Remember those old Hyper Sports type games that allowed you to take part in sporting events from the comfort of your own home? I've ruined many a good joystick on those, waggling them too hard to try and better my personal best on a particular event (and no, that's not a euphemism!)
Now, you can recreate those moments on your iPhone, without damaging a crucial piece of equipment (or yourself). Set against the backdrop of the Spartan Games, you take control of a Spartan Warrior as he competes in a series of sporting events to improve his fitness. With a stunning lack of originality, the events are: High Jump, Long Jump, 100m, 1500m, Javelin and Discus.
At first glance, the presentation appears to be pretty good. There are some nice intro screens giving you the strengths and weaknesses of different playable characters, so you can select the one which best suits your playing style. Prior to each event, you get a fly-over of the stadium, followed by a pseudo-3D viewpoint from behind your athlete, during the actual events, giving you a clear view of how well (or badly) you are doing. So far, so good.
This initially positive impression is soon downgraded and the graphics are marred by a number of annoying glitches. Sometimes the graphics don't draw themselves properly, leading to sections of the screen missing, whilst the crowd views are appalling. Like the rest of the game, they are meant to be in 3D, yet sometimes the camera pans in too close and show that they are, in fact, nothing more than traditional 2D sprites masquerading as 3D images; it makes it look as though the stadium is populated by cardboard cut-outs. It's pretty shoddy stuff at times.
Sound is not really anything to write home about either. Music is used sparingly and is run of the mill stuff. The same is true of special effects, which are limited to a few standard spot effects, such as the "white noise" of the crowd cheering, the footsteps of your athlete and other effects which completely fail to capture the excitement of a sporting event. The graphics and sound would have looked dated 15 years ago and on a machine of the iPhone's power, they are simply not acceptable.
A number of curious decisions have also been taken which further increase the sense of exasperation. The first is the annoying and limited event selection options: you can either play a single event (fair enough) or take part in a Pentathlon (where you select which five of the six events you want to compete in.). For goodness sake! If you provide six events, why not give the player the chance to compete in them all sequentially? OK, I know there is no such event as the Hexathlon, but it's not like this is an officially licensed Olympic and so needs to reflect reality. This annoyed me, as I wanted the option to play one, all or a selection of events and the game is very prescriptive as to what you can do.
It doesn't get any better with the second option you're asked to decide on: One or Two Player mode. The implications of this are not fully obvious until you reach an event in which competitors (normally) compete against each other simultaneously (such as the 100m or 1500m race). Not in Spartan Olympics. There is no two player mode, so if you choose the two player option you do the event, and then pass the phone to your friend who then has their turn to see if they can beat your time. I appreciate that implementing a two player mode using a touch screen is fraught with problems, but its absence robs the game of that competitive element that split-screen competition races provide or the sense of tension it generates as you slowly catch up with (or are overtaken by) your opponent.
It's hard to believe, but things are actually worse in One Player mode. Here, I fully expected to be racing against computer controlled opponents (those I had rejected on the character selection screen). But no. It seems that having been rejected by you, these other mighty athletes have decided to slope off home and sulk because once you reach the track the only athlete in sight is you. This makes events incredibly boring and robs them of any sense of excitement or challenge. The only challenge lies in beating your personal best for each event and this is just not as much fun as beating computer-controlled opponents. Events are reduced to dull, short periods of activity and after just a few games, you will soon find yourself bored to death with the limited entertainment opportunities offered by Spartan Athletics and loading up something else, never to return.
Controls are critical to a game like this, needing to be intuitive, responsive and easy to learn (the old Games series from Epyx used to do this perfectly). At least here Spartan Athletics fares a little better, meeting two of these criteria, although it fails abysmally on the third. The various events are mostly controlled using a combination of repeatedly swiping down the screen to run (the quicker you swipe the faster you run) or swiping across the screen to jump or throw (with the angle being determined by how long you press on the screen). These are used consistently across events, which is good, because it means that once you have played a couple of events, you pretty much know what you need to do for the rest.
Sadly (and appropriately enough for such a poor sports game), they fall at the final hurdle because they are terribly unresponsive. Swiping down the screen doesn't really have that much effect. Even when using one of the quicker athletes, there's only a small increase in speed, whilst the slower athletes appear to run at the same speed regardless of how manically you swipe the screen. Determining the angle of a throw or jump is similarly tricky, as the unresponsive controls make it difficult to establish exactly when you need to let go. True, with practice it gets much easier and your throwing distances will improve but by this time you are so frustrated with the game that it's not worth the time and effort it would take to get good at it.
The final grip is common to the sports genre generally: the constant waggling of your finger puts you in danger of developing RSI. It's certainly not a game that you will want to play in long bursts as it soon becomes quite painful to play. It's also not a game you'll want to play in public, either as you'll look like a bit of an idiot constantly waggling your finger backwards and forwards! In short, Spartan Athletics suffers from all the usual problems associated with this genre and then adds in a whole load of new ones all of its own.
I had high hopes for Spartan Athletics. I love the Hyper Sports/Decathlon type games and the chance to play them on a machine without risking damaging a controller was appealing. Sadly, the execution of the whole thing is just so poor that any prospect of enjoyment disappears within two minutes of playing it for the first time. It might only cost 69p, but you'll get far more enjoyment from your 69p if you go and invest it in a chocolate bar. It will probably last longer too.
© Copyright SWSt 2011