, and the kayak K1 slalom (reintroduced in 1992 after a 20-year hiatus as an Olympic sport).

Thirty-two countries will be represented, and Kawahara says the "venues are accurate models of the actual locations, and the scale, appearance, and of course the names [of the events and venues] are all accurate. The IOC has been an active partner in [the creation] of Sydney 2000. Its charter is to maintain the integrity of the Olympic movement, and of course any video game that represents Olympic events is part of that."

If you want to jump immediately into the competition you can opt for arcade play, which takes you directly to the event of your choice once you've selected a country to represent and set a handicap for yourself (one if you're inept, five if you're the master of speed and timing). Coaching mode steps you through the basics of each event before giving you unlimited practice time without interference from other competitors.

But to truly re-create the experience of what it takes to become an Olympic athlete, you'll have to tackle the game's Olympic mode. Here you have to embark on a training program to build your athlete's endurance, strength, accuracy, or whatever skill is required for a particular event. There are 20 types of exercises in all; you're given two to work on for each event. After you feel confident about your athlete's strength or speed, you can begin entering qualifying events; win those, and your efforts will culminate in Olympic competition.

Whether training or competing, you'll be dealing with a mere handful of controls: two power buttons tapped alternately to generate speed or power, an action button to perform a specific task, and directional controls for aiming the shotgun or steering the kayak. This can make for a boring 100-meters sprint (save for getting a good start off the block), but other events like the triple jump and hammer throw can be decidedly challenging. Surprisingly, one of the most gratifying events is diving, which has never been implemented well in previous video games.

Attention to Detail proved with Rollcage that it could deliver eye-popping graphics and animations, and Sydney 2000 will carry on the tradition. The motion-captured animations run smoothly on a midrange system even at higher resolutions such as 1024x768, and the attention to detail - fine lines in the track when you run sprints or hurdles, highly accurate shadows for objects and athletes, lens flares from the sun as the skeet flies past your gun sights - is more than good enough to suck you into the action.

The Thrill of Victory

No simulation of the Olympics would be complete without robust options for you to compete against human opponents, and Sydney 2000 will allow up to eight players to compete in every event. Of course, that doesn't mean you'll all be sweating and shouting as you shoot for a medal because many of the events - high jump, triple jump, skeet shooting, and so on - allow only one athlete to compete at a time.

Sydney 2000 would probably have more appeal for hard-core gamers if it featured more events that take place in real time: It's a safe bet that action fans wouldn't complain if Eidos had settled on Taekwondo instead of weight lifting, for instance. But turn-based events have one advantage over real-time head-to-head competition, namely that the issue of latency is an entirely moot point. So it's more than a bit curious that Eidos has opted not to support play over a LAN, the Internet, or via modems or serial cables, especially given the multitude of possibilities for direct Olympic tie-ins. Think about it: Wouldn't it be fun to watch the high-jump competition on TV, then head online to see how you stack up against players from all over the world?

Then again, perhaps the lack of 'Net play wasn't an oversight so much as it was a part of the overarching plan. In a move that's becoming more and more common, Eidos and Attention to Detail are developing Sydney 2000 not only for the PC, but also for the PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Dreamcast console systems. Considering the sales figures the game could potentially rack up on those systems (where the simplified interface is less likely to be scorned), the effort put into developing an Internet-play option for a single platform just doesn't make good fiscal sense.

Sydney 2000 will run in a huge array of video configurations - for example, everything from 320x200x16-bit color to 1280x1024x32-bit color on a TNT2. In addition, a software-rendering mode ensures that the game will have the greatest possible consumer base. Kawahara says the minimum system configuration is a Pentium II 233MHz with 64MB RAM and a 3D accelerator card; using the preview version on a Celeron 300MHz overclocked to 450MHz with 128MB RAM, the game ran wickedly smooth even in the 100-meters sprint with eight 3D characters blazing down the track.

Eidos is clearly shooting for a release before the games begin on September 15 but neither Eidos nor Attention to Detail has posted any specific information on the game. Regardless of when the publicity push begins, though, it'll be interesting to see whether a high-profile license, impressive 3D graphics, and the free publicity of the Olympics will make a success out of a game that relies on an interface that was essentially introduced in video arcades 15 or 20 years ago.

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