Of the 18 game titles that arrived as part of the Xbox 360 launch late last year, almost half of them were sports titles, and of those sports titles, an alarming number were remakes or sequels of games that exist on other game consoles. That isn't to say that the initial sports games Xbox 360 fans received weren't any good per se. Rather, let's just agree that none are exactly top-notch. And unless you've been purposefully ignoring the video game world, these games will engender a sense of d?j? vu. For these reasons, I won't be supplying separate reviews for each of the sports-oriented Xbox 360 launch titles. Instead, here are my mini-reviews of the first 8 sports titles made available for Xbox 360.
My son and I tried a variety of snowboarding titles on the original Xbox and quickly decided that SSX 3 was vastly superior to Amped. Put simply, SSX 3 offered fun arcade action compared to Amped's more realistic simulation-style play. In some ways, SSX 3 is the Ridge Racer of snowboarding games: More arcade than realistic. But unlike Ridge Racer 6 for Xbox 360 (see my mini review), the arcade play in SSX 3 actually works. It's fun and addictive.
We don't have an SSX game for the Xbox 360. And that's too bad, because Amped 3--the version of Amped that 2K Sports has developed for the 360, is just plain lousy. Amped 3 isn't as painfully realistic as its Xbox-based predecessor and appears to be based on a completely game engine than Amped 2. But the entire interface just stinks. From the moment you boot it up, you're confronted with a Day-Glo-loud, 70's-style retro presentation that makes it hard to tell the static boot screens from the menus. And the game play? It's like being stuck in molasses. Thanks to the Xbox 360's graphical prowess, you can see quite a distance down the mountain. But as you start to move, you constantly wonder why you can't pick up any real speed. Bummer.
Amped 3 didn't hold our interest at all, and I'm guessing it won't hold yours either. Unfortunately, there isn't yet a viable snowboarding game for the Xbox 360, but there should be: I'm thinking of an SSX title with Burnout-type (see my review) speed effects. Now that's a winter sport I could get excited about. I'll be jettisoning my copy of Amped 3 for good.
FIFA Soccer 06: Road to 2006 FIFA World Cup
As an American, I don't quite get soccer, in the sense that I wouldn't watch it on TV if you paid me. On the other hand, my son plays soccer for at least one season each year, and my family--like so many others--has been pretty faithful about showing up to see the games. Put simply, I can't quite put my finger on why professional soccer is so uninteresting to the typical American. But I can explain why EA's FIFA Soccer 06 is a decent sports title. It's just fun to play.
That said, I'm not a big fan of EA itself. Well on the way to establishing itself as the dominant third party game maker, EA has spent the last few years trying to establish exclusive relationships with every professional sports league it can, shutting out any competition. Such is the case with FIFA Soccer 06: As the exclusive licensee of the FIFA sports association, EA is the only company that can use FIFA's branding, teams, stats, and players, so we basically have to hope that it's decent.
Menu weirdness aside--and seriously, can EA make its menus less animated and more consistent, for starters?--the graphics in FIFA 06 are good. The player models, at least during the introductory sequences, are mostly top notch, though of course you'll be playing most of the game from a birds-eye view, since the player you control changes as the ball moves around the field. The sense of playing in a huge stadium is ever-present, realistic and loud.
Game play is fun, with solid artificial intelligence for single player matches and computer-controlled players. It's easy to make in-game formation changes, and I'm not even that soccer savvy. The controls are fairly intuitive and obvious.
Some have complained that FIFA 06 is limited. It offers only tournament, practice, and World Cup modes, the latter of which lets you take a single team all the way to the Word Cup. There are no career or manager modes, as you'd expect from the sole FIFA licensee, and the game supports just 72 teams. (Over 200 qualified for the 2006 World Cup.) But for true beginners like myself--and let's face it, most of America--FIFA 06 offers solid game play, a nice introduction to the international audience that rallies around the World Cup event, and decent graphics. Overall, it ain't too shabby.
