Athens 2004 Review (PS2)
The Summer Olympics are now upon us, and all of a sudden sports fans start caring about athletic events that they only see every four years. As such, Olympic-styled games have a long and storied history in video gaming. The historically crazed, button-mashing titles have provided gamers with sore hands, smashed controllers, and oftentimes, a great deal of fun with friends.
"Athens 2004" is 989 Sports' latest foray into the genre, and while it keeps to the tried and true button-mashing traditions, it adds some new wrinkles that keep it interesting. Is it for you? Let's find out.
If you're accustomed to 989 Sports titles, you'll know what to expect here - a silky-smooth frame rate and a bright, colorful palette. The player models are decent; a bit blocky with some odd textures, but they animate very nicely indeed. Since you'll be spending a lot of the time watching these virtual athletes in motion and from a distance, "Athens 2004's" visual flaws aren't as obvious while its strengths are accentuated.
The camera angles are few, but they're very effective and quite dramatic in spots. There are a plethora of cut scenes and replays that add to the drama, and while you'll often skip them, they're nicely done and do add to the Olympic atmosphere of the game.
The game's Olympic venues are carefully modeled after the real locations (or their plans, at least.) The track and field stadium is notable, but the rest of the events' locales aren't likely to be recognizable to most players, anyway. Logos, banners and the like are plastered everywhere, in case you forgot you were playing an Olympic game. They're not overbearing, however, and keep in step with the flavor of the game.
All in all, "Athens 2004" won't blow you away with its graphics, but it's pleasant enough to look at, and runs at a crisp pace that allows for excellent gameplay.
Amazingly, "Athens 2004" doesn't kick off with the instantly recognizable daa-daa-da-dum-dum-dum-dum of the Olympic Theme. Instead, there's a generic fanfare that plays throughout the game's menus. It's fine, but nothing says "it's the Olympics" like its musical theme, and its omission is glaring.
There is a commentary track, using multiple commentators. They do their jobs well, in the subdued style that you'd expect in many of the competitions. There is an English commentator in the track and field events that stands out as the best of the bunch. He's excited about good performances, and disparaging about poor ones - which unfortunately happen to this reviewer more often than not. His needles are so sharp that you'll want to do better just to shut him up - and I mean that in a good way.
Crowd sounds are good, and the sounds of the competitions themselves are excellent. The thump of a gymnast hitting the mat or the panting of distance runners are spot on. Like the graphics, it's nothing ground-breaking, but it's good, and it works.
There are 25 events available in eight different disciplines in "Athens 2004", though not all are available for both male and female athletes. This is fine, because oftentimes, the differences would be simply cosmetic.
In Track, you'll have the 110m Hurdles, 100m, the 200m, the 400m, the 800m, and the 1500m races. Fortunately, not all these races use the same control scheme - something that I'll address in the Gameplay section. For the Field discipline, there is the Long Jump, the High Jump, Triple Jump, Pole Vault, Discus Throw, Javelin Throw and Shot Put.
There are four different 100m races in Swimming, and three different events in Gymnastics (although the Floor Exercise is available for men and women, and use different control schemes, as well). Equestrian Jumping (yes, I'm being serious), Weightlifting, Archery and Shooting each have an event represented as well. 64 different countries are represented in the game, and there are 800 different characters available therein. The real world and Olympic records are in the game, as well, giving the gamer a goal to shoot for.
There are many different competitions available, spanning the different disciplines, and including real-life contests like the Heptathlon and Decathlon. You're also able to create your own custom competitions in any events you like and save them to memory card - and this feature will come in very handy later on.
Perhaps the biggest feature in "Athens 2004" is its compatibility with PS2 dance mats. The game's control scheme is completely changed in Party mode so all events can be easily competed in using the mat, and there's no question that hilarity will ensue. No, your friends aren't laughing with you…
"Athens 2004" is a button-masher, no question about it. However, it has more than a few changes to that tried and true method, and those changes are fun, simple, and provide a great (and much needed) change of pace from all the mindless controller pounding.
