It may well have escaped your attention that it's summer at the moment. We don't know about you but during the summer we rather enjoy indulging in summery things. Now, this may or may not include actually leaving the house - this may seem a little extreme to some of you - but trust us, it really can be fun. But for those of you who have actually fused with and become one with the sofa, Summer Heat Beach Volleyball may be the key to helping you understand and appreciate the glorious summer months without ever having to lever yourself out of the recliner.
We wouldn't blame you for becoming instantly wary of any volleyball title that came your way in the wake of Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, but we'll happily sit you back down, offer you a cool drink and calm you with the news the Summer Heat has far more in common with Sega's Beach Spikers than Tecmo's perv-o-thon. This is definitely a Good Thing.
The decent training mode runs you through the basics of control. Summer Heat has a control scheme that happily nestles somewhere between comprehensive and simplistic, making it easy to pick up yet offering plenty of scope for advanced playing styles. You naturally move your one character around with the left analogue stick, while three other buttons - square, X and triangle - take care of the ball handling.
First of all there are three different types of serve: overarm, underarm and the more powerful jump serve. Then once the ball is returned, there are a multitude of options for you to consider - immediate returns, feint attacks and passes are your most obvious moves on the first return, but once you've been set up for a spike, then you could try a positional spike with square or a powerful but less accurate spike with X. Setting your teammate up is a simple square press.
There's really not a lot to it once you've fumbled over which button does what, though. After a few dropped balls you'll soon find yourself settling into a comfortable playing style, and the scope offered by the simple but effective controls allows you to form unique strategies of your own. To help you out, teammate AI is generally quite good, but occasionally makes some baffling mistakes which seem too stupid to be realistic.
The dynamic positioning of your teammate usually works quite well; they tend to waste as little space as possible, and they will switch position and run to cover areas with good response as you move from the back to the front, or left to right. Camera control in response to all this movement is completely out of your hands and probably all the better for it - it always seems to have the perfect view of the action, switching angles and zooming appropriately to give you a decent scope of what's going on, helping you along with an almost unnoticeable ease.
You have unlocked Brad's new shorts!
Once you're fairly comfortable with the controls, you can try your luck in any of the game's three main play modes: Arcade, Exhibition and Summer Heat U.S. Tour. Arcade mode naturally puts you up against a continuous stream of opponents, steadily increasing in difficulty until you reach that one unstoppable team which has you retrying over and over, until you get so wound up that you have to fight off the urge to introduce the PS2 to the pavement outside. Exhibition is a series of elimination rounds to determine a winner for each main competition. Finally, the Tour mode sends you off across a number of locations in America to... do much the same as in the other modes.
The game ranges from being immediately baffling to really quite exhilarating and enjoyable. Once you start to become proficient, there will be some tense, lengthy rallies where you're not entirely sure which way the round is going to sway. Those are the moments worth playing the game for, but eventually it starts to descend down the rather inevitable slope of tedium. As with Beach Spikers, we're not sure there's much that can be done about this - it is, after all, purely an arcade volleyball title and is only as long-lived as you are interested in the sport.
Like DOAX, your main reward for your efforts is unlockable costumes and pointless collectables for each of the characters, but with the additional 'incentive' of game videos and mini-games. "YOU HAVE UNLOCKED TIA'S SUNGLASSES 1!" chimes Summer Heat after you've slogged your way through a particularly arduous competition. Fantastic! Elsewhere, the main menu features an apparently useless Beach House section which loads a seaside home for you to wander through on rails, with a few interactive elements that play various unlockable media - a laptop for Acclaim game videos, a radio for songs and TV for music videos. The house is devoid of people, so you may like to venture outside and marvel at the completely uninspiring surroundings.
Then there are the three unlockable mini-games: Nerd Smash, Ice Court and Beach Bowls. We only managed open up the first since the game seems reluctant to tell us what we had to do to unlock them. Nerd Smash is a fun-for-five-minutes two-player game which is a variation of the arcade Whack-A-Mole machines, with the players lobbing balls over to the other side of the net and scoring points by hitting a variety of bizarre wobbling objects. Not exactly riotous fun, to be honest.
Visually, the game just about competes. The sand courts deform quite nicely as play goes on, and environments are quite lavishly presented in some places, portraying sun-kissed resorts and sizzling beaches probably as well as the PS2 will allow.
You can of course choose your players from a bevy of shiny Barbie-doll 'beauties', vacuum formed and ready to play some ball. No, we're sorry; they're actually quite drastically unattractive and not a patch on DOAX's most obvious boon. You can't knock the developer's efforts to compete though - there's a fairly comprehensive playback feature at the end of every point and match which enables you to... well, let's face it, it's there for you to zoom in and rotate around the girls and rewind and play them back in extremely slow motion to witness the dodgy breast 'physics'. Animation in general is pretty stiff though, and characters sometimes go into inappropriate actions, often standing around brushing sand off their bellies or kicking it around in the middle of a game with a ball flying towards their heads.
The audio compliment is cheesy pop ranging in styles from Sum 41 to Pink, and since it has Kylie on the soundtrack it gets the thumbs up from us! Oh but actually, with only eleven tracks to listen to and many more times that number in matches to be played, you may just find yourself tiring of the tunes, switching the music off and putting on your own instead. There's only so many times we can accidentally hum the tune to "Let's Get The Party Started" because its burned itself into our thoughts before wanting to tear out our own vocal cords and fill our ears with cement.
For those of you interested in actually playing a half decent game of arcade volleyball, then you can't go far wrong with Summer Heat Beach Volleyball despite its limited appeal. You're not going to get any kind of bizarre thrills from its lack of graphical splendour when lined up against DOAX and its dubious motives, but it certainly plays a better game.
The major drawback of Summer Heat is an issue of longevity; there really isn't much to keep you at it for longer than a couple of days, despite the fairly entertaining co-op and versus multiplayer modes. However, thanks to its pick-up-and-play characteristics, we may well find ourselves fondly pulling it out of the cupboard for another quick session in a few months time. Time will tell.