Empire of Sports

A new kind of MMO racquet?

You knew that, eventually, it was coming. Perhaps the only surprise is that it came from a relatively obscure French team rather than one of the mega-publishers. You'd have thought that - say - Electronic Arts would have figured that getting paid twelve times a year may be a better bet than getting paid once for an update. But no. It's developers F4 - in a joint venture with the financial muscle of Sports Marketing company Infronts - who have had a crack.

Yes, it's the first 'first serious attempt' at a Sports Online game.

With the game in closed testing at the moment, we travelled to Paris to spend some time looking at the game. We paid close attention as Managing Director Christian Muller walked us through the game and their aims, before letting us loose on it. We were working out whether they're genuinely up to the task of making an Empire Of Sports. Because, obviously, the variety of the games are obviously the key to the appeal. While they plan to expand, they'll open with football (soccer football, that is), tennis, basketball, Bobsleighing, skiing and a mass of athletics-style games, and then more will be developed after the game goes live. You'll notice a lack of American-centric sports, because the game's planning on the rest of the world first and - y'know - serves 'em right for picking stuff no-one else plays. Except basketball. And they win tennis a lot. And the athletics.

Actually, forget I spoke.

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But while variety is clearly the key, it's also the problem. Companies like Electronic Arts have been concentrating their enormous resources on building highly detailed sports games across a couple of decades. No one game can come in and offer something that expects to be better when compared on the same terms.

Smartly, they've taken the only sane route and gone a different way completely. It's a PC-lead game. So all games are played solely through keyboard and mouse. And, if you're anything like me, you immediately stopped in your tracks and imagined something incredibly baroque, like a PC FPS, and shuddered. You couldn't be further away from the truth. The team believes that the PC and mouse are actually the input device which people are most familiar with - and rather than training people to use them in an unconventional way (like the first-person shooter, for example) its controls are about using the mouse and keys in familiar and accessible ways, but also ways which lead to a game unlike any other sports game on the market.

Take the tennis game, the closest game to finished and already highly playable. You move with the keys. You aim with the mouse. Different shots are selected with combinations of mouse-button, allowing spin and lobs and drop-shots and whatever. Smash is contextual, being based on the right place. The place you're aiming is marked clearly with a circle. The longer you hold the buttons for, the harder you shoot - but the larger the area where the ball may go. This turns the game, much like tennis, into one of odds - weighing up the loss of control versus the power versus the positioning at every moment. It really doesn't feel like anything else.

It's even made more accessible by your ability to choose where you're aiming and how hard before the ball hits. You can select the shot, move to the ball, then hit automatically. However, since your target is displayed on your opponent's screen, better players, I suspect, will inevitably wait until the last moment before placing the marker. It's a novel way to make sure that players with different skill levels can face off against one another, without making it either a walk-over or turning victory random.

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That said, a more experienced player will be harder to defeat in a different way, because you have a persistent character who you develop by playing. Skills are gained in each of the sports, but alongside this a more general physical fitness developed by visiting the gym and training on the various machines. So yes, it's turning the XP treadmill impressively literal. The human body is modelled in rather impressive detail, with different exercises developing different kinds of muscles, leading to separate performance in a endurance versus nimbleness manner. Energy levels are a more developed than a glorified mana bar, with them talking about different nutrients you've eaten being depleted, requiring the player to eat. All this means that leads to novel tactics in the game - for example, in tennis, playing against a skilled but relatively unfit player, by forcing them to run a lot, you can sap their energy and leave them increasingly exhausted towards the close. There's also special moves, which can are either constantly active, boosting your abilities, or activated before requiring a slow recharge. Like Guild Wars, you select a handful of these from a larger bank, adding another strategic element to confrontations.

While playing against humans is clearly important, there's also an element analogous to player-versus-environment, as you work through challenges to increase your skills in different areas. Interestingly, there's an overlap, so similar skills will cross over to other games. So, for example, if you're the star slam-dunker in basketball, and you decide and go and play football, you'll find your heading skill may get a head start by your uncanny clearance. There's also more playful character-customisation, such as getting to deck out your flat with the winnings you've earned and dressing differently and similar. The only fly in the ointment here is that, at the moment, there's no option to artificially level abilities so a challenge can be based on player skill solely, though the developers are consider adding one.

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So, all very interesting. There's, inevitably, some reservations at this stage. While tennis' fun nature buys some credit, the earlier basketball was a lot shoddier and we didn't even see the football. Also, on a conceptual level, these team-games are harder to play online than something that works one-on-one like tennis. Getting twenty-two people to not just all run towards the ball screaming like five-year olds in a playground is going to take some organisation, and that means - I suspect - it'll be content more analogous to raids, for players who've committed. Smaller-sized matches will hopefully fill the gap, and - y'know - RUSH GOALIE! Away from the big game, some of the smaller sports may perhaps be a bit too casual. While passably amusing, the old-skool button-mashing of the 100m sprint isn't exactly what you use as a foundation for a financial empire.

That said, it makes no bones that it's an MMO you can enjoy with less of a commitment. Avoiding the traditional box entrance, its client will be downloadable. While they don't give a specific figure, they say their monthly fee will only be a fraction of a traditional fee. Equally, they said that - ideally - they'd like it to be free to play one day, funded by advertising. Now, while obviously an abomination in almost any other MMO, this would make perfect sense for simulating the real world of athletes-as-walking-billboards and help foster the all-welcoming atmosphere the game is clearly trying to foster.

Contender or also-ran? Well, we'll have a better chance to really judge its potential come its Open beta, before its release in spring next year.

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