Madden NFL 06
John Madden's football series was temporarily kicked around by the up-and-coming 2K Sports, which created the hugely successful NFL 2K5 for the original Xbox, a game that I still find to be the most playable and enjoyable football game ever created. However, hopes for an NFL 2K6 on the Xbox 360 were dashed in 2005, when video game giant EA snagged the exclusive rights to the NFL. So here we are with exactly one 360-based NFL game, Madden NFL 06. Thankfully, it's not a stinker.
The presentation is well-done, and this title takes some advantage of the 360's superior graphics. Some players, like New England's Tom Brady, look surprisingly realistic, while others take on weird clone-like similarities. Ditto for the coaches, which is sort of astonishing. Even the crowds are decent looking, with less repetition than I've seen in similar titles on the original Xbox.
The menus are, well, annoying. This is EA, after all. Set to a droning rock score, the menus slide in an out, and offer you access to the myriad of options Madden offers. During a game, you can choose plays normally via formation, as you would in other football games, or you can choose options such as "Ask Madden," where the Great One himself will offer you advice that's somewhat tailored to the current situation. That, too, gets annoying fast, unless you're a serious Madden devotee and don't mind repetitive advice.
Overall, game play is solid and Madden remains a fun multiplayer experience, especially if you're willing to learn everything there is to know about NFL football. But even kids like my 8 year old son can quickly adapt to the game's controls: Heck, he very quickly acquired every single Achievement point Madden could award to players in single, non-season games. That's pretty cool.
Curiously, two NBA basketball titles were among the group of games that shipped at the Xbox 360 launch, and this is definitely the better of the two. Sadly, it gets off to a bad start. The game boots up into a booming, back beat-loaded hip-hop soundtrack over the main menu system, and it takes everything I have to stop from screaming, "stop it, stop it, stop it," over and over again until I can get a game started.
From there, however, things go swimmingly. The graphics are good, and the game play is exactly what you'd expect. And the presentation is excellent: There are nicely rendered replays of important moves to the basket, and you can skip over them quite easily by pressing the A button. Players look like their real life counterparts, for the most part, though some of the close-ups are awful looking. And the crowds get involved at all the right moments. In short, it's a good experience.
That said, there are a few issues. The graphics putter out with the painfully repetitive crowd shots, and the coaching staff and strangely awkward-looking cheerleaders don't get the same Hi-Def rendering as the players. Even the court itself doesn't seem as nice looking as the players, though there is a realistic sheen to it, as if it were just waxed. The computer AI is just average: Oftentimes, the players seem to be standing around. Well, actually, that's pretty realistic given today's NBA.
NBA 2K6 offers solid game play and good graphics, and unless you're already happy with a previous generation basketball title, this is the one to get.
NBA LIVE 06
This game should have been it. The graphics are superb, and easily better than those in NBA 2K6: Heck, even the coaches are rendered in luscious high resolution. But instead of running away with the prize, NBA LIVE 06 coughs up a heartbreaker. It all starts with the presentation, which is miserable. As the game opens, you're presented with a terrible virtual practice court, featuring Dwayne Wade, which you cannot skip over or stop from loading. Argh.
When the menu final does load, you can start playing. And from there, it seems like everything is going to be great. After all, the graphics are fantastic, and the sound is excellent, with Marv Albert doing the play-by-play. But the overall presentation is awkward. For some reason, you get numerous court-length views, instead of the more typical side view, and it's easy to lose your player in the jumble of players onscreen. EA calls this Broadcast mode, but it's hard to get used to.
The players sweat. And I mean, really sweat. As the game progresses, the players get more tired and are covered, progressively, in more sweat. It's a stunning effect, but also somewhat pointless once you get used to it. Instead, you start to notice issues like the low-res audience, the awkward controls, and the slower-than-you'd-expect play style. It's just sub-par all around. Skip it.
Fun fact: Shaquille O'Neil is the celebrity spokesperson for NBA 2K6. NBA LIVE 06, coincidentally, uses Dwayne Wade. Both players play for the Miami Heat which, coincidentally, won the 2006 NBA Championship. Not too shabby.
