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Power Spike Pro Beach Volleyball (PSX) Review

Background Info

Unlike their Japanese counterparts, American console gamers have not seen a traditional volleyball game -- never mind a beach volleyball game -- for quite some time. In fact, not a single volleyball game is available for any of the current American consoles...until now, that is. Infogrames' Power Spike Pro Beach Volleyball, for Sony PlayStation, is the first FIVB-licensed beach volleyball game to spike its way onto a console system. Developed by newcomer Carapaca, Power Spike includes more than 40 of the top professional male and female beach volleyball players from around the world, including the most famous one of them all, Gabrielle Reece, who graces the game's cover.

While Gabby has successfully conquered her sand-filled sport, she apparently loves extra exposure, as the beach volleyball star/model recently posed for Playboy and is practicing her golf swing in hopes of competing in the LPGA. Unfortunately, she picked the wrong video game to plaster her face on, because Power Spike, while a decent effort, is not the volleyball game fans have been patiently awaiting.

Presentation/Graphics : 40
There is a popular saying that I am sure you have all heard from an authoritative family member when you were younger. The saying goes, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Well, in this case, that would mean skipping the entire graphics section of my review because, honestly, I have very little "nice" stuff to say about this monstrosity. Seriously, my outdated Sega CD games crank out better-looking graphics than the dreck in Power Spike. Then again, I do not want to bring shame to my Sega CD games by comparing them with this horrid-looking beast.

So what exactly looks so awful in this game, you ask? Actually, the question you should be asking is, "Is there anything in the game that looks acceptable?" Surprisingly, yes, as the ball looks decent, the replays are serviceable, and the female players in the opening FMV have nice legs. Unfortunately everything else is crap. The dismal animation, laughable polygonal players, weak lighting effects (all three of them), pathetic shadows, and horribly pixellated backgrounds are all below the PlayStation's standards -- which are not that high to begin with, relatively speaking.

Indeed, it's as if the developer were striving to deliver mediocre graphics, yet the graphics fall short of meeting even that low mark. The most graphically "impressive" aspects of the game are the dirt clouds that players kick up during play and the colorful trail effect of the volleyball. I must also give credit where it is due: all four camera views (three back, one lateral) are playable. Still, next to this, the PSX versions of High Heat Baseball and MTV Sports: Skateboarding look like graphical masterpieces. Moving right along...

Presentation/Audio : 35
C'mon, what is going on here?!? The aural and visual presentations must be vying for the "suckiest of suck" award, because the lame audio somehow manages to insult the player even more than the terrible first-generation graphics. With a couple weak dance tunes and sparse, repetitive sound effects (e.g., grunts and voice cues from players, crowd noise, etc.), Power Spike would barely excite a deaf person who miraculously regained hearing. The only variations in sound are during side changes, when brief musical riffs play, and in the World Tour mode, where an announcer cuts in before the start of each competition to announce all the "exciting" (read: redundant) details. Remember when I said this game was "a decent effort"? Well, obviously I was not referring to the audio/video presentation. Read on to learn about the positive elements of the game.

Interface/Options : 76
Thankfully, this is where the game starts to redeem itself -- although the ugly menus and long load times do create some conflict. Basic options include sound adjustment, difficulty selection (Amateur, Pro, or All-Star), and three control configurations from which to choose. You can also adjust the screen, change the default camera view, and individually toggle the game's automatic replays, HUD, and gameplay icons and cursors on/off. Most of the game's options are accessible through the pause menu as well.

Beyond its three gameplay modes -- Practice, Exhibition, and World Tour -- Power Spike has a player editor that lets you create your own beach volleyball star. To start, you can choose to create a male or female player, then name him or her. Further options let you change his or her skin tone and clothing/accessories. The real meat of the player editor, however, lies within adjusting the custom player's six stat levels -- Strength, Serve, Block, Pass, Set, and Attack -- with an initial 100 extra points to distribute among them (each stat category has 50 pre-existing points). Once you have created your king or queen of the beach, you can use him or her in any gameplay mode. If you are looking to beef up your custom player with extra stat points, though, the World Tour mode is the place to go, since it awards additional stat points as you progress.

Power Spike has a simple control interface. Although the manual says it "may take some getting used to," the interface is sound and easy to adjust to...for the most part. The D-pad or left analog stick controls your player's movement. However, unlike many PSX games, you cannot use the D-pad when you are in analog mode. Therefore, you must manually switch between the two control modes. Both the X button and the Square button control most of your player's actions (serves, spikes, bumps, etc.), with the Square button (a.k.a. the 'power move' button) executing stronger hits. In addition, you use the Triangle button to block shots, and the Circle button to give commands to your computer-controlled teammate. Finally, the L1 button switches between 'attack' and 'defense' modes, thus instantly changing your team's tactics.

