Sega isn't the only publisher pushing a beach volleyball simulation this year. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that, but while the others seem content to concentrate on promoting their glorified Barbie dolls, Sega's well-animated digital waxworks are merely a pleasant backdrop to what should be considered an excellent sports title. It's AM2's volleyball mechanics that deserve praise here, not the content of their C-cups.
With that out of the way, and with a few of the Tecmo-bred volleyball followers heading for the door, we can get down to unravelling this sun-soaked tale of almost-brilliance. But keep your codpieces in place - it's not that sort of game.
Sega's track record when it comes to arcade sports titles is well documented and marred only by the inorganic and disappointingly facile Virtua Striker series. Beach Spikers is more of the Virtua Tennis build, with two lasses per side whacking the ball back and forth in an attempt to plant it in the sand, and plenty of ways to go about this.
It all begins with an excellent tutorial, which emphasizes the finer points of receiving, tossing [unfortunate choice of word -Ed], spiking (attacking the ball to score) and recovering. Like Virtua Tennis, you control one girl, rather than switching between them, and it's your job to react to each situation with the right stick twiddling and button mashing.
When the ball wafts in your general direction, you have a choice of how to respond. First thing, you need to position your lass in a red circle on the sand, which indicates where the ball is headed, and point her in the direction you want the ball to go. From here you can either play the ball softly to your teammate so she can tee it up for you, or you can tee it up for her to spike instead.
Of course your response is largely situational. If you have a bit of time thanks to a weak opposing serve, you can plant your feet right in the centre of the circle and play a high (A) or low (B) pass to your teammate. Then as she's teeing it up for you, you dash to the net. With the ball teed, a power bar appears on-screen and you have to hit the A, B or A+B buttons when the cursor is in the optimal position, whilst directing the ball with your analogue stick.
If you time it right, you can spike the ball firmly (A) into an area of unguarded sand, scoring a point. Or, if the opposition is backing off, you can plant it gently and deceptively in the sand by the net using the softer B button. And if you're facing a block from an opposing player, you can try and mash it through using A and B together, pointing the ball off-court so that the deflection doesn't give the second player enough time to react, or you can opt for a spike using either of the other two buttons and hope for a bit of luck.
But if you're receiving a spike yourself, or find yourself hideously out of position, the best you may accomplish is to play it up into the air and hope that your teammate can reach it to play the second pass. If you are out of position your gal will dive to the floor in the process of saving the point, and it takes a second or two for her to get back to her feet, leaving less time to make it to the net for a spike.
On the defensive side of things, you can block spikes at the net if you can position yourself and hit the A button in time, but AM2 has wisely made this quite tricky - you need to get your footing right and hit the button a good second before the spike is struck. This can lead to some frustration, but it's an acceptable balance.
Back to basics
Apart from playing the ball straight back over (A+B together), serving (a similar process to spiking) and teeing the ball straight up upon receipt (B), that covers the mechanics of Beach Spikers. Learning how to do all this is maddening to begin with, particularly with the camera swirling around (on which more later), but after a few rounds the controls are pleasantly intuitive. After only two or three hours you'll progress to a level of mastery which only fine-tuning and quicker reactions can improve.
So having dealt with the tutorials and messed about with a mate on your side (or playing alongside an adept CPU teammate in Arcade mode), you're well on your way to mastering Beach Spikers. What more can the game offer? Like Virtua Tennis, at this stage it's time for a clean slate and a World Tour mode.
World Tour mode gives you the chance to tour the globe competing in many competitions. Before you begin, you name your players (the first of whom you will control throughout), pick which nationality to go for and tweak hairstyles, hair colour, skin tones and faces - with as many as 70 to pick from in each category. Then you get to allot a handful of ability points to your counterpart in several key areas. From here, it's onto your first match.
And this is where you'll start to tear your hair out. To start with, your AI counterpart has the sort of on-court coordination you'd expect from a paralysed elephant. As you struggle to serve, receive, block, recover and spike, she'll miss anything that comes her way, stand in stupid areas of the court and send anything important sailing out of bounds. You'll find it hard picking between offering her praise, encouragement and ridicule every ten points - a process which builds team morale, impacting her performance - and ultimately you'll lose.
But fortunately, you'll still get a clutch of ability points to bestow upon the dim-witted lass, and after a few matches she starts teeing the ball up properly, serving over-arm and even scoring her own points. Of course she'll still screw things up here and there, but by the time you're halfway through a World Tour it's genuinely fun, challenging and rewarding.
Sand in your pants
This though is where you'll start to lose interest. Each match is still good fun, and the game becomes instantly accessible - either through playing one or two quick games as part of an ongoing Tour or upping the difficulty level in Arcade mode - but at this stage the only thing to look forward to is unlocking a few Sega characters, courts to play on, and of course the multiplayer mode.
This is where Beach Spikers comes into its own, and if you can persuade a group of right-minded friends to get to grips with the game and join in for some multiplayer frolics, you may never need another Cube game. On your own though, the game loses a lot of its value after four or five hours in the sand.
It'll be a good-looking four or five hours though, or however long you play it. The girls are far more lifelike than we'd anticipated, and the animation is consistently good and seamless. Each arena looks different too, set at different times of the day and with different and wacky sponsorship from the likes of Pringles and Coke, and unlike a lot of sports titles, the low-poly crowd is always sufficiently distant to appear realistic.
The most impressive aspect of the game's visual make-up though is definitely the sand. If you've ever played the snowy castle stage in Virtua Fighter 4, you'll know how good Sega is at this sort of effect, but if you haven't, imagine a perfectly raked beach and how the sand would clump and break with repeated footprints, and you have a pretty good idea of how it looks in Beach Spikers. As you can see from the screenshots, court surfaces don't remain placid for long, and though it's arguably quite superficial, it does a lot for the overall effect. All said, Beach Spikers looks fantastic. It doesn't always sound fantastic, with some dull and repetitive elevator music accompanying the frenetic pounding in the centre, but you can't win 'em all.
And finally, a few words for the camera. At first, most of these words will be of the four-letter variety, as you struggle to keep up with its swirling around the court, but after a few hours, any alternative is unimaginable. A dull, Virtua Tennis-esque viewpoint would render Beach Spikers equally dull - the lively camerawork is a reflection on the pace of the game, and quite welcome.
The Final Spike
The question you're probably pondering about now is whether Beach Spikers is worthy of your time and money. The game has been sensibly structured to introduce you gradually, and the World Tour mode keeps the challenge up even when you think you're a bit good, but as a single player game Beach Spikers is lacking. There isn't anything particularly obvious AM2 could have done about this, but it's true all the same.
As a multiplayer game though, Beach Spikers is exceptional - up there with Virtua Tennis, Soccer Slam and NBA 2K3 in Sega's hall of fame. If you can find some competition, add a couple more points to the score below and get ready for some blinding arcade volleyball.