Sports Champions Review (PS3)
You can draw a number of parallels between the Wii and PlayStation Move beyond just the obvious motion controls. Both are marketed with a family or multiplayer focus. The titles are cheaper than standard console games. And both are bundled with a sports-game collection, a sort of amped-up tech demo designed to showcase the abilities of the motion controls. Where the Wii had Wii Sports -- still one of the better sports games on the system -- PS Move has Sports Champions.
Sports Champions is not as revolutionary as Wii Sports was upon its release, but it does many things better. Still, I can’t help but wonder if Sports Champions, like Wii Sports, marks both the beginning and the pinnacle of motion-sports gaming on the new platform.
If you are unfamiliar with the PS Move, it works via the PlayStation Eye camera and a new controller that is roughly shaped like an ice cream cone. About the size of a Wii remote, albeit with a glowing rubber ball on top, the new controller is both comfortable and familiar. Anyone who has played the Wii before will have some idea how to hold it.
The controller features all of the standard controller buttons, plus a new centralized "Move" button and a trigger on the underbelly. A wrist strap prevents you from damaging your TV, furniture or innocent bystanders.
When launching a Move game, you’ll need to calibrate the controller using the camera, which must be correctly positioned. I did not have many problems setting the whole thing up, except that the camera cord kept jostling the camera out of position. There are advantages that the camera has over the Wii sensor bar, one being that the calibration system seems to adjust to you since it’s contextual to your height. Sports Champions has you hold the controller at your side, shoulder and belt to get its initial readings.
Once everything is set up, you are given six games to choose from: disc golf, archery, gladiator fights, bocce, beach volleyball and table tennis. While it is definitely an odd mix of sports, each showcases different play styles and controls, which makes everything seem pretty fresh.
Before breaking down each sport, a few words about the look and presentation of Sports Champions. First, this is a very generic looking game. There is little customization, other than some equipment and outfit changes, for a cast of bland and stereotypical characters. The music, menus and models could have come from just about any third-party sports game, and it ultimately reminds me of recent Olympics games.
That’s not to say that this game does not look good. In fact, one of the most welcome changes to the motion controls here is the graphic fidelity and crisp animations. When a ball has some spin, it’s easy to pick it up thanks to some tiny and subtle spin lines that would not be possible on the Wii. Environments and character animations are also outstanding. It’s just too bad the whole thing has such a bland look and feel.
That blandness extends to the way the modes are handled. You have your standard one- or two-player free play, a few challenge modes with certain goals and a tiered "cup" system that is the game’s main focus. It works similar to a Guitar Hero mode where beating a player unlocks the next matchup on the ladder, but earning stars (for decisive wins) grants you outfits and equipment.
Some basic stats are kept on your progress, but it’s not like you are creating a character or leveling anything up. The rungs on the cup ladder feature some helpful and meaningful training modes, but beyond the increasing challenge and a couple unlockables, there isn’t a ton of incentive to play through all of the levels.
Disc golf is the first event I tried, and it does not vary much from the real thing. You play in some nice looking locales featuring some challenging courses, but all told, this mode plays it pretty safe. Par for the course, you might say.
The most notable aspect of disc golf is the sensitivity of the motion controller -- and that's a good thing. When you "throw" the disc, the Move controller does a good job representing the actual movement and complexities of tossing the disc. You may not always get a perfect throw, but I never felt like I was cheated. Like real disc golf, pure strength is not always an asset since control and touch are equally important as well.
Gladiator combat is an interesting addition to the mix, and it is a lot of fun. I could even see this type of game being spun into a full-fledged title. What’s here, however, ultimately feels a little shallow.
The gameplay works as you would expect with near one-to-one control of your weapon of choice. If you have two Move controllers, you can dual-wield, with the other working as your shield. I did not have two controllers to try this method, but I’m guessing it's a little more intuitive than using just one. If you only have one controller, pressing the trigger switches control from your weapon to your shield.
Attacking and blocking feel really natural and rewarding, especially when you land a crucial hit or block. I did not encounter any problems swinging, but I felt that my shield control sometimes seemed out of sync with what was on screen.