I mentioned America's antipathy towards soccer earlier, and hockey, sadly, falls into a similar area of neglect in the typical American's mind. That's too bad, because hockey (unlike soccer) is surprisingly fun in person. And (like soccer), it makes for a great, albeit slow-loading, video game.
Unfortunately, 2K Sports' NHL 2K6 does make a few mistakes. Like way too many games these days, it begins cranking out a pop-rock soundtrack at maximum volume the second the opening screen loads, apparently in some bid to be as cool as snowboarding and skateboarding titles. It shouldn't bother: But it should bother making it easier to turn off the damn music. I honestly couldn't figure it out. Shame on them for that.
Once you do start up a game, however, the fun begins. The graphics are lush and detailed, with shiny ice that gets scratched up with marks as players' skates move over it. The sound is excellent and evocative of the real thing, though I still bristle every time I hear the announcer welcome you to "the Bruin's arena in Boston," instead of actually naming it accurately. The puck is nicely highlighted, making it easier to see. And I like the little picture-in-picture display that pops up on face-offs.
That said, most of the time, the camera angle is above the game play and a bit far away, so you're not going to see intricately detailed player characters regularly during play. And the menus are simply horrible (see my complaint about turning off the sound, above). Overall, NHL 2K6 is decent. Like most sports games, it comes alive in multiplayer modes.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06
I've been playing golf games on computers since Leader Board back on the Commodore 64, far longer than I've been playing golf in real life. Over the years, I've seen various club control schemes come and go, and while the model used in Tiger Woods isn't my favorite, it's serviceable. Sadly, that sums up the entire Tiger Woods experience on the 360: It's good, but not as good as it should be.
The graphics, for example, are good but not great. On some of the seaside courses, you'll marvel at how wonderful the water looks, with waves rolling towards the rocks, but wonder why the actual player models are original Xbox quality at best until the close-ups. There are only 6 courses, though most of them are decent looking and varied enough, and you won't see five of them unless you start playing in Career mode. Hope you like Pebble Beach, because that's all you get in Play Now mode.
I'm not a big fan of the controller scheme, which seems arbitrary and inaccurate at times, like, well, real golf, actually. The game play is heavily weighted toward simulation, which is as it should be, but I find the game somewhat less fun than goofy arcade games like Hot Shots Golf, a PlayStation 2 title that is curiously playable. The sound is fine, though like many EA games, you have to dig deep in the menus to turn off the awful music. Why is this considered such an important feature of all of these games?
Like any sports game, Tiger Woods shines in multiplayer, but the overall effect is one of blandness. It's not great, and it's not horrible. It's just Tiger Woods, Xbox 360 style.
Tony Hawk's American Wasteland
Rarely have I felt so badly of a game as much as Tony Hawk's American Wasteland. A weird skateboarding title, American Wasteland offers decent graphics and sound, terrible cut scenes, and, get this, a storyline. Spare me.
And lest you think this is for the kiddies, because of the comic book presentation in Story mode, there are cartoonish bimbos and foul language all over the place, mixed in nicely with the stupidity of skateboard "culture." The whole thing is an ugly mess, apparently aimed at pimply teenaged boys. It's too childish for adults and too mature for kids. The perfect storm, in other words.
Game play? You know, it's not actually horrible, though your skateboard seems to be possessed with a perpetual motion machine, which lets you ride it for great distances without supplying any actual motion. Not a bad trick, really. But the skating sequences are too frequently interspersed with that awful story that you have to get through. And there are BMX bikes lying around the levels, and you can ride them for some reason.
Maybe I'm just old. But I don't get this one at all.
Since this initial batch of sports titles was released, the Xbox 360 has been graced with a number of other, newer, sports games. Examples include FIFA World Cup 2006, Fight Night Round 3, Table Tennis, Top Spin 2, Major League Baseball 2K6, Rumble Roses XXX, College Hoops 2K6, and, if you push your imagination far enough, even Dead or Alive 4. I don't think we're going to see any serious innovation in this space, however, until the true second generation Xbox 360 titles start shipping in late 2006. For now, unfortunately, we're left with a lot of mediocrity. Thank God for Xbox Live.