Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Speedball 2 - Tournament Review

Speedball 2 - Tournament, developed by Kylotonn Entertainment and published by Ascaron Entertainment.
The Good: Fast-paced gameplay, straightforward controls once you learn them, some interesting power-ups and score bonuses, online tracking features, detailed character models
The Not So Good: Keyboard controls are imprecise and unusable, no tutorials and a sporadically detailed manual, poor teammate AI, stability issues, cumbersome menus
What say you? In the future, soccer (or handball) is slightly less boring: 5/8

With the NFL football season almost over, it’s time we turn out attention to lesser sports. Of course, one of those sports will certainly not be soccer, as the snore-inducting, riot-creating plague is not welcome in the U.S. But what if we brought outlandish violence to the sport to make it more interesting? That is the premise of Speedball 2 – Tournament: no rules, just right. Apparently, everyone played the original Speedball and I missed out, so the series is new to me. The object is to get the ball into the goal by any means necessary, which means actual physical contact. Oh the humanity!

Speedball 2 – Tournament looks pretty good for a sports game. While the game only comes with four arenas and three basic characters, they are detailed and animated well enough to create a plausible environment of violence. The effects are sporadic at best, especially if you are viewing the game from a wider view (which you will need to in order to play). The style of the presentation mimics any sports title published in the past couple of years, so there are no surprises there. The menu system is unpolished and more trouble than it’s worth to get around. Ball control indicators should be better (players are simply shaded a slightly darker color) as well, but overall the graphics are decent enough and compare well against contemporary titles. The sound is basic for a sports game: background music, unnecessary swearing by the crowd, and repetitive goal celebrations. Speedball 2 - Tournament lacks play-by-play of any kind. And I swear the default music is saying “ice cream!” But in the end, the presentation of Speedball 2 – Tournament holds up.

Speedball 2 - Tournament plays like a more violent version of soccer with some alternative methods of scoring. The game lacks a tutorial (just a training mode against no opponent) so finding out where the alternative methods of scoring are located is tough: I still can’t figure out where the stupid impact domes are as the manual lacks a picture of them (took me a while to find the ramps as well). The game comes with a number of single player modes: single knock-out games, a cup tournament, and the league career. In the cup mode, you face an opponent twice, and if you beat them, you move on to the next most difficult level of competition, while league mode involves a larger schedule. Both modes feature the ability to customize your lineup, upgrade player stats using earned cash, and hire superior free agents if you save up. While the single player modes don’t have the polish or ease-of-use present in most sports games (like standings, for example), they are nice features that can keep you busy for a while. It is fun to follow your team and upgrade needed positions throughout the season. Knock-out games can be customized, choosing which score bonuses to use. While Speedball 2 – Tournament comes with a large number of different teams to compete against, there are only four arenas to compete in, although they are all the same from a gameplay standpoint anyway. Multiplayer games allow you to customize (but obviously not upgrade) your team for online competition. While an online league would be cool, Speedball 2 – Tournament does include support for clans and ladders and keeps track of your stats. You must register outside of the game before embarking in online games: a minor inconvenience.

Speedball 2 – Tournament features two sets of controls: classic and extended. The main difference is additional buttons for actions using the extended version, where in the classic mode they are all bound to the same button. You will need an analogue gamepad in order to play Speedball 2 – Tournament: moving your character using keyboard buttons will make it impossible to aim. If you’ve played any sports game in the past ten years, the controls of Speedball 2 – Tournament will make sense once you learn the layout: pass, tackle, shoot, check, jump, dodge, sprint, plus the ability to set overall team strategy and switch to another player or the goal keeper. The learning curve of Speedball 2 – Tournament is small once you get the control scheme down. Probably the hardest aspect of the game is aiming, especially when you are going for the ramps, but practice makes perfect.

The primary goal is to score goals (coincidence? I think not), which are worth 10 points each. You can gain additional points by shooting the ball at stars located along the side of the arena; stars are worth a permanent one-point increase per star if they are kept on (the other team can turn them off). In addition, you can shoot the ball through ramps (located next to the stars) which will grant a 1.5x or 2x bonus to goals and stars scoring. The ramps seem to be overly powerful and since it’s really difficult to shoot it in there, games can quickly get out of hand if one team has a double bonus. Electric fields can charge the ball, making them too hot for your opponent to handle, and teleport gates can send the ball to a different area of the map. Speedball 2 – Tournament also includes a number of randomly-placed power-ups that alter abilities (like speed), instantly transfer the ball, or reverse the controls, among other things. You can also pick up equipment to increase your stats.

Games in Speedball 2 – Tournament are short (90 second halves), brutal, and fast-paced: pretty much the opposite of real-life soccer. The game does play like a classic soccer or hockey game: maneuvering the ball up the “pitch” and to your forwards. It’s really easy to get behind the defense, as the combination of the “attack” team strategy, sprint command, and overall dumb AI makes it very easy for one-on-one encounters with the goalie. The computer-controlled players exhibit a number of dumb moves, namely moving away from the ball at inopportune times. Most of your goals are made off rebounds, and mandatory careful aiming makes goals less frequent. The original elements of Speedball 2 – Tournament make the game slightly more interesting than a basic sports game, though at its heart Speedball 2 – Tournament is soccer. I have experienced a number of technical issues with the game: locking up the computer when quitting, graphics disappearing after goals, and general slow performance and long load times. While I would assume not everyone would run into the same frequency of issues I have, the generally unpolished nature of the game extends to stability.

Speedball 2 – Tournament is fun in short bursts, which thankfully will be the amount of time spent playing the game. The game takes soccer and kicks it up a notch, introducing more violent hits and alternative scoring methods. The graphics are nice, but the menus could have used a more usable design. The single player and online features will keep interested players going for a while, but the repetitive nature of the gameplay and poor AI makes Speedball 2 – Tournament just an average game. The issues with Speedball 2 - Tournament balance out the innovative features: gamepad requirement, lockups and crashes, dim AI, and the poor menu system. Speedball 2 – Tournament will certainly have an audience with people who’d like a fast-paced version of soccer, but the game just feels incomplete and in need of some sparkle.