"It's so frustratingly unpredictable that you begin to feel like you're not even playing. Why do the players respond so poorly to your commands? Why do you have so little control over where the ball goes? How is it that your teammates are more likely to excel if you just press the button once or twice per round and then leave them to their own devices the rest of the time? I just don't know, and nothing in the tutorials answered such queries."
Women's Volleyball Championship for PlayStation 2 had promise. That statement might start some readers to snickering, but such folks were never the game's target audience and they're not even the people I have in mind as I write this review. The individual that I want to reach is the person--male or female--who likes volleyball and is interested in a serious effort to capture the sport's professional side (you know, the part that isn't about bikini-clad girls playing in the sand).
Visually and aurally, the game gets off to a good start. You'll be treated to a sweeping trip around the gym before each match. You'll watch the athletes making practice volleys to one another and you'll see them raise hands to their chests as their country's anthem plays. Likewise, the people on the loud speakers will provide running commentary. They don't make efforts to be humorous--thank you for that, AgeTec--and they generally do a good job of keeping up with the action as it unfolds. Crowds are lively as well, even if lacking in animation (sometimes it looks like just a mass spasm in the background) and their approving murmurs as matches get heated is handled well. Aside from the uncommon exceptions that stand out merely because they're so unusual, all of the ladies engaged on the court move fluidly. In short, the game looks and sounds exactly as you would expect and hope.
If only the gameplay were similarly proficient.
When I first began playing, I noticed a 'Tutorial' option available from the main screen. That sounded useful, so I started there. Briefly, the game explained (using still shots and text) how to play. It walked me through serves--which are easy and natural--and it described the process of passing the ball: bump, set, spike. Basically, when the ball comes to your player, you press one of the face buttons to pass to the next person, who will then repeat the process before finally you can press one final button to return the ball to the opposing side of the court. Holding the 'R' button will allow you to do so with slightly different techniques.
On the face of things, it seems like a perfectly intuitive system, and it should have been. It just isn't. When the ball arrives, pressing 'X' or 'Square' certainly could get a nice play started. However, there's an equal chance that the ball will fly back from there and off-court, beyond any hope of retrieval. It's a 50/50 shot, really. Then sometimes you'll have no trouble for a few serves and start to think you've mastered everything before suddenly enduring another string of bad passes that seem to be out of your control.
Supposing you manage to respond to a serve well and engineer a series of passes, the next potential issue is the follow-through. At this point, your chances at success feel randomized. Pressing the same button one time can produce entirely different results than when you do it in the next round (and not in ways that feel natural). A ball might flash toward the floor on the other side of the net in a blur--the way you hoped it would--or it could just as easily zip across the whole court and land just out of bounds, resulting in a point for the other team. I never found any way to predict the outcome of such endeavors. Nothing on-screen ever provided the slightest hint as to what I might have done when things went wrong... or even in those less common instances where they went well.
Frustrated but determined to stick to the task at hand, I enlisted the aid of my brother-in-law. He was surprised by the invitation to play a game of women's volleyball on the PlayStation 2, but rose to the challenge admirably. We began a two-player exhibition match and the fun began. The first few serves I pretty handily mopped the floor with him. Then he retaliated as he adjusted to the controls and from there we just went back and forth, neither of us really feeling that our triumphs and failures had anything to do with the buttons we pressed. When he tried the single-player game, he quickly fell behind, then managed a miracle recovery that gained him the lead at around the 15-point period, then fell behind again and wasn't able to score again before the game concluded. That experience wasn't much different from my own.
I can't imagine Women's Volleyball Championship working much differently for anyone else, either. It's so frustratingly unpredictable that you begin to feel like you're not even playing. Why do the players respond so poorly to your commands? Why do you have so little control over where the ball goes? How is it that your teammates are more likely to excel if you just press the button once or twice per round and then leave them to their own devices the rest of the time? I just don't know, and nothing in the tutorials answered such queries.
It's a shame, too, because this game is packed full of options that should have made it something really exciting for volleyball fans. The developers included a lot of welcome options, such as custom player creation, a robust selection of teams and jerseys, plenty of different championship types, the ability to customize the number of points necessary for a win (as few as five is permitted) and more. Difficulty level can also be chosen, though doing so doesn't make any discernible difference except that your opponents are more likely to botch things on a serve if you go with 'Easy' mode. In short, Women's Volleyball Championship is a good game... just so long as you don't have to actually play it.
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 04, 2008)
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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