In Track, sprints like the 100m, 200m, and 400m are requisite mashers, with the L trigger used at start and to lunge for the finish line. Hurdles use the same scheme, but the L trigger is also used to leap over the hurdles. The 800m and 1500m races aren't mashers (thank goodness!), but they use an interesting control scheme that provides more strategy. You'll use the right analog stick to set your pace -up for faster, down for slower. The left analog stick will move you form side to side as the runners line up along the inside of the track. Keeping a consistent pace is critical, and you'll have a row of heart meters along the top of the screen to represent fatigue. The better you keep your pace through the race, the stronger your "finishing kick" will be, which you can utilize with the L trigger. It is complicated? No, but it is a creative approach to the races - one that arguably offers a more sensible way to race longer distance events.
The field events have a great deal of variety to them. Long Jump and Triple Jump uses a button mash to gain speed, but as you near the end of the runway, a "Power Lock" holds your speed at that point - enabling you to stop mashing, and concentrate on timing the release of your jump using the L triggers. Again, it's nothing new in general, but the "Power Lock" takes much of the controller gymnastics out of the equation, and allows the player to perform at their best. The Pole Vault works in a similar fashion, as you gain enough speed to clear the bar. If you have enough speed, you'll have to time your release just right - but the faster you were going, the more margin for error you'll have. This sensible system is utilized throughout the game in different ways, and it makes more enjoyable play. The Javelin Throw uses the button-mash/"Power Lock" combination along with the right analog stick and left trigger to set angle and release. It's one of the more difficult events. The High Jump, Discus Throw and Shot Put are different animals entirely. Shot Put simply uses two button presses, but they've got to be quick - timing is key. The High Jump uses an almost "Dance Dance Revolution" scheme as you time your jumper's right and left feet to keep a consistent pace down the runway, then a quick double tap of the L trigger to leap and kick your legs over. The Discus Throw is one of the oddest, but strangely fun, events in the game. To gain speed while rotating, you'll rotate the right analog stick as quickly as possible - but not too much - before timing the angle of your release. You'll look ridiculous doing it, but it's a better idea than a button-mash…
Speaking of - the button-mash makes a full-force return in Weightlifting. You may not feel as if you've lifted weights when you're done - but you will be tired.
The Archery and Shooting events are a great deal of fun. Timing and precision are key, and the people I've played with seem to enjoy these two events as much or more than any in the game. If pressed, I'd also have to say that the Archery event is my favorite in the game - it's simple, but difficult to master.
The Gymnastics section of the game is handled in creative and entertaining fashion. The vault uses the button-mash/"Power Lock" again to great effect - as you launch from the vault, you'll have to press a button combination before you hit the mat (the higher the difficulty vault you select, the more complex the button combination). However, the speed that you launched at will determine how much "Matrix"-like "bullet time" you'll have in the air, giving you a better chance to complete the button combination. The men's floor exercise uses the same mechanic along with a timing scheme for the gymnast's flares. The rings use an interesting combination of the vault's dismount, button mashing, and both analog sticks for holds. The women's floor exercise is straight out of "DDR", and it's obvious that it was built for the Dance Mat.
Overall, the Gymnastics events show the greatest amount of innovation in design, and they make for a refreshing and fun change of pace.
"Athens 2004", like the real Olympics, is unfortunately not without its not-so-exhilarating events. Equestrian Jumping is quite difficult, as there's no real way to gauge the timing of a jump - and that's the entire point of the event.
The swimming events are simply abysmal. They're all 100m races, and they all control exactly the same way - as straight button mashers, for far too long a time. They're exhausting, not much fun, and until you know better than to skip them - you'll have to do them four times.
There's a Challenge Mode that actively handicaps the players after each event to keep things close. There are a few major problems with this concept, however. One, since control schemes are so different, someone who's better at button mashing may be heavily handicapped in an event that requires timing - which they may be awful at. Moreover, while the handicaps may keep the humans closer together, it makes it all but impossible to defeat your CPU opponents - who don't suffer from the same handicapping as the humans. It's not uncommon for four people playing Challenge mode to finish in the final four spots. It may keep the human players close, but it's not much fun battling each other for 7th place…
It's easy to talk about what "Athens 2004" is not. It is deep? No. Is it a good single-player game? Not really. Does it break any new ground in gaming? Despite some creative control schemes, it doesn't.
But that's not the point, and it's not fair to judge "Athens 2004" that way.
It is what it is - a simple, easy-to-play party game that can be a riot for multiplayer gaming. It's a fun, hang-around-with-your-friends-and-enjoy-playing-together kind of title.
And there's something to be said for that.