In a little over a month, athletes from around the world will gather in Athens to test their prowess against each other in the 28th Olympiad. Although everyone who attends the games is technically a winner, some competitors will taste the thrill of victory by winning medals while others will have the bitter agony of defeat in their mouths. Luckily, gamers won’t have to wait another four years to go for the gold, as Olympic glory is merely a menu screen away. So book a plane ticket to your couch, grab some collectable pins and get ready to parade Athens 2004 from Sony into your PS2 stadium.
Athens 2004 specifically focuses upon 25 events from the Olympics that are broken into different disciplines. In no particular order, couch athletes can enter Track and Field, Aquatics, Gymnastics, Skeet Shooting, Archery, Weightlifting or Equestrian events. Since most gamers probably haven’t competed in these sports, Athens 2004 thankfully provides a practice mode to get the hang of the game. Once you’ve trained yourself in your event of choice, you’ve got a number of options available to you. You can take on your friends in party mode, where everyone takes to dance pads to test their foot speed. Yep, these mats aren’t just for DDR anymore… You can take on other athletes in Single Event mode, where you contest for both medals and points. Points might not seem like much, until you realize that they can be redeemed for items and unlockable features at the in game Olympic store. Competitive players can test your skills against actual world records in Challenge mode for personal bragging rights. You can also organize your own Olympic games in Competition mode.
Competition mode is easily the main focus of the game. Fledgling IOC organizers have the option to host up to 5 days worth of competition covering all 25 events in the game. In planning out “your” games, you can also choose to focus on specific disciplines, such as track and field only or all gymnastics; for those masochists out there, you can attempt to take every event back to back. I pity your fingers, because I can already sense blisters rising. Like every Track & Field game that’s ever come out (this includes previous Olympic titles), many of the controls for various sports involve mashing buttons as quickly as possible to increase an athlete’s speed in the event. However, Athens 2004 breaks the monotony of the carpal tunnel risking gameplay with other control schemes to save your hands. For instance. You’ll need timed, accurate movements of the analog sticks (for things like skeet shooting or men’s rings), the aforementioned dance pads (for things like women’s floor gymnastics), or rhythmic button presses (such as the high jump event).
Athens 2004 went to great lengths to model the game arenas on the actual stadiums for the Olympic games, and for the most part, these look pretty good. There are a few moments when you actually get a sense of the actual scale of the event, and it’s rather impressive. What is a standout, particularly for a Sony Sports title, is the crowd, which gives the illusion of a natural audience. While there are some copycat textures and animations to spread the crowd throughout the seats, the timing of their movements feels much more realistic than some other sports games. Unfortunately, this doesn’t specifically extend to some of the in-game athletes. Although motion captured by a number of professionals, about half of the events feature tight, somewhat wooden movements that don’t seem realistic. This wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the fact that some sports require exact timing based on your avatar’s motions, which complicates success.
Athens 2004 features very specific color commentary by the international in-game announcers. There’s a greater depth included than the typical good or bad calls, as they evaluate how your athlete is doing in the event on the whole, similar to what you might find in golf broadcasts. For instance, you might fault in the triple jump twice, and the commentators will remark on how close you were, but how you’ll need to get a solid third attempt to make any headway. Sound effects, such as the firing of a gun or the bell to announce final laps on a track are clean and accurate, and while there isn’t a ton of music, it does fit the game nicely.
Unfortunately, there are a number of things that hold Athens 2004 back from truly being stellar. Much like the mishaps that have been seen plaguing this summer’s actual games, one of the largest problems you’ll face is the lack of personal connection with any nation or athlete you play as. There are no create a player features or professional endorsements, so you’ll be playing with very generic characters that you’re not really going to care about. Sure, you’ll feel their disappointment if they fail or their elation if they do well, but it’s an incredibly fleeting emotion. Considering that part of the thing that makes the Olympics so compelling is the investment you have with the personal stories of athletes, this problem hampers gameplay. What’s worse is that while the game pulls your players from a pool of 800 characters from 64 countries, you have no option to choose which person from your squad will represent you in a sport, or have the possibility to close out a medal ceremony by you and your countrymates if three of you beat the rest of the world, like real life. It’s somewhat unrealistic to believe that you’re not going to have at least one or two athletes from a country in an event. Plus, considering that it’s excluded 10 events that will be featured at this year’s games, it’s harder to get a sense that this is an all-inclusive title to rule all other Olympic games.
The inclusion of Arcade mode is somewhat dubious at best. The major distinction between it and Challenge mode is that Arcade mode doesn’t count record breaking times or distances for a sport. What’s the point in that if the Olympics are all about pushing the limits of the human body, shattering pre-existing reports for new standards? By comparison, there is no online mode included for the game, which seems ludicrous, particularly for a title that’s all about testing one’s self against the rest of what the world has to offer. However, the final, and perhaps largest fault is that the level of fairness between events is radically skewed. There are some events where you’ll be able to beat the computer easily if your timing is decent and you’ve memorized which buttons you need to hit in sequence. The floor gymnastics sections are proof of this, as it will sometimes bow out to non-existent pressure, giving you leeway to score a medal. Other events, such as the track and field events or swimming trials, require superhuman speed to take first place.
While it has a number of shortcomings, this is still a decent Olympics title that’s manages to offer a variety of events while not burning out players by focusing on button mashing mechanics. Although you may find that your interest in playing it may wane once the Olympic fervor of this year dies down, Athens 2004 will still provide enough entertainment to get you through the next month and a half until the games end.