Version tested: PlayStation 3
What does it take to be a sporting champion? Along with physical prowess you must show grit, dedication and determination. You must be willing to make sacrifices and stay focused. On top of all this you must be a stupidly hot woman or hilariously ugly man, and display at least three characteristics stereotypically ascribed to people of your race or nationality.
At least, that's the case if you want to be the kind of sporting champion featured in Sports Champions. But more of that later - let's start with the good news. Sports Champions, despite being yet another compilation of mini-games played by waving a motion controller about as if you're playing a real sport really badly, is actually quite good.
The reasons for this boil down to two simple factors. First, PlayStation Move works. It enables you to aim, hit, throw and do all sorts of other sports-related things easily and accurately. Unlike with so many Wii games, reticules don't wibble, bats don't jiggle and attempts to put spin on balls aren't misinterpreted. There's rarely any perceptible lag and objects almost always behave just as you'd expect them to.
Second, while there's not a huge selection of mini-games in Sports Champions, the ones on offer are generally of a high quality. They have depth and offer challenge. The best ones accurately recreate the experience of playing the sport they're based on, while featuring the kind of fun elements you could only ever find in a videogame.
Take the Archery game, for example. This is played by pointing the Move controller to aim and releasing the trigger button to shoot. If you have two controllers you can draw the other one back like a bow, which enhances the sense of realism but also adds an extra layer of complication you might decide you'd rather do without. In any case, reaching back to pull an arrow from your virtual quiver, taking aim and watching the arrow fly according to accurately recreated laws of physics is deeply satisfying.
The fun element is provided by the targets you're shooting at. These might be moving bullseyes or apples, pumpkins and watermelons. They could be giant bags of swag which drop from the sky and explode in showers of coins, Scott Pilgrim-style.
Or they could be blank targets on a giant game board which switch round to reveal a nought or a cross, depending on which competitor has scored the hit. This last variation is especially good fun during split-screen multiplayer matches. The game becomes about speed more than accuracy as you race to hit the middle target first and stop the other person from getting three in a row.
Archery is also fun in the single-player tournament mode, where you're faced with an increasingly difficult series of target set-ups and ever-more capable opponents. There's a real sense of progression as the challenges get tougher and your skills improve. In other words, Archery is more like a proper game than your average mini-game.
The same goes for Table Tennis. The visual style and certain gameplay elements, such as the glow around balls which indicates spin, are reminiscent of Rockstar's excellent game of the same name. The virtual bat mimics your movements perfectly so you can perform different types of hit, and misses never feel unfair. It's well worth playing through the tutorials to learn just how much depth there is to the game.
Bocce is another highlight. No, we hadn't either, but basically it's petanque. If you've never heard of petanque, basically it's boules. If you've never heard of boules, basically it's trying to chuck big balls as close as possible to a smaller ball on some gravel.
Once again Move's capabilities shine. It's possible to roll balls along the ground as well as lob them up into the air so they land with a thud. There are no issues with floatiness or odd trajectories, which you might expect if you've played any Wii bowling game except Nintendo's. Bocce is also great for multiplayer sessions, especially if you're good at tonking other players' balls right out of the game.
Beach Volleyball is less successful. You hold the Move while performing serves, spikes, digs and so on, using arm movements just like you would in real life. Except in real life you'd also be running round the court - here your character moves round automatically. Your only task is to move your arms in the right way at the right time, which quickly gets tedious. At least in Just Dance you also have to move your legs. And in time to Technotronic.
Disc Golf sits somewhere on the middle of the spectrum between the excellence of Archery and the mediocrity of Beach Volleyball. The Move becomes a frisbee, and you compete across expansive courses to see who can hit the target with the least number of throws. The physics work fine and the environments are pretty enough, but it all gets rather samey after a while.
Finally there's Gladiator Duel, the mini-game which is most like a videogame and least like a real sport. You use the Move as a sword, swiping at your enemy in a bid to either knock them out of the arena or knock all the yellow out of their health bar.
You also have a shield you can use by pressing the trigger button, or by aiming the second controller if you have one. As you can't hit with the first controller at the same time your shield is raised, this doesn't give you an advantage.
