London 2012: Gaming gets decent Olympic title

This is how I think you can categorise sports video games:

 

London 2012

From: Sega

For: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Three and a half stars (out of five)

 


THE MEGA BRANDS

Examples would include the Fifa series, the Madden series, the Tiger Woods golf series, the NHL series, the NBA 2K series and (for US fans and a handful of others) the MLB 2K and MLB The Show baseball series.

These are all well-established titles. They come out every year, have millions of dollars poured into their development, and are virtually guaranteed to sell well.

THE SECOND COUSINS

Other sports that are regularly (though not annually) and relatively successfully (though never perfectly) made the subject of games.

Cricket is a fair example here.

From the Cricket Captain series to Shane Warne Cricket, developers have done a reasonable job of recreating our summer game.

Rugby is another example.

Jonah Lomu Rugby remains one of the greatest sports games of all, and last year's New Zealand-developed Rugby Challenge was outstanding.

THE ULTRA NICHE

The riskiest and most difficult games to develop, because they target sports with smaller markets or lower profiles.

Think rugby league, Australian rules football and the like. This tier of games can throw up the odd gem - Rockstar's Table Tennis ring a bell?- but has also produced any number of stinkers.

So where do you fit Olympic Games, er, games into my sports games pyramid?

It's the Olympics, for goodness sake. The biggest sporting event in the world. You would think there would be an obvious opening there for a quality accompanying video game.

The problems, of course, include but are not limited to:

1. The Olympics only roll around every four years (every two, if you include the Winter Olympics);

2. With so many athletes from so many countries, licensing is virtually impossible, so you never get to compete in the 100m as Usain Bolt, for example;

3. Some of the core Olympic sports (running, swimming, cycling etc) are quite repetitive, therefore don't always lend themselves naturally to video simulation.

Gamers of a certain age will remember the original Track & Field arcade game, and the first encounter with the frenzied "button-mashing" concept.

Official Olympic games have been around since Barcelona 1992 and, let's face it, most have been pretty awful. They have either had too few sports or the wrong ones, gameplay has invariably been a matter of slamming two buttons as quickly as possible, and everything has screamed "rushed out as soon as possible".

Well, things are looking up. If the game to accompany the 2012 Olympics is anything to go by, London is going to host a fine event.

Sega kept development in-house, and its Australian studio has produced easily the best Olympic game yet.

Event selection is generally the No 1 topic in the debate over Olympic games, so we'll start there.

There are only 11 sports represented, though combined there are 31 events. These range from the classics (100m, 200m, 400m, all the throwing events, the 100m swimming strokes and archery) to the not-so-classics (canoe slalom, trampoline, synchronised diving, table tennis and beach volleyball).

It's a fair range, certainly better than many previous games. But it would have been nice to have had more than one event in rowing (only men's single sculls made the cut) and cycling (only men's keirin). And this Jack Lovelock fan pines for the 1500m.

There is, too, a strange gender imbalance. No fewer than 14 events are "men-only", and (you guessed it) beach volleyball is the sole "women-only" code. Odd and disappointing, really.

Pleasingly, much attention has been lavished on the gameplay.

Button-mashing has not completely disappeared but in its place is what you might call Button-Mashing 2.0. Many of the events require a power gauge to be kept in a certain zone, and if you simply thrash that button, you will cook yourself.

An example is the javelin. You tap a button as your thrower runs in, aiming to keep the power gauge in the zone. At a certain point, your power "locks in" and you use the left control stick to quickly try to throw the javelin at the perfect angle.

Swimming utilises the control sticks as your arms, requiring precision timing rather than sheer button-pressing ability. Rowing does the same with its oars.

Skeet shooting, archery, beach volleyball and canoe slalom are among the most fun of the events to play. Diving and hurdles are on the frustrating side.

You can play Olympic campaigns, with the number of events increasing as you boost the difficulty level. You can create your own "playlist". And there are party and challenge modes in multiplayer.

Visually, London 2012 is on another planet to all previous Olympic games. The athletes and, in particular, the venues just look lovely.

Obviously, no real Olympians appear in the game, but you can edit the names and likenesses of two competitors per country (there are 36, including New Zealand) per sport. That's how Chris Donaldson can beat Usain Bolt, see.

Some unlockables are tossed in, but they seem to be cosmetic more than anything.

They say it can't be done but I would love to see an Olympic game come packaged with a career mode, now a requirement for any major sports title. Imagine creating a character from scratch, levelling up your abilities, and competing at various minor events as you strive to qualify for the big show.

Like the actual event, which is all over after an intense two-week period, London 2012 is probably a game with more short-term appeal than long life.

But it's the best of its kind, by a long way.