Empire of Sports is the Eurovision Song Contest of massively multiplayer gaming. It's brash, colourful, competitive, plastic, repetitive, and curiously addictive; it's cheap but glossy, shallow but expansive, cheesy but endearingly earnest.
"Welcome to UK! We are very proud to greet you there and wish you to become the greatest champion of Empire of Sports," reads the very first message when you create a new character and log in to the current test version of the free-to-download sports MMO. It's placeholder text, of course, but we almost hope they don't change its adorably broken English. It suits the tone of the game perfectly.
As Kieron revealed in his first-look preview, Empire of Sports is a joint venture between F4, a freshly- French developer specialising in MMOs, and a Swiss-based sports marketing company, InFront. It's currently in beta testing, which you and a friend can join by grabbing a pair of VIP keys from our Private Launch giveaway. We've been in ourselves, and can report that the game is worth a look if you're curious about a very different kind of MMO experience - and if you're patient.
Although originally planned for an early 2008 release, Empire of Sports is very far from finished, and you certainly won't find a game in the final stages of polishing. Of its seven sports disciplines - track and field, ski, bobsleigh, football, basketball, tennis and training - only the winter sports, tennis and training are playable at time of writing (although track and field's absence is temporary).
The game is prone to bugs and has a sluggish interface. There are several NPCs with nothing to say and vendors with nothing to sell. This isn't your usual open beta, rolled out to load-test the servers and generate some word of mouth; this is a genuine visit to the development coal-face of an MMO.
That's not to say that it's all unfinished. Once launched, the present sports are relatively slick and highly playable. F4 is aiming Empire of Sports at a casual market, and setting the barrier to entry limbo-bar low. To a console sports gamer, they might seem shockingly simplistic at first: skiing is a matter of steering left and right with the arrow keys, and pushing up to go faster, while in tennis, you use a mouse-click to target where you want the ball to land.
But that's rather like calling MMORPG combat simplistic when, at level 1, you only have access to one spell and an auto-attack. It's technically correct, but it's not the whole picture. Empire of Sports is a genuine RPG, with skills - "tricks" - to unlock and assign to a bar of six. These can be permanent or temporary attribute buffs as well as special moves and powers.
Your character levels up in certain attributes - whether specific to a sport, or general - the more you play. There's even a resource aspect to the game, with food needing to be bought to refresh your metabolism, and protracted effort tiring you out and weakening your performance.
Increasing your character's overall level is extremely slow, but levelling up in an individual sport is, by contrast, very swift indeed. Tricks - obtained from a particularly well-designed and free-form skill tree, with a huge number of branching options - make a startling difference to your performance and add an immediate and surprising amount of depth to the simplest downhill ski run, as you refine times with careful balances of speed boost and ski control modifiers. It really isn't unlike the steady increase in rhythmic complexity you get from combat in a well-designed regular MMO - F4 clearly knows its onions in this regard. Blending this with an (admittedly simple) skill-based sports game is a fresh experience: not that deep, but definitely moreish.