Version tested: PlayStation 2
Do they know it's Christmas time at all? So sang Paul Young in 1984. And Lisa Stansfield in 1989. And a Bedingfield in the 2004 version, which featured Dizzee Rascal's marvellous rapping ("Spare a thought this yuletide for the deprived. If the table was turned, would you survive?").
They may not have been singing about videogame hardware shortages, but one thing's for sure - there won't be Wiis in HMV this Christmas time. The greatest gift they'll get this year is a GBP 304.99 PS3 bundle including Black Hawk Down on Blu-ray. The only water flowing will be the bitter sting of tears, the tears of children who don't understand about component manufacturing issues and just want to play golf with a remote control.
But here comes In2Games, the Bob Geldof of third-party software manufacturers, and its RealPlay range for PlayStation 2. The first batch includes golf, pool and racing games, plus something called PuzzleSphere. Each game comes with its own wireless controller shaped like a golf club, pool cue, steering wheel or, er, puzzlesphere. They're priced at GBP 34.99 each.
"With the Wii continually reported to be in short supply in the run-up to Christmas, the RealPlay range is consequently shooting its way to the top of gamers' wish list letters to Santa," according to In2 Games. "Just give us your f***ing money," the publisher did not add.
So does the advent of the RealPlay really range mean there's no need to be afraid? Let's find out.
According to the back of the box, RealPlay Pool's wireless cue controller gives you "total control over your shots". It comes in three parts which screw together, and has two buttons and a d-pad on the fat end.
Holding an electronic pool cue feels quite cool, but once the game's underway you realise it's nothing more than a gimmick. Nominating pockets and balls, placing cue balls, lining up shots and setting spin is all done using the d-pad. You only move the cue to set the elevation (by tilting it up or down) and to shoot (by thrusting the controller forward like you would a real pool cue).
The power you apply to the shot does affect how far and fast the ball travels, but otherwise the controller is pointless. It's not even necessary to point it at the screen when shooting. The game isn't testing you on how well you can use a pool cue, but how good you are at lining up shots with a d-pad.
There are plenty of other pool games which work on this principle, and all of those made post-1992 look better than this. Matches take place in badly drawn rooms populated by badly drawn spectators (two max). Floor and wall textures are of a sub-PS1 standard. There are bizarre bits of set dressing, such as yellow sports cars sat next to pool tables and pictures of speedboats on the wall.
There are Practice, Exhibition, World Tour and Multiplayer modes, and you can play various types of pool and snooker. In World Tour you have to play all the different types. You have to know the rules for the different types, as they're not explained in-game or in the manual. If you're not familiar with the order of shooting in 9-ball pool, for example, you're stuffed.
The character customisation feature is laughable. You can choose from "casual or formal" dress, some of the worst hats we've ever seen in a videogame, a variety of terrifying facial feature sets and so on. All the characters look ridiculous. Not that you get to see them that often. Your opponent is never actually shown taking shots - you just see a pool cue floating in mid-air as if in the hands of the invisible man. Spectacular.
The gameplay is tedious, the pool cue controller is pointless, the visuals are shockingly bad. RealPlay Pool is a gimmicky, ugly game that not even hardened fans of the sport will enjoy. Can the other titles in the series be this bad? But say a prayer, pray for the other ones...
Deaf ears. The racing wheel controller bundled with this game does have more point to it than the pool cue as you turn it left and right to steer. However, it doesn't work properly. There's a delay between wheel movement and the action on screen, so at first you'll find yourself endlessly trying to correct your steering and wildly over-compensating.
Things do get easier with practice, and fiddling with the wheel sensitivity options can improve your steering. But at no point does it feel like you're really in control of a vehicle, any more than if you were sitting on one of those fibreglass kiddies' rides they have outside post offices. Which would feel less stupid.
The cars move extremely slowly, even if you're using the hilarious "nitro boost", and handle terribly. There's a button for resetting the car on the track if it gets stuck facing the wrong direction. You'll be pressing it a lot.
The tracks are horribly dull and jaggy. They have names like 'Gasoline City' and 'Vertigo Raceway'. The cars make a sound like someone holding a hairdryer under a cushion. That's when they make a sound at all; thanks to a bug in the game, you'll sometimes find none of the cars make any noise for the duration of entire races.
There are Quick Race, Time Trial, Knockout, Arcade and Championship modes. You can earn bonus points for pulling off spins and handbrake turns, for drifting, scraping paint and "air time". It is impossible to care about any of this.
RealPlay Racing looks dated and is horrible to play. The back of the box says it "takes racing to a whole new dimension". It is a dimension where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow, and the in-game cars have hexagonal steering wheels. There is nothing more you need to know.