Much as the Olympics offer an opportunity to watch sports that don’t normally hog the limelight, so too videogames based on the Olympics offer gamers the chance to step into competitions that aren't served up to them year after year like so many sporting titles are.
The problem is that they’ve seldom been any good. The sports that define the Olympics are just too simple and repetitive to make for great gaming. Run. Jump. Throw. Lift. Swim. In 1984 that was the pushing the boundaries of gaming, but in 2012 it's a two-dollar app download.
Furthermore, the Olympic Games aren’t so much about individual sports as they are about human drama. They’re about the plucky underdog, the champion chasing history, the heartbreak of a competitor quite literally stumbling at the last hurdle. With all respect to the 50-kilometre Walk, those are the reasons millions tune in. Good luck capturing any of that in a game though – especially one where licensing individual athlete likenesses is unfeasible and there's no natural way to incorporate any sort of long-term season or career mode.
The net result is that Olympic titles have never engaged even moderately sophisticated gamers for any length of time. Ultimately, it's hard to imagine that Sega’s London 2012 will either. It is, however, a surprisingly fun game that for a short time (or for younger gamers) will provide some enjoyment.
First off, it looks fairly decent. For all the challenges associated with making an Olympic title, developers do have the advantage that there’s only one made every four years, so any honest effort is going to be streets ahead of its predecessor in terms of graphics and gameplay. So it is with London 2012, which, while far from leading the genre, is a well-constructed package. Motion capture is smooth and London's modern and historic venues offer a teaser of the real event that kicks off on July 27.
Gameplay itself is also fairly clever. Few events require more than a couple of buttons, but for the most part there's not much call for more than that, and the simple tutorial sessions will have even younger children up to speed in minutes. While simple, hurdling down the track, hurling a discuss, and sliding over the high-jump bar are all surprisingly satisfying, as is the pursuit of Olympic and world records – at least to begin with.
The scope of the game is impressive too. Individual events may be basic, and generally repetitive, but there's a whole heaping helping of them. There are 46 individual events spread across 13 Olympic disciplines. Throw in online play and some multiplayer challenges and there's at least a degree of depth on offer.
Despite the many events on offer though, some of the choices made for London 2012 are perplexing. There's long jump and the more convoluted triple jump, but no pole vault. 100m, 200m and 400m races, but no 1500m, despite the fact that it is a blue ribbon event and an opportunity to introduce a rare tactical element to game play.
While diving works surprisingly well, it's hard to imagine there was any great demand for the similarly adapted trampolining. Yes, with only one cycling event, and with no sailing or decathlon, Sega picked trampolining. It's probably just as well synchronised swimming is no longer an Olympic sport. Disappointingly, there are also no relays, either in the pool or on the track, costing the game some of its most obvious multiplayer potential.
The net effect of Sega's efforts is a title that entertains initially, but fails to overcome the challenges of building a truly entertaining Olympics game. While fun at first, most events are only entertaining only until they've been mastered, which will be a swift process for most. In fact, even taking that gold medal is a hollow victory. Where most modern games reward problem solving and tactical thinking, all a victory in London 2012 demonstrates is you can push buttons in sequence with the best of them, and that perhaps there's a repetitive strain injury in your future.
The inevitable parade of anonymous athletes wears thin too. Where beating Usain Bolt or taking Mahé Drysdale to gold in the single sculls might have been entertaining, taking a fictitious table-tennis representative (of which New Zealand has none in 2012) to Olympic glory is less rewarding.
This is not really the developer’s fault of course. Most of the reasons why London 2012 is not a great game are the same reasons no Olympics title ever has been, so it may seem churlish to be overly critical. The fact is though, that while London 2012 is arguably the best Olympic adaption yet, it is just not enjoyable enough for long enough to warrant too much excitement.
Might be a great rental for the kids though.