However, it's worth calibrating both so you can press the Move buttons on each respective controller to dodge left and right. Otherwise, using just the one Move, you're forced to press the stupidly tiny square and triangle buttons. This is a massive pain in the heat of battle, not to mention the arse.
Gladiator Duel is the only mini-game in which the Move sometimes struggles to recognise all your movements and recreate them quickly. Trying to perform jump attacks (by raising the controller above your head) and shield bashes (by thrusting it forwards) can be particularly frustrating. It often takes a second too long for the game to replicate these movements, and sometimes they aren't recognised at all.
That said, when it comes to making you feel like you're swinging a real weapon, Gladiator Duel does better than the motion-controlled sword-slashing games which have come before it. The issues with dodging and movement recognition aren't big enough to render the game unplayable. It just feels like a work in progress.
It also looks like the work has been in progress since 2002, and as if no one has bothered to do anything with the visuals in the intervening years. This is partly due to stiff animations and bland, generic environments. However, it's mainly down to the desperately naff avatars you are forced to play as and compete against.
What's that you say? Why can't I create my own avatar? Or, you know, perhaps import my character from PlayStation Home, seeing as all these ones look like they were created in there anyway? Good grief, don't be ridiculous. What do you think this is, 2005?
Of course, it wouldn't matter that you can't design your own avatar if the ones in Sports Champions were cool, or stylish, or original, or hip, or anything other than the drearily familiar cardboard cutouts they are. And it would help if they hadn't all leapt straight from the pages of the Bumper Book of Racial and Cultural Stereotypes.
True fact: I have discovered a hidden mini-game in Sports Champions. I like to call it Racial Profiling. The idea is you look at the character and guess what their in-game text profile will say about them, then click to reveal the text and see if you're right.
Now let's see. Black guy wearing do-rag, diamond earrings and a gold chain? That's right, he's a wisecracking basketball player from the streets of New York! Tough-looking black chick with her fists up? Yes, she "learned to fend for herself at a young age" before being taken in by the owner of the local boxing gym, where she "found a home, a family and a purpose"!
More on Sports Champions
At least Sports Champions doesn't discriminate - there are stereotypes of all colours of the rainbow in here. Brazilian Giselle is good at dancing and football. Belle, from Bucharest, was "forced into a state-run gymnastics program from an extremely young age" and "never really developed the normal behaviour and social skills of other girls her age".
Then there's tiny Japanese girl Rin, who is "quiet and serious" and "only accepted this challenge out of a sense of duty". And Tatupu, a giant Samoan gentleman covered in tribal tattoos. He "believes deeply in the spiritual nature of his heritage and preserving island culture", you will be amazed to learn.
Most of the men are hulking great uggos. Most of the women are slender young sexpots who wear shorts so tight they appear to be made out of opaque clingfilm. The exceptions are Jackson, the guy from New York, and Kat, the chick from the gym. He is a slender young sexpot. She is a hulking great uggo.
The problem is not that these stereotypes are offensive. It's that they're dull, and that their inclusion is so predictable. It's disappointing that as far as games have come, for all that talk about cinematic realism and complex narratives and fancy new motion controllers, you still end up playing as a man called Dallas in a cowboy hat.
Presentation is what lets Sports Champions down, and not just when it comes to the characters. The environments appear bland, empty and dated. The music is cheesy and soulless. Even the menu screens feel sparse and unfinished, while the emotionless grey avatar who shows you how to use the Move is weirdly reminiscent of a Midwich cuckoo. On top of this, all you're being presented with is six mini-games, half of which aren't that great.
But it's important not to overlook Sports Champions' redeeming features - the high quality of the better mini-games, and the Move itself. The technology works and this game proves it. The Archery, Table Tennis and Bocce games have real depth and longevity. While the other offerings aren't brilliant, they're not bad.
Let's just hope there's more to choose from in the next Sports Champions, that the presentation gets brought up to date, and that the black character doesn't go "Whut?!" every time his ball bounces out of the court.
7 / 10