Innovation & Design

E3 Feature: Sports Games Focus


With the impending arrival of the next-gen consoles, developers have the opportunity to create even more realistic-looking environments for virtual championships. Coupled with even deeper modes of play, with online competitions and simlike management of every aspect of a franchise, playing sports games are often more immersive and satisfying than simple fanship.

When you think Rockstar, you don't necessarily think of hitting something with a paddle. More like a baseball bat. Or a car. But the Grand Theft Auto mavens have selected a safer simulation for their first foray into the genre with Rockstar Presents Table Tennis.

Ping pong is reportedly a favorite pastime of the Rockstar employees after a day of programming perverse open-ended mayhem. Hence this title, which harkens back to the granddaddy of all games, Pong. It might seem a bit weird for the people who pushed sandbox-style gameplay to take on a very basic, retro idea like this, but one look at the game will dash a doubter's giggles.

Taking something with simple rules and gameplay mechanics allows Rockstar to focus more on fine-tuning graphics, animation, and control (all elements that can be put to good use later on in other titles). All eyes are on the players, the table, and that little ball. Using the Xbox 360's lighting abilities for maximum effect, there are subtle shadows, authentic scuffs on the tables, and mirrorlike reflections.

Like a Benetton ad, 11 characters from countries around the world are available for the choosing, all with different mannerisms and styles. Characters are made up of 30,000 polygons, giving them a range of lifelike movements and skills. This new graphics engine (the creatively-named "advanced game engine") allows for a massive improvement on the simplistic character models of yesteryear. Details approach the level of a Fight Night, with visible pores. Attractive!

There's no create-a-player function, but you will be able to change clothes (and you'll need to, since the players actually sweat through their shirts in heated competition). Again, the matches are the attraction here, and once you see how intense Rockstar has made swatting a little white ball, you won't care whether your avatar looks like you or Tom Hanks.

In terms of feel, the game plays quite similar to your standard tennis title, with traditional control schemes, such as holding a button to pull back and aim your shot; by adding modifiers like the shoulder button, you can perform focused shots and the like that vary based on which character you've chosen to play with. Following recent trends in sports controls, the right analog stick can also be used to swat away at incoming projectiles.

While these concepts may seem familiar to devout players of other tennis franchises, they've been implemented here with touches that reduce the learning curve for gamers that might be new to racket-based titles. For instance, if you hold down the charge button too long to get some extra mustard on a return shot, the controller will rumble to help you adjust your timing. Such literal feedback might be shocking to some, but B.F. Skinner would be proud of Rockstar's Pavlovian attempt to train players thusly, which should prepare them for online play, which is slated to include player matching in addition to a variety of tournaments and spectator mode.

It's All Downhill

Speaking of create-a-character mode, that's something Activision's Tony Hawk franchise has done quite well for a few years now, and the upcoming Tony Hawk's Downhill Skateboarding (working title) will not only continue that tradition, but will add a new wrinkle to the venerable series with breakneck (and other bones) arcade-style racing down the steepest streets on the planet.

From San Fran to Machu Picchu, THDS will allow players to compete in three gameplay modes, including race, trick, and slalom, as well as head-to-head, split-screen modes for challenging friends. Best of all, old-school "fishtails," longboards, and '70s skateboards are available for your shredding pleasure, and are controlled via a brand-new system. Yes, this game is for the Nintendo Revolution, meaning you'll be using that nifty wandlike controller to pop ollies and crash through hidden areas.

Going downhill fast is also something that fans of the New York Jets have to worry about. Screaming at a team's coach is almost as satisfying as screaming at a ref, and now, with EA's NFL Head Coach, you have the chance to be more than just a know-it-all member of the peanut gallery. EA calls this "the first-ever 3D sports strategy game," meaning your knowledge of the sport's inner workings are more important than how fast you can mash the "punt" button.

After creating your coach, you'll take over almost every aspect of managing an NFL team (save washing out the cups). It's wheeling and dealing to sign superstar players and build the franchise into a dynasty. You'll get to live out all of the highest highs, the lowest lows, and the middling middles that destiny sends your way, in addition to wearing some avuncular sweater/oxford shirt combos.

In lifelike, everyday coaching environments from the field to the war room, you'll make choices that inform your relative success, from year-round scouting of key players, to delegating scrimmages and other dirty work to your assistant coaches. But if just getting to the game is what you're interested in, this is likely not the game for you. The deep scouting system differs from Madden in that you'll have a range to your stats instead of a fixed number. If you scout thoroughly, you'll get a pick's potential within a smaller differential. Skimp on your scouting and you might find a wild open distance between a good day and a bad one for your freshly-minted superstar.

Drafting is done in a beautifully-rendered 3D environment that features 40 rounds announced by Mel Kiper Jr. Your first year will be accurate in terms of who's really out there in the league, but as gameplay can take you well into the 21st century, the other 39 will be made up of randoms—but don't worry if none of these kids sound familiar, as your team's scouts are up on all their deets and will help you reach decisions on who's making the cut.

