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Sports Champions (PlayStation 3) artwork

Sports Champions (PlayStation 3) review

"Sports Champions features six games: disc golf, beach volleyball, archery, table tennis, gladiator duel and bocce. Each included option offers depth and precision. You'll have to work harder to get everything out of these offerings than you would if you were playing Wii Sports, but each one is more substantial than Nintendo's entire package. None of the activities are particularly imposing, either."

A few minutes after I began playing Sports Champions, I realized something that I hadn't expected to realize: Nintendo could have a problem.

Wherever the PlayStation Move goes from here, Sony can know that it has begun at the right place, with a game that's prettier than Wii Sports, more fun, more rewarding... more everything. Unfortunately, it's also more expensive, and that's really the only place where Nintendo retains an advantage.

Sports Champions features six games: disc golf, beach volleyball, archery, table tennis, gladiator duel and bocce. Each included option offers depth and precision. You'll have to work harder to get everything out of these offerings than you would if you were playing Wii Sports, but each one is more substantial than Nintendo's entire package. None of the activities are particularly imposing, either. I can envision grandparents everywhere looking down to their odd controllers every few minutes, perhaps to adjust their angle of approach in bocce or to check that they're holding the controller level prior to a frisbee toss in disc golf, but most of the gameplay here feels natural and painless the way gameplay always does when a sports game is at its best.

My favorite option is bocce, which I hadn't played before here in the real world where, as Kevin Butler might say, people have things like arms and legs. It works a lot like horseshoes. Things start as one player tosses a ball past a starting line. Once it lands within a permitted area, the person who made that successful throw then tosses another ball in an attempt to get as close to that target as possible. Then the next player tries to get even closer. Both players continue to toss balls, and whoever gets the closest the most times in a round scores some points. The winner is the person with the most points--usually five or so--when a series of rounds concludes.

Bocce is fun because of the level of challenge, and because of the human interaction. It's terrific fun to outwit a computer while competing in the various venues (though the generic and forgettable mascots definitely do the game no favors and fall in somewhere between Mii characters and bars of soap), but it's more fun still to best a human opponent. My brother-in-law and I quickly accepted and embraced this fact, which prompted a mid-day trip to the local department store to pick up a second controller. We were both delighted with the purchase. As much as I like the bowling alley in Wii Sports, what I found in Sports Champions just feels more, well... it feels more like life, less like a cute mini-game.

That's a telling thing for me to say, since the bowling game was my favorite part of Wii Sports. I've always felt that the tennis and baseball came down to timing more than anything else (just swing the Wii Remote at the right moment and you're good no matter how hard you swing). If there was more depth to those games, I just didn't see it. Meanwhile, boxing was a glorified workout and golf was a frustrating business once the player arrived at the green and started putting. My blood pressure rises just thinking of it.

Sports Champions surprised me by turning golf--albeit in disc form--into something that I didn't want to stop playing. The experience overall doesn't feel a lot weaker than it would in dedicated golf games such as Hot Shots, Mario Golf or even something featuring Tiger Woods, except you're not simply watching a bar slide along a meter at the bottom of the screen or fiddling with analog sticks. You get to hold a disc in your hand and twist your wrist alluringly as the icon on-screen matches your movements. Then when you swing out with the controller and release the trigger button and the frisbee sails majestically through the air, you feel as if you actually had some part of that. When the disc crashes against a rocky canyon wall, glides across a sheet of ice, drops into a water hazard or--better yet--sails just where you wanted it to and maybe drops into the goal, you're committed to that throw and to its outcome.

Archery, meanwhile, is another pleasant experience because it's not just a shooting gallery, the way you might expect. Sure, there's that element. You can knock watermelons off their precarious perches, fire shots at bags of money that fly in arcs through the air from regions unknown. But there are other diversions. Play tic-tac-toe on a 3x3 grid with another player as you both produce a furious stream of arrows and try to secure each strategic space, or repeatedly pelt moving targets so that they roll over your opponent's line and score you a bunch of points (like tug-of-war, only dignified). I didn't know how much fun I was having with those activities until I found myself yelling at my on-screen character to "grab the stupid arrow!" It was mostly my fault that she wasn't of course, and any problems that might have been hers were easily forgiven when I won and unlocked new content. There's a lot of content to unlock in each mode.

With only a few exceptions, the control scheme featured in Sports Champions worked perfectly for me. Once I calibrated things when first loading up the game, I didn't have to worry about any of that again and only seldom even thought about controls at all. I probably should have mentioned that already, but I keep thinking about the games and sometimes that gets in the way of more technical observations. PlayStation Move works, though. The controllers look a little bit stupid, maybe even a bit obscene, but they are precise. When I reach back over my shoulder and press the trigger, it feels like I would expect it to if I were actually standing on an archery range. Holding two of the controllers in my hands at once, with one functioning as the bow itself and the other as the arrow that I am about to release at a moving target? That's just the icing on the cake. Delicious, scrumptious icing.

And of course, I haven't even talked about three of the games. Part of that is because I suck at them.

When I play volleyball, I'm busy trying to remember if I'm supposed to bump, set or spike (like here in the real world). When I actually do leap into the air and a spike is imminent, I always seem to chicken out with a half-hearted tap that poses no real risk to my opponent at all. Then I'm stuck diving for the ball a moment later when the inevitable retaliation follows. I win, but I have to work at it.

Gladiator duels remind me of boxing in Wii Sports. I made the mistake of trying a few rounds with the windows in my apartment closed. When I finished, I had to go outside and let the ocean breeze cool me down. I was drenched in sweat and the only round I won was the first one where I swung like a madman and caught my brother-in-law in a flurry of slashes, thrusts and shield bumps that weren't entirely within my control. His careful response the next round, a series of blocks and side steps and back steps and swings at my knees, were quite a bit more than I could handle.

Finally, there's the table tennis. I've played a fair few hours of table tennis in my life, and I can say with authority that they went much the same as Sports Champions experience did. I can handle the weaker, slower foes. I can tap the ball lightly, slam it and make it sail just over the net, but I'm screwed if there's more precision required after that.

For my athletic shortcomings, though, I can't blame the PlayStation Move and I can't blame Sports Champions. Some things are what they are, which segues nicely into my next point: Sports Champions is awesome. That's the case not because it's a good demonstration of the required hardware (though it is), or because the sports games included here are deep and rewarding (though they are). Sports Champions is awesome because it's better than it had to be, better than it needed to be and exactly the sort of game that I can happily play for hours on end with unsuspecting friends and family members who find themselves as hooked as I am. Like I said, Nintendo could have a problem.


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Staff review by Jason Venter (December 22, 2011)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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