A Sportsman's Paradise

by Jeff Cooper

Sports gamers ought to be in 32-bit heaven. Consider the reviews of some of the latest sports offering that have appeared in the Prozines. World Series Baseball for the Saturn has been hailed in review after review as the greatest baseball game ever developed. Worldwide Soccer for the Saturn has been praised to the hilt; one reviewer could find "nothing" about the game to criticize. In the Zone, the new basketball game for PlayStation, was rated a 10 in one Prozine. The reviewer described it as the greatest sports title ever, for any system. FIFA '96, PGA Tour Golf, NFL Gameday--you name it, and it has gotten ratings at least in the mid-90s.

I hate to rain on a parade, but there is some sort of mass hysteria going on here. These games are good, but they are ONLY good. Most of them deserve to be rated about a seven. Most of these games scream "initial effort for a new system." They cry out, "first generation." They bellow, in some cases, "rushed to market."

Let's look at some specifics. Worldwide Soccer for Saturn: the graphics are great, and graphics, for me at least, are far more important in sports titles than they are in other sorts of games. The visuals in Worldwide Soccer really draw you into the game, and the gameplay is pretty solid, too. So what's the problem? Well, there are seven-year-old soccer games that include features missing in Worldwide Soccer. You cannot create players or trade players. You cannot move players of varying ability around in position. There are all sorts of other options included in older games that are missing. No flaws? Is this a joke? What about the goals I've given up because I've had to tap a button five times before the proper player would activate? What about the fact that when I dribble into the penalty area, my man freezes for a split second just as I'm about to unload a shot--just long enough for a defender to sweep the ball away? Why can't you hook or slice your shots, as in most other soccer games? Why include headers if it is nearly impossible to score with them? Why do certain passes always end up in a goal being scored?

World Series Baseball for Saturn: I saw one review for Worldwide Soccer (and only one) that gave it only three stars and called it a near miss. World Series Baseball confuses me because the praise has been universal. Why? Admittedly, the graphics and sound are amazing. They so draw you into the game that I don't know if I'll ever be able to go back to 16-bit baseball. You really feel as if you are playing in Fenway or Wrigley. The gameplay is also pretty good. But the problem, again, is depth. Sure, the game has some statistical tracking and so on, but in general it lacks all sorts of features included in the Genesis version. (Don't be misled. World Series Baseball for Saturn is simply a renamed version of a Japanese game called Greatest Nine. It is NOT an update of the Genesis game). You cannot create or trade players, and there is nothing innovative offered in gameplay. It's just generic. Homeruns are replayed, but beyond that, there is no instant replay--astonishing in a 16-bit game like Ken Griffey for SNES, unforgivable in a 32-bit game. Baserunning is over complicated. And worst of all, you can hit a ball off the wall--410 feet from the plate--and MOST OF THE TIME you'll be thrown out at second base by ten feet. Many older games offer more options and better gameplay depth than this one.

PlayStation games have also been overhyped. PGA Tour Golf is much closer in design to the unpopular SNES version than it is to the popular Genesis version. The Babbages salesman warned me that it didn't have much in the way of options, and he was correct. But what really wrecked it for me was the flight of the ball. Once you hit it, it zooms of the screen in an instant. The angle then reverses and you see the ball unrealistically jerk to a halt. Part of the fun of video golf, like real golf, is watching your shot--watching it soar though the air, letting the tension build as you wonder just where it's going to land, how far it's going to roll, and how well the shot is going to turn out. This game robs you of that pleasure, completely disrupting the rhythm of golf. The good news is that the game zooms along at twice the normal pace, but why not include various "ball cam" options, like other golf games?

NFL Gameday is marred by the fact that time and again passes are tipped and then intercepted. Didn't anyone notice this during game testing? In the Zone has nice, smooth graphics and decent basketball gameplay, but almost nothing in the way of options--you can't even substitute. The same sorts of general criticisms apply to Goal Storm.

One large irony is that most of these games offer arcade-style action, and I PREFER arcade style action. I don't like complicated sims that take three months to figure out. Problem is, even as arcade games most of these entries are flawed. Moreover, there is no reason why a sports game can't offer both great arcade gameplay and lots of options. The proof is in the game that I think emerges as the real winner of the sporting wars: NHL Faceoff for PlayStation. I popped this baby in, and within five minutes, although I wasn't playing all that well, I knew what I was doing. The graphics are great. The gameplay is great. And it has depth and options out the wazoo. It has lots of features I'll never use. But that's the point of options--they're optional. No, it isn't perfect. Like most hockey games, I have little sense that I can aim the puck toward a specific part of the net when shooting, and the graphics, though outstanding, will probably be even better in the inevitable sequel. But this one really does deserve a nine.

The great news is that even the so-so sports games are still pretty good. I've seen the future of sports games and it is going to be impressive. Right now, the graphics are wonderful, the gameplay requires tweaking, and options need to be added. But these problems are easily rectified. For now, I'm going to stick to PlayStation hockey and the Saturn driving games. And I can't wait until the sports sequels arrive.


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Last updated: Saturday, April 23, 2005 07:48 AM