With the invasion of motion control systems to consoles other than the Wii, it was inevitable that both Sony and Microsoft were going to have similar offerings in order to provide something familiar to an audience already firmly embedded in the Nintendo Wii camp. Sony’s answer to Wii Sports is their own Sports Champions, and although the same basic concept is being executed, the results are surprisingly different.
In many ways, Sports Champions is really about refinement. Wii Sports introduced a massive, casual audience to the concept of motion control, but the limitations of the Wii-mote and sensor array kept the new control scheme from achieving its full potential. Wii Sports also debuted on a standard definition console as consumers were transitioning over the greater fidelity of high definition displays and media devices. Now we have Sports Champions on the PS3 using the new Move system and there’s a noticeable difference on all fronts.
The most obvious change to the concept of a motion control sports/party game is that unlike its competitors, Sports Champions isn’t afraid to be an HD game. Where Wii Sports and upcoming contender Kinect Sports both make obvious attempts to reassure families with cartoonish Miis and Avatars, Sports Champions takes a stylized but decidedly more realistic approach to its graphics with lean, athletic men and women that would be natural habitués of an upscale gym or spring break frat party. Part of this more realistic rendering is likely a technical requirement to more closely mimic human moves with more natural human proportions. The result however is a clean, polished look that is a bit on the minimalist side, lacking the huge auditoriums with screaming fans of Kinect Sports but filled with a greater sense of detail in the rec rooms and archery ranges players will use. Sound is blandly functional, with some expected victory and failure music, grunts of effort from the Olympian male and female athletes, and audio cues for interacting with menus. It does little to distinguish itself in the audio department.
As with other motion control games, the primary goal of Sports Champions is to get you off the couch and exert yourself a little. In that respect, the game succeeds admirably. What Sports Champions offers that other sports titles don’t is the much fabled “precision” that Sony touts as a selling point of the Move system, but this is one of those cases when market-ese translates into tangible gameplay experiences. The accuracy of the motion controller allows true 1:1 movement, though it’s not recommended to try this straight away at the “Gold” level of difficulty.
Sports Champions is six mini-games, consisting of Ping Pong, Bocce Ball, Volleyball, Disc Golf, Archery and a Gladiator duel mode. All of them can be played with only one motion controller, but Archery, Volleyball and Gladiator have the option to work with two controllers instead, which can noticeably improve the experience for these respective games. The games are divided into three difficulty settings, Bronze, Silver and Gold, with various levels of automation or AI opponent handicaps. Gold is where all the training wheels come off and the 1:1 motion really shows what it can do, while AI opponents show no mercy in terms of speed or accuracy.
In actual play, Sports Champions truly shows off its hybrid approach. While Wii Sports was really just about the novelty of waggling a Wii-mote in front of a sensor and getting any kind of reaction, Sports Champions is about making you forget about your real-world body and connecting you to the action on screen with its uncanny accuracy. Games like Ping Pong, Disc Golf and Bocce Ball exemplify this with perfect mimicry of your movements for back spin, curved throws and controlled arcs that show off how well the technology reads movement. At Bronze levels, the automation makes the games reminiscent of Wii Sports with little more than some timing required to succeed at the events, but traditional, hardcore gaming commitment and practice is required to excel at these games at the Gold level, extending the lifespan of the game beyond mere novelty at parties and presenting more hardcore players with a level of complexity they’re accustomed to.
It should also be noted that while not absolutely necessary, those games that have the option to use two controllers substantially benefit from the addition. Archery, for example, is much easier to play with two controllers, as, when using only one, the game reads all movement directly from the one controller held near your head as you “nock” an arrow into your virtual bow. The awkwardness of the motion, combined with Move’s accuracy, work against you as the sensitivity picks up the slightest tremor or shake, a situation greatly alleviated with a second controller acting as a bow and stabilizing your aim by averaging your steadiness between the two points. The Gladiator and Vollyeball games similarly benefit by requiring fewer buttons presses to accomplish special moves as these duties are now assigned to motions between the two controllers, making these activities more intuitive.
Where Sports Champions falls a little short is in the limitation to only six mini-games, and a functional, but not highly comprehensive competitive structure. It manages to represent both casual and hardcore interests with the varying difficulty levels, but leans heavily towards the party game area with no online component or different modes outside of the Freeplay and tournament modes offered.
While Sports Champions is a little on the lean side of content, what it offers is a surprisingly accessible, yet deep level of gameplay that accommodates both families looking to spend time together, and frat house competitions where skill becomes a matter of pride. The events represented are substantial thanks to the “works as advertised” accuracy of the motion controllers. Sports Champions is an ideal ambassador for Sony to use for their Move debut, but could stand to have more content and more comprehensive gameplay modes. The lack of online multi-player is a glaring, missed opportunity that could have really set it apart from its competitors and will hopefully be addressed in a sequel.