Gameplay : 70
While the controls are well laid out, most players will need to visit the Practice mode to adjust to the awkward gameplay mechanics and a faulty graphics engine that impedes performance. Most functions, such as serving and blocking, are easy enough, requiring only a simple button press/hold and a steady eye on the power bar. However, learning how to coexist with your computer-controlled teammate takes practice. This is one reason the game is much more enjoyable as a multi-player title.

The main problem with the computer-controlled teammate is its poor AI, which forces you to do most of the work. Even the 'command' button, which sends commands to your teammate, offers little help if you and your teammate are not positioned correctly. Thanks to the low-grade animation and the problematic frame-rate, it is common to find yourself out of position as you try to maneuver around the court. If the animation and frame-rate were smoother, I would have certainly had an easier time working the court and nailing shots. Also, your computerized teammate often reacts needlessly to your movements. For instance, if you move a little bit out of your section, your teammate will nervously reposition itself on the court for no justifiable reason whatsoever. Naturally, your computerized opponents work harmoniously together, making the single-player game even more trying.

Other things you need to be aware of during gameplay are the aiming cursor and the 'Player Positioning Guide' (PPG). When serving, spiking, and passing (non-automatic passing only), you must position a tiny red shot cursor to aim your hit. This would not be too difficult if not for the jumpy, hard-to-spot aiming cursor. To be fair, the D-pad offers fairly precise cursor movement, but positioning the cursor with the analog stick is unsatisfactory.

Since most will likely prefer the analog stick over the D-pad to control movement, the tedious shot-aiming aspect makes the game less fun to play. And as I mentioned earlier, you cannot use the D-pad while in analog mode, so neither digital nor analog offers complete, satisfactory control. Fortunately, the default difficulty level (amateur) features automatic passing, which alleviates the need to align passes with the troublesome shot cursor. Of course, you still need to position your serves, spikes, etc.

The PPG is the other important element of Power Spike with which you must familiarize yourself. In brief, the PPG is an expanding, contracting circle that helps you track the ball and make contact with it. Your shots will vary depending where in the circle you position your player. In all cases, however, you need to press the hit button slightly before the ball reaches your player to achieve the best results.

All three gameplay modes in Power Spike are basic and self explanatory. The Exhibition mode is a single game against the computer or a friend (or group of friends). Practice mode, on the other hand, lets you play a game for as long as you want, without the need to worry about a final score. Lastly, the World Tour mode consists of eight individual tournaments, in which points are awarded to the teams that place among the top five. In this mode, you can unlock extra courts and build up the custom player you created with the player editor.

Replay Value : 75
Although it is ultimately not very much fun to play -- thanks to the miserable graphics, which negatively affect gameplay -- Power Spike does have a good amount of replay value. It has a lengthy World Tour mode, a four-player option (via the Multi Tap), and a worthwhile player editor. There are also six extra courts to unlock, although most of the courts in the game look similar. So, at least in theory, Power Spike has some extra stuff that might attract a second look from the beach-volleyball fanatic. But where, may I ask, are the sexy Gabrielle Reece videos?! Jeez, if you are going to hire the Playboy-posing Gabby to be the game's cover girl, you might as well make her star in a few gratuitous FMVs. After all, it would surely boost the replay value for the male players, forcing them to play through the game several times to unlock all the hidden, lusty Gabby videos. Or maybe I am the only one who thinks that would have been a strong selling point...?

Overall : 60
We all know graphics don't make the game, but they can certainly ruin it. A bad frame-rate, severely choppy animation, and a hard-to-spot aiming cursor are just a few things that seriously hinder Power Spike's promising but flawed gameplay. While it does have some good things going for it (namely, the multi-player aspect and the player editor), only diehard volleyball fans -- and perhaps Gabrielle Reece admirers -- will likely stick with it for the long haul. Those who enjoy arcade-like trimmings will especially tire of the game. It's a shame, really, because Power Spike could have helped usher in the next generation of volleyball games.

On a side note, I sincerely hope Hitmaker, the development team behind the wonderful Virtua Tennis, considers making a volleyball game, as I am sure it could produce a volleyball game that everyone would enjoy.

By: Cliff O'Neill 1/16/01

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