When the Olympics rolls around every four or so years there is inevitably a game to go with it. In the past these games have been more cash cows then quality titles and haven't really lived up to expectations of those wanting to take the Olympic games into their living room. Sony has now acquired the Olympic license exclusively so had quite an incentive to produce the best Olympic game yet, and they just may have done that with help from developer Eurocom.
Athens 2004 is divided into two main game modes; arcade and competition. As the names suggest arcade mode is a fairly standard practice/single competition mode with no rules but in this mode the records are not available. Therefore it is not possible to break the Olympic and world records the game contains based on real world data from what we can tell. There really doesn't seem much point to this mode other then the multiplay ability (with up to four players via multitap) or the chance to take on events individually. Considering you can do that in the competition mode as well, it becomes a pointless inclusion
The competition mode is where the four years of hard work for athletes comes to fruition. This mode contains the ability to compete individually in events, in a series of events such as the decathlon, focus on one discipline such as swimming or go the whole hog and compete in all twenty five events over a five day period. Sometimes when competing in an individual event the structure of the tournament changes. For instance in archery rather than getting a shot at the medals right away you have to play through knockout sequence, which does give the game some replay value.
One notable absence is an Olympic mode. There is no mode in the game which has a medal tally or the opening or closing ceremony which comes as a surprise considering Sony have gone to so much trouble to recreate everything from the upcoming games. Medal ceremonies only occur at the end of a tournament such as the decathlon or champion mode (which is all twenty five events in a row) and not after each event as per the games themselves either.
Athens 2004 contains twenty five different events to compete in and features a wide range of events in many different disciplines. The only absences really are those sports that could justify a game of their own such as soccer and tennis. Those featured include most of the track program, a few swimming events, weightlifting, dancing, gymnastics, shooting, equestrian and many more. Some events are easier to play than others but overall they add up to a fairly complete Olympic package. During the champion mode the game determines whether a sport is to be run in the female or male competition, but individually some events such as the track allow you to choose.
With the variety of events on offer the controls were always going to be crucial and for most of the events they come through with flying colours. The developers have really done their homework on how to best control each event and it pays off as the game is not tough to play most of the time. The shorter running events include button mashing, as does the swimming but some of the more unique controls come across with the dancing and long distance running. For the dancing a dance dance revolution style has been used, while the long distance running tasks you with managing stamina and the athletes second wind.
There are a few problems with the consistency of the controls however especially with the button mashing sequences. The track events which use this style of control are fairly easy to win but use the same amount of speed during swimming or weightlifting and you haven't got a hope of even finishing in the top five or lifting the most basic weight. Also it is hard to maintain the same speed during a long race such as the 400m and sore wrists do become a problem. For the swimming, the distance running system probably would have worked better because not only do you have to button mash, but also manage the athletes breathing with the L1 button. Overall though Eurocom have done a fine job in creating some great controls which has kept the game from turning into a button mash fest. Each event has the controls explained in text but a video is also available which shows exactly when to press each button.
The difficulty of Athens 2004 is hard to judge. Some events are easy to break and smash records to win gold, but others are on the verge of impossible to even get close to the leaders. Some events allow you to choose a difficulty such as gymnastics and dancing. You can choose between bronze, silver and gold difficulty levels. The tougher ones give you more points and a better shot at the gold medal. However most of the time the challenge is against records rather then the AI. In terms of representing how the real world events such as high jump turn out, the game is rather good at representing the elite athletes. Assuming you pass, the AI athletes will slowly drop off until it may become a shootout between you and another athlete for the gold.
Sony has used the license they acquired exclusively well and have recreated everything bar the ceremonies you can expect to see at the games. Each of the venues has been recreated for the game from the blueprints used to construct them and while it may not impress that much now, once the games roll around it will show the level of detail they have put into the game. It contains the official mascots and logos, venues as well as this sixty four nations are represented for you to take to the games. While they don't have the official team strips for each country, each of the countries have unique colours and most of the athletes are unique from each other.
The visuals of the game are quite impressive especially those of the licensed venues. The athletes all animate well and the fact they have been motion captured really shines through. Even the horse was motion captured for the equestrian event. The character models for the athletes are highly detailed and most have unique faces and bodies, even down to details such as freckles on the skin. In terms of the overall presentation of the events, camera angles used are those you can expect to see during television coverage and they never interfere with the ability to perform in an event but add more atmosphere to the game. Some events can be played in a first person perspective which gives an interesting view of the venues in the game. There is also small details such as athletes running past during long jump or high jump events etc. Aesthetic but adds more authenticity to the events.
The sound effects used are quite good with 3D crowds cheering and different sound effects used for each event. For example in the running a gun is used but like in the real world, a different starting sound for swimming is present. The soundtrack is a classical tune that fits well with the Olympic theme. Commentary has also been included and is unique to each discipline and the way the commentators approach each sport is different. However in perhaps a disappointment they don't get excited when you win a gold medal or even break a world record.
Sony have created a fairly solid Olympic title with numerous events to compete in. There are a few notable absences such as cycling but all the prestigious events such as swimming and one hundred metres track event are all included. The lack of a proper Olympic mode does come as a surprise but is not a major flaw and anyone looking for a solid athletics title with many more sports thrown in could do worse than Athens 2004.