From there, you'll go literally hour–by-hour in the life of your coach. And while you can run through that 97 hour work week of off-field duties and just take a nap somewhere, but getting things done right during the week can be key to winning on Sunday.

Once game day comes, one of the game's niftiest features comes into play, as you'll be able to use your console's headset to issue voice commands to call plays and get updates from your coordinators, just like a real-life coach.

As you win Super Bowls and produce legendary players, you'll move up in the rankings and your achievements will be catalogued by Steve Sabol, the voice of the NFL, who'll provide a running commentary on your career. The ultimate goal? Getting you're a statue of yourself in the Hall of Legends. Of course, with all the customization options, you could just spend your time redecorating and fully pimping out your office, but if you're into sim sports, you could do a lot worse: About the only thing missing is a button that drops a drum of Gatorade onto your head.

Meanwhile, the sport that the rest of the world considers football is represented heartily by Sony's World Tour Soccer '06. Designed specifically for the PSP, WTS addresses the portable's need for shorter gameplay sessions with the "Play Now" mode, which automatically selects an evenly matched set of teams to get the player up and running around the pitch for four-minute point-based challenges. Hardcore fans needn't resort to hooliganism, however—there's plenty here that goes deep, including more than 70 international teams, 1,500 players, and eight stadiums available in Medal and World Tour modes, allowing for total global domination. Except in the United States. EA Sports' 2006 FIFA World Cup is also on show, getting us all in the mood for the big tourno.

BATTER UP

MLB SlugFest 2006 is likely the last in the franchise, since 2K Sports has sealed up the MLB license, and it features current team rosters (pre-opening day, at least) and stadiums. But the real draw in this budget title is the gameplay, which crosses the literally hot NBA Jam-style visuals with the classic American pastime.

As a pitcher, you've got over 40 styles of fingering to freak out batters. Working like a fighting game combo, you'll need to mash down a specific sequence during your wind-up in order to break out insane spiral pitches that trail fire and make conventional KY or curve balls look like grapefruits. Just be sure not to hit the batter with one of those "special deliveries" they'll charge the mound. Sometimes on all fours. And that ain't too pretty. Did we mention there's also a turbo button? There is. Meaning this game can get pretty insane when everyone on the diamond looks like the Human Torch and the turbo meter is full. Flame on!

From B-Ball to V-Ball

A promotional tour by a clothing company may seem like a dubious premise for a videogame, yet AND 1: Streetball leaves its origins in the dust like a nasty ankle breaking pick and roll. Outgunning your opponents with extreme style is the goal in this urban hoops simulation, offering half court, full court, three on three, and other modes that allow you to control AND 1's actual streetball team, all of whom have had their signature moves motion-captured for authenticity. And speaking of, music on all 10 courts from the Bronx to L.A. is supplied by local talent.

Can we talk about College Hoops 2K7? 2K's latest revamp of its yearly NCAA simulator is once again one of the most immersive experiences in console gaming. Crisp graphics (peep those reflections in the parquet) and tight controls are to be expected for those who just want to pick up and play, but where College Hoops really shines is in the legacy mode, where coaches can recruit talent all season long.

Meanwhile, in NBA 2K7, a new alley-oop system along with enhanced controls that bring more sensation to dunks coupled with more physical defense (including the ability to bump and grind with players on offense or just ones that you find offensive) gel together to create one of the most fluid ballin' experiences to be had on any platform.

Square Enix is hard at work on a b-ball game for Nintendo DS: Mario Basket 3on3. Everyone's favorite jumping plumber hits the court on the DS's two screens, allowing a 3D representation of the court on the top and an overhead view of your team on the bottom. Collectable coins and characters and Nintendo cuteness are de riguer.

More round mounds of rebound are being engineered by Team Ninja, who will bring Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball 2 to the Xbox 360 later this year. Expect even more realistic giggling and jiggling.

From one kind of net to another, we go to Natsume's Reel Fishing: Life & Nature. Pick up your PSP and catch that weird bracelet-making girl a delicious bass. Freshwater fish are the name of the game (there are over 25), so you'll be taking more than 100 pieces of tackle out to lakes and streams in varying weather conditions. It's like actual fishing, only without so much beer.

ICE, ICE BABY

Keeping it cool is NHL 2K7, which has a brand-new "skating engine" reminiscent of a lawnmower on rollerblades. It's also got new passing, shooting, and checking animations as well as a dynamic iso-camera playing perspective that allows you to keep the focus where you want it. New visual effects such as shaved ice collecting along the rink and the always improving lighting complement the atmospheric sound that mixes player grunts, referees' calls, and catcalls from your bench into a bloody symphony. On ice.


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