Bump, set, booty!
I love the beach. The steady beat of the rolling waves, the crisp sand that nestles its way between my toes, the smell of coconut oil and seaweed that lingers faintly, sweetly in the air. Sure beats the wave pool filled with pee at the local Water Park.
Unfortunately, it's a murky day here in the Bay Area, so until they make Sand Fortress - Virtua Castle Building, I've got Beach Spikers - Virtua Beach Volleyball for my artificial fun in the sun. But these are waters best jumped into with your buddies, as the single player can grow drearier than a month of San Franciscan fog.
Beach Spikers is strictly two-on-two women's beach volleyball. No boys allowed, and the gameplay mechanics are fairly simple. In fact, there are only two buttons used throughout the entire game - A for your normal moves and B for your lighter, underhand volleys. Hitting both buttons at once allows you to set up sneakier attacks, such as spiking at the blocker's hands or returning the ball in two turns instead of simply setting the ball.
When you receive the ball, an indicator circle will appear on the ground directing you where the ball will land. If the ball is headed towards your teammate, it will be in a different color. Simply race over to the circle and position yourself squarely, then whack at it.
The game calculates the speed and trajectory of the ball in relation to your location. The better your character's positioning within the center of the indicator circle, the more successful your hit will be. But don't worry about the physics, because there's a natural rhythm to it that you pick up after playing a bit.
Serving the ball is controlled via a power meter that zooms up and down. You stop the meter at your desired level of intensity and use your control stick to aim where you want to send the ball. The power meter is also used to control the strength of your spikes.
The camera swoops back and forth to try and give you the best view of all the action. Usually it suffices, as overhead views are used for general bumps and sets, and an oncoming spike attack will set the camera behind the spiker. Sometimes though, the action can outpace the camera. There's a little court map on the bottom to indicate the player's placement on the court, but it isn't very helpful. Glancing downward can take your mind off the action in that one critical second that should have been used to get ready for the next volley.
When you take on the World Tour single-player mode, you create your own team and take them through a series of tournaments. The creation is pretty nice, with dozens of different faces, hairstyles, and swimsuits available to help you create your ideal fake women. For all you men out there, sorry, you cannot alter her physical body in any way and there is no "jubbling" of the breasts. Now go back to watching late night Cinemax.
Your team takes a while to get going. At the beginning of World Tour, your partner will bring back aching grade school memories of first learning how to play volleyball. She'll completely ignore a ball coming right at her. She'll blast the most perfectly set up spike far out of bounds. At this point, you'll have to be a bit of a ball hog, predicting the balls that she most likely won't dart after.
Hence, you will most likely lose your first 2-3 tournaments pretty quickly, but you still receive a token amount of points to improve your dingbat partner. These points can be distributed to different statistics, such as Power, Receive, and Spike. With enough stat building, your idiot girlfriend can become a power player.
Though I'm glad they let you bulk up your players via stat points, a better reward system for close matches, especially in the beginning when your partner is such a liability, would have added interesting depth. Your performance has to make up for the both of you, so some benefit should come out of well-played matches.
There's also a 'cooperation' meter that makes your partner kind of like a Tamagotchi virtual pet. During breaks in the game, you can encourage, reprimand, or praise your partner. Depending on how well she plays compared to your own performance, your words can either boost or hurt your cooperation ratings. It's not a very big deal from a gameplay standpoint, but it's interesting.
In matches with a computer-controlled teammate, I think they should have added in a third color for the more ambiguous shots to eliminate confusion regarding whose ball it is. Sometimes volleys will be marked in your computer partner's color, yet she'll expect you to take care of it because you took a step towards the ball, leading to a miss.
To remedy the pain of dealing with a dumb partner, there's always Arcade mode. This mode excises all your computer-controlled woes by allowing you to control both players - you simply control whoever's turn it is to receive. In the Arcade mode, you simply work your way up one tournament.
Like the real sport, Beach Spikers is best when played with friends. The Versus mode allows you and up to three others to take their place on the court of sandy judgment. Just trying to keep a rally going can be a lot of fun, like a sand swept, seaside version of Virtua Tennis.
There are also some mini-games thrown in as distractions, but they're pretty lame. One of them is a track and field style race for a flag. Another is a serve and receive exercise for points. The most creative one is volleying an imminently exploding bomb back and forth. How's that for a nasty dig?
While the graphics move at a smooth framerate and capture plenty of sunny charm, the characters look like plastic Barbie dolls. Thankfully, they animate more realistically, smacking the ground in agony at a bad play or falling backwards from the impact of a sharp serve, hair swishing realistically all the while. And sometimes upon victory, your characters embrace...with their hands on each other's asses. Hmm - maybe there's a story behind these players that's being left in the closet?
Beach Spikers can admittedly be a lot of fun. It's simple to learn, and once you and your friends get the hang of all the fine points, the game can make for a fun volley brawl. But while the World Tour is interesting with its virtual pet teammate, it can get old and boring. Now, where's my tanning lotion?