From speedball to Riot, it seems the futurists who put videogames together agree on one thing: at some point in the future the entire planet will be gripped by a sick fixation with a hideously violent stadium-based sport.
BallBlazer Champions follows this trend, and being the latest PlayStation release from George “I may look like an Ewok but I’m richer than most countries” Lucas’ software publishing company, LucasArts, you would expect something fairly grand.
The inspiration for this game comes from the old Commodore 64 game BallBlazer, a 1985 hit with the players of that time, and a clear attempt has been made to introduce similar gameplay to a full three-dimensional, 32-bit environment.
A match is played in one of 12 strangely coloured arenas, and is fought out between just two ships, or “rotofoils” as they are called in this case. The idea is extremely simple. At either end of the arena is a goal, and you shoot the plasmorb into the other guy’s goal to score a point. However if you were to try playing the game with only this knowledge, chances are you’d be more than a little bewildered by the experience as there is quite a bit more to grasp, and the games can often seem outrageously fast.
When you touch the glowing plasmorb, it becomes anchored in the air right in front of your rotofoil, even during the sharpest turns and large jumps, and you have to pilot the ship close to the goal and, when you think you have a clear shot, fire the plasmorb and hope for the best.
The goals have an eerie organic look to them, as they slowly expand and contract, and the coloured film that stretches across the goal mouth swirls like oil on water. In some stadiums the whole goal actually travels sedately from side to side, which adds a neat twist to the frantic action when you arrive at the other end of the pitch with the plasmorb that has just taken an eternity to get hold of, and the goal isn’t where you remember it!
Power-ups materialise with great frequency during a match, and they can be anything from homing missiles or lasers to the cloaking device which makes your rotofoil totally invisible.
When you are transporting the plasmorb your speed decreases greatly, making you an easy target for any of the other player’s weapons, and if you get shot you’re likely to lose the ball. And that happens a lot.
Brief experimentation with the split screen two player mode reveals that it is rendered almost totally unplayable due to major slow down problems, so you are left only with the one player game. While the graphics are very nice and tasteful, using a technique like Motor Toon GP 2 where there is hardly any texture mapping and tons of smooth shading, playing against the computer controlled rotofoils is a wildly frustrating experience.
It doesn’t appear that any work has gone into making your opponents more adaptable and instinctive, and instead it is blatantly obvious that you are competing against something which makes 66 million calculations per second.. The confusion caused by the speed was so obvious to the developers that they had to put in a ‘Find’ button, which points you towards the ball with one press. But this is a crude and temporary solution to the problem.
For BallBlazer Champions to be a winner, more attention should have been paid to the two player mode, which is after all where sports titles of any kind become most enjoyable. You won’t be disappointed with the game’s professional and crisp graphics, also using some gorgeous lighting effects and a good frame rate in the one player matches, but when playing on your own is impossible and playing with a friend is unpleasant, Ballblazer Champions ceases to have much use.