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.
As entry points for single-player, co-operative and competitive gaming, ski, bobsleigh and tennis all work very well - especially the superb tennis, which despite a few minor lag issues, easily rivals conventional, full-priced console games. The training mini-games, however, we're more concerned about. F4 has suggested that these will be the "grinding" element of the game in later stages as it becomes more necessary to build your character's strength outside of playing the sports themselves - but grinding by hammering keys is taking literalism to an unpleasant extreme.
The target-shooting that improves your aim, and the typing-test that simulates boxing, are both fast-paced and fun enough to pass muster, but weight-lifting and the treadmill are simply arduous. We haven't had a chance to spend long with track and field events, but their close similarity to the training games makes us very sceptical about their longevity.
What's harder to judge at this early stage is Empire of Sports general structure and progression. It's clear that you'll make the fastest progress, and have the most fun, by simply jumping into games with others; and even with the low population at the moment, it's easy to get a game at any reasonable hour. But solo play is vital to any MMO, and Empire of Spots missions - its alternative to questing - are a more uneven proposition.
Tennis missions are quick-fire training games with very specific objectives that aren't really deep enough to satisfy, and the initial lack of AI opposition makes it harder than it should be to pick up the general flow of play. The simpler ski and bobsleigh missions work better, but in all cases, the rewards - simple experience and cash - don't give anything like enough satisfaction in the early stages. New stat-boosting equipment and attractive clothing, the ultimate carrots for virtually any MMO player, are too slow in coming, with only the new tricks providing serious motivation.
Of course, whether you'll discover this depends very much on whether Empire of Sports' cheesy presentation is to your taste. By F4's own admission, it's very kitsch: the 'UK' town is a bizarre combination of day-glo 1970s futurism and cartoon versions of London landmarks, while the squeaky-clean (and rather too similar-looking) avatars jog around and emote with ridiculous pep. We actually rather liked it, if only for the bracing contrast to every other MMO environment available. But it wasn't long before we turned off the synthesised anthems and session-man rock instrumentals of the soundtrack, and put the radio on instead.
It's impossible to judge Empire of Sports' long-term potential without getting a feel for the team games, basketball and football, which will necessarily be its major selling point and the focal point of social activity in its world. It's also hard to judge it fully without knowing what the game's business model will be: we know it will be free to download (definitely a good thing), and judging by the two currency systems in place it seems highly likely there will be micro-transactions of some kind, but few people will want to pay more than a nominal subscription for this kind of game.
However, Empire of Sports is a genuinely light, throwaway, quick-fire and accessible sports MMO, and that makes it quite unique. The best of its sports are simple, addictive, and offer satisfying progression. It has a very, very long way to go before it's polished enough to be unleashed on the general public - but we remain optimistic that Empire of Sports can bring a much-needed dash of Eurotrash to the po-faced world of MMOs. And remember, if you don't believe us, you can see for yourself.