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.
This game comes with the most comedy controller in the RealPlay range - a foot-long golf club. You press left or right on the d-pad to "aim your golfer", according to the manual. There aren't any actual animations to show your golfer moving when you do this, but the camera rotates. So does the white arrow on the map at the side of the screen; this indicates the direction you're aiming in.
To take a shot, you press and hold the green button then swing the controller like a real golf club. Your on-screen character will copy your move, albeit a good half-second after you. It's easy to pull off powerful shots, but a lot harder to send the ball short distances as the game can't seem to recognise gentler swings.
Sometimes it can't even recognise the controller. At least once every few minutes, often mid-swing, our game was interrupted by the message "Warning! REALPLAY Golf controller not detected". To be followed almost immediately by the message "A REALPLAY Golf controller has been detected. Press the green button to continue." These almost-constant interruptions do not add a great deal to the experience.
The ball physics are appalling. Balls aren't even animated flying through the air properly; they jerk and judder their way across the sky. Frequently when a ball hits the ground, the direction of travel will reverse and it will bounce back towards you. Magical.
At least the game is visually stunning, hahaha of course not. The grass looks like it is made out of Lego. The golfers look like mobsters or power lesbians. Rocks and trees are as realistic as the idea this game is as good as Wii Sports golf.
Topping it all off is voiceover commentary by a Partridg-esque figure you never see. He says things like, "Ooh, flirting with the undergrowth! Whoa, whoa, whoa." Sometimes he tries to be funny: "You currently have an extremely high score - which is a disaster!" Come back Alan Hansen, all is forgiven.
At one point, after yet another shot had gone wrong because the game can't register anything but a huge swing, we were greeted with the on-screen message "UNPLAYABLE LIE". That about sums it up.
The most imaginatively titled of the RealPlay games has a spherical controller about the size of a tennis ball. It's held in the palm of the hand and you tilt it around to control the sphere shown on-screen. This makes you feel like David Bowie in Labyrinth, which is the best thing we can say about PuzzleSphere.
To be fair, it's slightly better than the other RealPlay games. The idea is you roll the on-screen sphere around a series of platforms, Super Monkey Ball-style, without falling off the edge. You brake by pressing the green button and there are various power-ups to collect (two).
Because the controller has no real life equivalent, using it doesn't feel as silly as, say, swinging a foot-long golf club. You do feel like you're controlling the action with your moves as the d-pad doesn't come into play at all. There's still a delay between your moves and what happens on screen, but it's less noticeable than in the other titles.
However, controlling the sphere is often tricky to the point of frustration. The game isn't forgiving enough when the ball rolls near the edges of platforms. Sometimes the controller gets confused and the ball starts careering off of its own accord. The brake helps you stay on top of things, but you end up using it so much gameplay feels very stop-start.
It all looks rubbish, you will be amazed to hear. The first level takes place against a backdrop of flat, jaggedy skyscrapers. When you crash you fall into a blurry mess of lines on the ground. The lighting is weird and the whole thing is just wrong. The effect can be replicated by going to Croydon, drinking a bottle of absinthe and waiting for the sun to come up.
RealPlay PuzzleSphere does have more novelty value than the other games. However, it's still rubbish, so this just means you're likely to tire of it in six minutes rather than three. Speaking of which...
The RealPlay games are in no way an acceptable alternative to the Wii, any more than two yoghurt pots and a piece of string make a decent iPhone. Everything from the wording of the press release to the shoddiness of the visuals suggests these games have been churned out in the quickest time possible to cash in on Wii shortages. It's like Bob Geldof saying, "We're going to feed the world with these delicious cakes!" and then charging starving people GBP 34.99 for onions he found in a bin.
Don't buy any RealPlay titles. And warn any relatives who know you like those computer games not to get sucked in by the gaudy packaging and novelty controllers when they're Christmas shopping. These games are going to cause nothing but disappointment come 25th December. The only entertainment to be had is in laughing at the hilariously poor graphics, but you can check out our retro section for that. It's free, so you can keep your GBP 34.99. Or throw in another three quid and buy some different crap that will at least be of some use to someone.