There are three ways a sports game can aim for an engaging and interesting experience.
1) Pure fun: Something achieved by Wii Sports and its Kinect equivalents. The games are not deep, they’re not hard, and they’re not real, but that doesn’t matter because it’s fun to just piss about doing virtual sports.
2) Challenge: Something requiring a lot of time and effort or an actual knowledge of the sport to master, the pro simulators that not that many people actually play, or Blood Bowl.
3) Fantasy: What nearly everything goes for. Something like FIFA or Madden can be tough but why do they spend all that money on licences? Because they want you to feel the illusion that you’re really in the Premier league.
Good sports games are going to have combinations of those three components, for sure, and I’m not going to be more specific than that because I have only played a tiny cross-section of the available licenced dross out there. What I want out of a sports game is more from column 3. This is because, while I’m broadly in favour of sport, I’m not very good at it. I get enough fun and challenge out of 5-a-side, what I want in a sports game is that fantasy that I’m at the top level. I engross myself in the culture of football and cricket, and so it’s a natural step to feed that back into a game.
There’s two in particular that I have played to death, and both are essentially management simulations. Football Manager you’re probably familiar with, it transcends PC Gaming to achieve its own special niche such that there are people out there who only buy Football Manager. For me it was the opportunity to tell my own rags-to-riches narrative, to take a crap team chosen at random (Gateshead), and lead them, eventually, inexorably, to glory. There’s players on that fictional team who I could write a small instructional booklet on, and what sells that story to me, what makes it real, is that you’re acting it out alongside real footballers who behave roughly as you expect them to, with your expect nudges and guidance
The other one is the rather less heralded International Cricket Captain, which does the same thing except with cricket and with about one hundredth of the funding. It looks pretty horrific, there’s about six lines of commentary, it’s as interactive as an on/off switch and it flickers like a faltering street light on any modern operating system, but I’ve just installed it again and played out a few seasons in the life of Yorkshire CC. Making your mark on real players behaving realistically over time is a big draw for me, I friggin’ love that grand narrative, that evolving campaign.
Please understand, I don’t expect you to hear this and be impressed, I’m essentially horrified at the time I’ve poured into these two basic wish-fulfilment games over the years. I say this so that you are aware how low my quality bar is for sports games, that I have this huge blind spot. I’ve bought two official Olympic games before this, for Atlanta 1996 on the Megadrive and for Sydney 2000 on the PC, and they too managed to sort that basic sporty need, despite featuring nothing more complicated than smashing two buttons, alternately, as fast as possible. That’s been the staple of these things since Track and Field and you know why it works? Because you, you sedentary bastard at the keyboard, you with your hand in that bag of crisps, you are having to experience a teensy-tiny bit of physical pain to win. Sure it’s more of the tendonitis variety than your actual bona fide physical activity pain but dammit, it’s a start. I remember being thrilled at finally crossing the ten-second barrier in the 100 metres when I was 9, my wrists in need of an ice bath.
That’s all they needed to do to make this game a worthwhile purchase for me, and they fucked it up. All the elements are there, no doubt. There’s 28 events covering almost the full spectrum of possibilities (no dressage alas), even bringing in those events that we’re actually good at, cycling and rowing. There’s a persistent Olympic mode where you compete for the country of your choice against those fiendish countries that seek to steal your medals. There’s a commentary track that I’m pretty sure was cobbled together from Vernon Kay soundbites and he might want to sue them around about now. The game looks the part, so that visual side of the fantasy is sorted. They didn’t licence athlete names but you can go through and spend an hour renaming them, like I did. Psyke yourself up with a breathtaking opening ceremony (some fireworks) and you’re ready to rock.
I mean, yes, the controls are badly mapped, you expect that. This is a console game for gamepads, a little warning sign comes up at the start saying “Look, we know you have a keyboard and we respect that, but for God’s sake use a gamepad.” I’ve never admitted defeat in my one-man keyboard crusade before and I’m not going to start now, game, just tell me what the controls are and I’ll figure out how to cheese it. Firstly it says that the buttons ABXY on the gamepad are replaced by ABXY on the keyboard, and that it will only be giving instructions in Gamepad. Then, in other events, it switches them around, seemingly at random, to WASD. On the plus side this turns Trampolining, say, into a fiendish codebreaking challenge where you look at the buttons required then translate them to what that actually means. On the negative side it makes me want to stab people a bit. Every time something comes up saying “press A”, it could mean any one of half a dozen buttons, from A to space to enter to *checks codebook* W. Controls can’t be remapped either because “Fuck you, that’s why”, if I can quote the director of SEGA. Stab stab stab.
However even if they were remappable, the crushing blow would remain. It’s something simple: how do you run? You tap a button, and there’s a little bar that shows your beat-per-second. Keep that bar inside the range defined and you’ll go faster. Go below it or above it and you’ll…grind to a halt, running like a dad across a supermarket parking lot. In swimming you control each arm separately, you are the bastard child of QWOP and a whale. Lose your rhythm in the swim and you’ll glide to a graceful stop like a penguin who’s just spotted an interesting iceberg to gawk at. Throughout, doing well means matching a rhythm, an angle, a pattern, and failure to do so means you stumble about, you idiot.
Fantasy killed. Without wanting to labour this point, the motto of the Olympics is “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, not “Careful now, Balance, Stay There”. When I lose a race, I want it to be because I didn’t bust my arm tendons smashing those buttons quickly enough, not because I wasn’t graceful and steady enough keeping the prescribed rhythm. You know what else it means? It means every event has a maximum possible score and you’ll see it sooner rather than later, and then have nowhere to go. I’ve already ruined the throwing, lifting and shooting events (one thing to be said for keyboard and mouse is that it renders the shooting events a little bit simple), and the running events don’t have much left to give. What is the point.
So if you do want to buy this, well, have gamepads, have friends, and laugh at the crap swimming. A singleplayer game this ain’t. I suppose that I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy it, but there was that little optimistic voice at the back of my head, that nine-year-old me trying to set the world discus record, who mislead me. Damn you, inner child.
I think there’s actually a huge opening for some kind of Olympic management game, you know. BE Lord Moynihan, distributing funding to thirty different bodies amidst infighting and political wrangling. BE Sebastian Coe, fielding awkward questions about missing seats, writing an incredibly dull speech and complaining about middle distance runners these days. BE Dave Brailsford, designing your cycling fortress high in the hills of the peak district with track, treadmill and vomitorium. That would be closer, more real to us lazy bastards overcome with tears at Jessica Ennis’ antics. That’s what the Olympics is now, it’s time for a game to reflect it*.
*If you are from Abroad, I apologize that you probably don’t recognize any of those names.
1 star, 5 hours played.