Bringing the Olympic games home for the PS2, Athens 2004 is the official game for this year's event. Developed by 989 Sports, Athens 2004 features more than 20 events ranging from standard track events to more obscure sports like archery, skeet shooting and horseback riding. The developers have tried to bring some variety to the controls as well, but many of the events in Athens 2004 rely too heavily on repetitive button mashing. This makes for an uneven gameplay experience where how much fun you have depends largely on which event you're playing. Athens 2004's visuals are decent, but lack the flair and realism seen in other sports titles, giving the game a flat appearance overall. Athens 2004 isn't perfect, but it is still a decent simulation that should satisfy those looking for a simulation of the quadrennial event.
Trying to bring the epic scope and drama of the Olympic games to a video games is an almost impossible task. Sony's 989 Sports label takes the flag this time around, and does a decent job of it. Don't expect anything really innovative and you won't be disappointed. Athens 2004 features several modes of play where you can practice any event with loose rules, play a single event using Olympic rules or go through all the events competitively with other players. There are more than two dozen events, some of which can be quite challenging. This gives the gameplay plenty of variety. While far from a complete roster of every event, Athens 2004 offers a good cross section of events in multiple disciplines. Obviously, one of the highlights of any Olympics are the classic track and field running events which test competitors' speed and endurance. The shorter races such from the 100m to the 400m races require you to push buttons in time with your runner to maintain a quick pace. The longer runs like the 800m and 1500m have different controls using the analog sticks where you can adjust your speed without the button pressing. These longer races allow you to change lanes once you reach the breakpoint. However, your runner may suffer from fatigue, but you can compensate for this by hitting the second wind button, which gives the runner an extra speed burst. Players can compete in the hurdles event, which has similar control to the shorter races, but requires you to jump over the hurdles, stumbling over these reduces your time significantly. There are three jumping events including the Long Jump, High Jump and Triple Jump. These feel and work similarly to the running events initially, as you build up speed and gain momentum before you launch into the air. Timing is essential in these events as well, since you gain a disqualification if you step over the line. The jumping events are a bit more challenging than the running events, making them a bit more interesting.
There are also several swimming events including Breathstroke, Backstroke and Freestyle racing modes. These are very much like the running events in style and controls. The difference in the water is that in addition to building speed by pressing buttons, you also have to go above water and breathe. You do this when the power bar fills up, the faster you press the breath button, the longer you're swimmer can hold their breath until they have to inhale the next time. While the change of scenery is nice, these swimming games tend to become repetitive in a hurry, and are more tests of endurance than skill, making them less enjoyable than they could have been. To change things up a bit, the game also includes more skill-oriented events such as the pole vault. This event is surprisingly difficult to play since you have to build up enough speed before you jump, and then time your jump and angle so you can go over the bars cleanly, which isn't as easy as it sounds. Athens 2004 also includes classic Olympian challenges like the shot put and discus throw. These events require you to throw an object as far as you can. In these events, you start off by running, then you pause and adjust the throw angle and speed, in a snap. You'd think it would be easy, and It sounds simple in practice, but there's very little room for error. This makes these events frustrating, since getting the timing and button sequences down requires a lot of practice.
Athens 2004's standard events are fairly engaging, but the game also includes also includes several gymnastic events that are more challenging and less repetitive than some other tasks. The floor exercises allow a bit more freedom in their gameplay, though you're only pressing buttons in sequence. Again, timing in these events is key to success. There are floor exercises for both male and female athletes with similar control schemes, though the female athletes have the added element of dance, where you gain extra points for grace and artistry. In the same general area is the rings competition. The Rings requires a combination of skills where you have to use both analog controllers as the circular indicators reach the target, then keep them in that position and finally press a button sequence to dismount. It's quite challenging, and there's little room for error. Mastering the rings requires a great deal of concentration and skill to complete your routine successfully, and getting high marks from the judges is more difficult than you'd expect it to do.
These track and gymnastics events are probably the ones you'd most likely expect in an Olympic title, but there are a few more obscure sports like Skeet Shooting, Horse Jumping, Archery, and Weight Lifting. Of these, the Archery competition is probably the most entertaining. Here, you have to aim as close as you can to the center of the target. However, you're aim is affected and gradually gets worse the longer you hold the arrow in your quiver. You also have to keep an eye on the wind, which will affect your shot's accuracy as well. Archery's advantage on many of the other events in the game is that its more skill based and requires more thought. However, it's extremely difficult to get away with a bad shot in this mode. Likewise, the Skeet shooting mode isn't a cakewalk either, requiring precision timing and razor sharp reflexes. Horse Jumping is a deceptively simple sport, but having to steer your horse while gaining enough speed for it to make a jump isn't as easy as it sounds. Knowing the layout of the courses helps but you'll still need good timing. Each of these oddball events plays differently, with a unique control mechanism, which adds to the variety. Some of these events are intuitive in the control department, while other can be quite challenging, with multiple moves required.
The event structures and controls are competent, but the game's presentation and visuals are disappointingly behind the curve. Athens 2004's visuals are acceptable, but lack the detail and fluid movement players have come to expect from modern sports games. The character models seem flat and unspired, lacking the realistic movement and animation you'd expect them to. Environmental and lighting features are also minimal here, adding to the game's overall bland look and feel. You can switch the camera angle in a few of the events such as the longer running events, but for the most part you're locked in the same camera angle throughout. What's more, the game switches angles abruptly at key points in the action, such as when you're about to throw a javelin, which only creates confusion. Making matters worse, the game suffers from excessive jaggies and ragged textures throughout, giving it a slapped-together appearance that fails to match the standards set by other PS2 sports titles. Athens 2004's lackluster presentation and choppy character models make it lack the smoothness and realism you'd expect, detracting from the game's appeal significantly.
While the visuals are a major drawback, there's still plenty about Athens 2004 that should please sports fans looking for a decent recreation of the Olympic Games. The game features many of the most popular events including track and field, swimming and running events. Some of these are implemented better than others, with some being overly repetitive (such as running. Others such as skeet shooting and the freestyle floor gymnastics can be quite enjoyable and challenging. Oddly, this seems especially true with some of the more obscure sports, which seem to translate better to the gaming realm than others. This inconsistency can be annoying, especially if you try and play through all the events at the same time, with different controls for each event (even within the same group) it can become confusing. While the whole isn't that impressive, some of the individual events are quite enjoyable. Athens 2004 isn't a flawless release by any means, but it definitely has its moments, especially if you skip the duller events and play the more enjoyable ones. Not every event in Athens 2004 deserves a gold medal, but there's enough fun and challenge in the game's better event that 989 Sports ends up with a respectable silver overall. -MP