Tuesday, December 28, 2004

2004 Year in Review: Sports Games

This was unfortunately a year when there were a few sports games that were terrific and a bunch more that were half-finished, unbalanced crap.

3 Best Trends:
1. Gameplay sliders. Yes, they're a pain in the ass to test and balance, but they've saved several excellent games (ESPN Football 2K5 as the prime example) from an early death.
2. Improved audio. EA's NCAA Football was a disappointment this year, but the one outstanding improvement they made was with the sound of the crowd. It was remarkable and incredibly immersive. ESPN added the ability to change the position of different in-game sounds in a 5.1 matrix. Both were significant improvements.
3. Oh hell, I can't even come up with a third one.

3 Worst Trends:
1. Half-finished crap. Sports games seem to be victimized by this more than any other genre, and it's even worse on the consoles, where most sports games are only partially playable and never get patched. It seems that the enticement to buy this year's version of an established sports series is for all the NEW! features, 90% of which don't completely work and have resulted in breaking 20% of the existing engine. Both EA and Sega have serious problems with this.

2. Exclusive league licenses. This is the work of The Great Satan, otherwise known as EA Sports. They now have exclusive Nascar, PGA, NFL , and World Cup licenses, as well as buying licenses individually for many of the world's best soccer leagues. Horrible for innovation, horrible for game quality, horrible for game pricing, just horrible period.

3. Out-of-Box game balance. Developers have started using the inclusion of gameplay sliders as an excuse to ship games that play terribly with the default settings. Then the sportsgaming community gets to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours improving how the game plays by experimenting with every possible slider combination. The true value of a sports game is often not known for weeks or even months as people in the community work on the gameplay sliders.

4. Color commentary. Oh, the horror. The first time a color commentator says "Joseph, Jesus, and Mary--I think he's fallen off the porch!" it's funny. The fifth time you hear it in a game, it's torture. Play-by-play commentary in quite a few of these games is excellent, but it gets ruined by the color commentary. I wish that developers would understand that the absolute death of color commentary in a game is the signature phrase. Signature phrases, by definition, are supposed to be unique and spontaneous, and also be definition, that's impossible in pre-recorded commentary. That's why Madden is a pretty interesting color commentator in real life and absolutely heinous in a video game.

I'm going to have hybrid categories since I play on both PC and Xbox, like many of you. So it's all getting dumped into the same stadium, so to speak.

Now, to the games. In dramatic order:
Honorable Mention: Winning Eleven 8. I have no doubt that if Winning Eleven 8, Konami's superb soccer simulation, was available in the U.S. (available in Europe now--to the U.S. in February), it would be in the top three. Pro Evo Soccer 3, which was the PC version of Winning Eleven 7, might have been the most authentic sports simulation of all-time.

3. Tiger Woods 2005 (PC). Graphic splendor, greatly improved gameplay (putting is nothing short of amazing this year), and improved career mode. This is counter-balanced with EA's stubborn decision to force you to play their unbalanced career mode (it was improved this year, but it's still unbalanced) in order to use a created golfer in the game, not allowing you to use user-created courses in season mode, and killing the course design community. So this is an excellent game, but I can't help but feel that it's headed in the wrong direction now. That's what happens when your excellent competition (Links) has left the course.

2. ESPN College Hoops 2K5 (Xbox). Last year's version, along with Pro Evolution Soccer 3 and NBA Street Ver. 2, were the best sports games of the year. Remarkably, this year the game is significantly improved. This is the best CPU ball movement ever seen in a basketball game, by far, and it's also a real pleasure to see a team be able to finish a fast break properly. Legacy mode is extremely deep and well-designed--I've played over sixty seasons (one full Legacy and twenty years of another) just recruting and coaching the occasional game. And speaking of Coaching mode, it's a terrific feature, allowing you to call plays, make substitutions, and do everything a coach would do during a game, without forcing you to control a player. The game looks much better than last year, and some of the animations are just tremendous.

There are some warts. There is a serious problem with the game freezing in Legacy mode, but there's also a fix: do not save a custom profile or settings. When you turn on the game, just accept the default profile but do not save it. And you can save settings inside a Legacy, but don't save a custom set at the game's main menu. I've had no freezes after doing that.

The other primary wart is that while the end-game A.I. is much improved, it's too inflexible, relying on forcing the opponent to the free throw line in the last minute even if the game score is within one possession. And last year's timeout bug (the A.I. would call all their timeouts in bizarre situations) has been remedied by having the A.I. call no timeouts at all. Um, that's not a fix, really.

Still, this game is big, big fun.

1. ESPN NFL 2K5. If you read this column on a regular basis, this is no surprise. This game was a total pain in the ass to balance via the gameplay sliders, but when it was, the fun factor was just off the charts. Looked spectacular in 480p, with incredible animations and player models. Greatest presentation in a sports game ever, with outstanding integration of the ESPN license. Also probably the greatest bargain ever--100+ hours of gameplay for $19.99.

Needed the right sliders, needed house rules in Franchise mode, needed better two-minute A.I., needed better draft A.I. So what? Everything else was so overwhelmingly positive that this game raised the bar in more ways than I can even list. A stunning, landmark achievement in sports games. It was so stunning that EA did everything they could to kill it by buying an exclusive NFL license.

And if you want to see gameplay slider and Franchise rules, go to the August archives and search on ESPN NFL 2K5.

Looking ahead to 2005: So what about next year? Winning Eleven 8 for PC is money in the bank. So is NBA Street Ver. 3 (I'm buying it used as part of my efforts to derail The Great Satan, otherwise known as EA Sports). Anything else is a roll of the dice due to the half-finished crap trend. I'm particularly hoping that someone will finally finish a damn baseball game. I haven't played a baseball game with all features working and excellent onfield A.I. in at least five years.

Something to definitely look forward to, though, is Xbox 2. I have no doubt in my mind that the new console will support 720p for all games, at a minimum, and I strongly believe they will all support 1080i as well. The few Xbox sports games that supported 720p (ESPN Baseball and MVP Baseball in particular) looked absolutely fantastic, and with the exponential leap in processing power and graphics capabilities, they should be astonishing on Xbox 2.

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