Many years ago I overheard a senior writer for a well known PlayStation magazine boasting to a colleague that he always gave pinball games low scores on principle, because he "didn't see the point". I could sort of see where he was coming from, but that didn't stop me thinking he was a bit of an arse. Partly because it seemed like he was doing a disservice to fans of pinball games, odd as they may be, but also because... well, he really was an arse.
As a reviewer, it's sometimes hard to block out the voice in your head whispering "You can play this for real, for less money", but such factors shouldn't really enter into any objective look at a game's relative merits. If someone is willing to pay over the odds for a videogame version of an otherwise simple hobby, that's between them and their overdraft. Case in point: this officially licensed darts game, which digitally recreates a pastime you can already enjoy for free in good old-fashioned pubs across the nation. So the question really shouldn't be, "Why would you want to play darts on a joypad?" but rather, "How good is this game at letting you play darts on a joypad?"
Rather good, is the answer.
The main barrier to playing darts on-screen has always been that the pleasure inherent in the game comes from the tactile feeling of, you know, actually throwing darts. There's just something appealing about lobbing bits of sharp metal at a board that is hard to replicate, to the extent that even if you're crap at the actual mechanics of the sport it's still fun to chuck a few arrows in real life. Maybe it's a British thing, but there's something wonderfully medieval about the concept, an undiluted test of a hunters skill that once put food on the table, that it's hard to resist just having a go.
Looking back all the way to gaming prehistory, previous darts titles tried to compensate for the lack of any tangible contact twixt player and dart by coming up with bizarre ways to inject challenge into the throwing action. Just pointing a cursor at a board and hitting a button doesn't really excite, so the disembodied virtual hands became more and more wobbly, juddering in front of the board in a fashion that might lead less scrupulous reviewers to make a cruel joke about someone with Parkinson's. But not me. No sir.
PDC World Championship Darts (or PDC WCD, or Paddock Wicked, you choose) takes a different approach, one that clearly owes a debt to the way EA has monkeyed around with analogue sticks to better simulate far sexier sports. The left stick directs your aim, while the right stick is pulled back and then thrust forward in order to throw. A power bar is visible when playing at the amateur level, but otherwise you must rely only on your thumb sensitivity for sensory feedback. At first it's counter-intuitive, and quite frustrating. However, once you find your groove and the timing clicks into place, it's actually a very clever and subtle way of simulating the dart-throwing action. A successful shot becomes less about how steady you can hold a cursor, and more about the rhythm of the throw.
And, er, that's pretty much it as far as gameplay goes.
It is, after all, just darts and any further attempts to embellish things probably would have led to a watered down product. To expand the game's lifespan there are numerous variations, billed as party games. Some of these even the most casual arrowsmith will know (301, Round the Clock) while others are presumably only popular in the darker corners of darts cultism (Cricket, Killer). Alternatively, you can embark on a career as a pro darts player, designing your own character and guiding him to the heights of international darts success.
Most won't notice, or even care, but Newcastle-based developer Mere Mortals has gone to uncommon lengths to bring authenticity to a title that could easily have been treated as a joke. The locations for the World Championship matches are modelled from the real thing, there are ten digital recreations of today's darts legends, and commentary comes from Sid Waddell. It may be a niche audience, but devoted darts fans will find that their passion has been treated with the same respect and accuracy that usually goes into blockbuster football games.
Which, in true circle of life fashion, brings us back to the omnipresent issue of, "What's the point?"
Here's what you could've won...
The people most likely to appreciate the work that has gone into PDC WCD are also those most likely to have regular opportunities to play the real thing. Will they really gain anything from this title that they don't already get from the actual oche? Probably not. That's not to say it's a bad game in itself, it's just that unlike, say, poker, there's no real correlation between skill in this game and skill at the real thing, so it can't really be used as a practice tool. The chance to play against the big names in darts may be a draw, but it's only worthwhile if you can actually feel like you're pitted against the pros.
I'll happily confess that I don't know enough about professional darts to be able to recognise any particular player's style (if such a thing even exists) but to my untrained eye, the computer players always seem to play much the same game. They make the occasional mistake, but also pull off suspicious match-winning recoveries that could be the result of carefully programmed skill algorithms, or could just as easily be evidence of a shady AI that doesn't like to lose. Somewhat predictably, the game is at its best when played with friends - but, again, that's something inherited from the real life sport, and not a criticism unique to this game.
If anything, PDC World Championship Darts feels like it's stuck on the wrong format. The prospect of a Wii version that actually lets you "throw" at the screen would be more likely to entice the post-pub party crowd, while an Xbox 360 version that allowed for online play against fellow enthusiasts would make it a more appealing long term prospect for darts aficionados. The PS2 may have the mass market, but there's potential here for something more and the game does feel restricted by its last-gen scope. Despite this, it's a solid and carefully crafted game that takes aim at a very narrow niche and hits the bullseye more often than not. Whether there's a point to it, I'll leave you to ponder.
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