I’ve always been a sucker for Konami’s track and field endeavors. The aptly titled NES game Track and Field
was the most memorable game of my youth, ranking right up there with the likes of Contra
and Kid Icarus
. When the boys in Japan released a PlayStation One title to coincide with the 1996 Olympics I literally squealed like a little girl. Now almost a decade later we have the first next-generation title based on the 2004 Olympics in Athens. How good is it? Well let’s just say that it’s the best Olympics game you’ll see this year. Why? Well, because it’s the only Olympics game you’ll see this year.
If you’re a fan of the Olympics you’ll absolutely fall in love with this game. Nearly every single individual non-mainstream sport makes an appearance here. Sony did well to ensure that there would be an abundance of variety too. For those who wish to distance themselves from testosterone, the game features a nice handful of indoor gymnastics events including the rings and the pommel horse. Track and Field fans will be glad to know that most of the crucial events are represented here such as the 100m and the 110 hurdles. If running isn’t your bag then you can play around with the shotput or javelin competitions. Those who are on the Michael Phelps bandwagon will be able to test their mettle in all four individual swimming events (excluding the medley). Backwoods folks will be able to get in on the action with the archery and skeet shooting competitions. There’s even an equestrian event where you have to jump over the barriers with the horse. In all there are 25 events for you to cut your teeth on, some of which allow you to choose to compete as the women or the men.
For a premise this simple, the execution is strangely complicated. While most events utilize the now-familiar alternating buttons scheme for their bread and butter, all of them contain differentiating elements that make them hard to pick up and play. When I started up the game I figured I’d partake in the 100meter event because it was bound to be the simplest. As everyone sets up at the line I ready my fingers on the X and O buttons, ready to school the ringer from China in the next lane. That’s when my guy suddenly stumbles and I’m pegged with a false start. Maybe I jumped the gun. Eager to atone for my mistake I take my fingers off of the controls and wait for the gun before I set my man into motion. Then suddenly the gun goes off and I’m charged with another false start, disqualifying myself and sending me back to the global village, wondering why my last shipment from BALCO made me all twitchy. It turns out that everything isn’t exactly as simple as it seems. In order to perform a proper start you’ll have to hold the L1 button and then release it after the gun sounds, only then can you attack the controller with your fingers of fury.
So maybe it’s not as complicated as I’ve made it out to be, but it seems like Athens was designed to be a party game through and through. After all, the game even includes support for the DDR DancePads for specific events. But there are problems here, how many times have you had to explain how to play a party game to your friends? That’s the beauty of them; you pick up the controller, shut off your brain and have a good time. Here you’ll spend a good chunk of time explaining to your friends how to play them, and only after a few test runs will they have a firm grasp of how to play. I understand the need for more realism but when a game is supposed to be simple, then shouldn’t it be, well, simple? To be fair there are some unique elements in here such as a DDR-like gymnastics routine. It's fun to play with both the dance pad or the controller, well barring that you're not a complete moron and you discover that you can perform the steps with the d-pad in conjunction with the face buttons.
In addition to the overcomplicated controls, Athens 2004 does a poor job of recreating the Olympic atmosphere. Aside from the logos and the god-awful mascots, nothing here lets you know that you’re competing in the Olympic Games. I understand the lack of real-life competitors but how about making up fake names to compete against? I’m tired of competing against nameless clones from a bunch of 2nd rate countries. While we’re at it, the game does absolutely nothing to bring the gamer into the action. You can’t create your own persona and the only customization comes from being able to choose your country of origin. Players can’t even put their names in; personas are reduced to three digit initials. Where’s the glory in setting the world record as some generic character named GHZ? The smart thing to do here would have been to utilize the Eye Toy a la MLB 2005
so that players can put themselves into the game. That way there would be a sense of actual accomplishment when a record was broken and set.
Speaking of records, the game is far from realistic. The very people that the game tries to cater to (Olympic purists and fans) will feel insulted by just how horribly contrived the game is. Every time you compete in an event you can be sure to break the world or Olympic record for it. On top of that your competition will match up to you as well and often times will go above and beyond it. It’s kind of inane when after you’ve broken the world record you realize that you just got beaten by the likes of Algeria and Ukraine.
How could this game have been better? Well, making the game online compatible would have done wonders for the game. Competing against the AI is one thing, but competing against a full field of human competitors is another. In the weeks leading up to the Olympic Games 989 Sports could have had some qualifying runs with the winners competing in the same day of the actual event. Winners would then win prizes such as Olympic merchandise and memorabilia. I would also have liked to see the designers find more ways to immerse the game in the Olympic atmosphere. There are different countries, there are stadiums and logos, but there’s nothing here that’s profoundly Olympic. In a sense, it would have been the exact same game with or without the Olympic licensing.
After you get past the glossy menus and the cutesy mascots you have what can best be described as an average track and field experience. It’s the best Olympic game on the market this year so it has that going for it. Then again, it’s the only
Olympic game on the market this year so that’s not saying much. Pick it up if you’re desperate for a fix, otherwise it’s a rental at best.
Overcomplicated controls, strange gameplay elements and poor atmosphere make this a run-of-the-mill track and field title. It's a great momento for true Olympic fans but people looking for a button-mashing fix might want to head to the bargain bins.
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