Layered on top of the standard attacks are shield bashes, jump attacks and special attacks that almost function as a quick-time event. These all work well enough. Dodging, on the other hand, feels a little unnatural since it relies on buttons that are not as easily accessible as the motion controls.
It’s all a lot of fun, but all the weapons function the same, there aren’t any character-specific attacks to speak of, and combat devolves into block, attack, block, etc. Matches, especially on the easy level, are over pretty quickly. However, maybe that’s for the best since this mode works best in short bursts.
Archery and Table Tennis
Archery mixes things up by having you actually draw an arrow out of a quiver with the controller before aiming. From there you experience some smooth but predictable gameplay that features a variety of targets and challenges. Guides disappear as you progress through the difficulties, and you are eventually forced to adjust for gravity and wind.
The same "familiar but better" atmosphere is found in table tennis. It’s not anything you would not expect, but it works pretty well. The controller is pretty accurate in representing your motion, even though occasionally I felt like things were not exactly matching up. Ball spin is communicated in a pretty elegant manner as well.
Sometimes I had an issue with depth, both with balls hit at me on screen and my positioning with the Move controller. The game guides you to actually back up on hard shots and move forward on weak hits, but it’s sometimes hard to tell the velocity of the ball in relationship to the depth of the table.
I think beach volleyball will be the most divisive game on the disc. It’s essentially a contextual-based game that asks you to simply react to what's happening on screen in a pretty procedural manner. Are you receiving the serve? Then be prepared to bump. Did your partner just set it to you? Spike. You don’t actually move your player around or find optimal positioning, which are core concepts for two-person volleyball.
This sounds sort of boring, but I actually found it enjoyable. Within this framework are choices such as serve type and whether to spike or dink. Even misplayed balls have a chance to end well -- examples include your teammate playing a poor bump or a bad set finding the other side of the net somehow.
It is procedural, but that almost makes the game work in a turn-based fashion. Occasionally, you will have to quickly react, as is the case for blocks and digs, but often you will have time to ready yourself to make a pristine motion. Again, it’s not deep or engaging in long sessions, but it works well enough to be interesting and somewhat true to the basic motions of volleyball.
Bocce is the last game in the bundle, and it is another strange and unique choice. It’s slow paced, but it is the most strategic game here since it requires thought and precision. It also keeps your interest by changing locales, which, like in disc golf, changes the way you play.
There are a couple other things worth mentioning when it comes to bocce. First, you can throw just about any way you’d like. For fun I tried throwing overhand, then sidearm. Both were represented on-screen as you’d expect, which is actually surprising since I thought it would just be read as an error. It's not a great way to play, but it is fun to see the game react in a manner that’s not limiting.
Second, some courses are littered with obstacles, all of which are accurately modeled and true in how they affect the game. I had a fun round where I threw the palino (target) under a picnic table. Balls hitting the table top, legs and benches reacted like you’d expect -- another nice bit of unexpected realism.
So, taken as a whole, Sports Champions is a fun and polished game, but it is one that is also pretty shallow and bland. I think the same could be said about Wii Sports when it dropped years ago. The ultimate question is whether PS Move will continue to grow, or, like the Wii, peak in its infancy.
On the Move: Great feeling and controlling gameplay with a few occasional hiccups and annoyances. Each mode mirrors its counterpart pretty well, but you may find yourself gravitating towards two or three of the six games. Multiplayer is enjoyable.
Graphics: Very photorealistic environments, topped with nice looking but stereotypical players and uninspired presentation elements.
Sound Design: You can use a custom playlist that will replace the generic music, which may be required after a few sessions. The background audio is nice.
Entertainment Value: At $100 for the bundle, this is a good investment if you are interested in other Move games. I can’t say I would recommend dropping the cash if you only want this game, though in fairness, most Move games are around $40. The game is better with an extra controller.
Learning Curve: Each game does a great job teaching you the basics through interactive tutorials and helpful in-game feedback.
Online: No online play is unfortunate, so leaderboards are about it in this area.
Score: 7.5 (Good)