Review: Women’s Volleyball Championship (PS2)

Women’s Volleyball Championship
Genre: Volleyball
Developer: Spike
Publisher: Agetec
Release Date: 07/29/08


Generally speaking, if you’re looking for a simulation-based volleyball game in the console market at this point, your options are exceptionally limited; most standard volleyball games at this point are geared towards more casual or arcade-styled gameplay, and while games like Sega’s Beach Spikers and Tecmo’s Dead or Alive Extreme games are entertaining in their own ways, they’re not really meant for someone looking for a more realistic experience. Spike, however, saw fit to release just such a game for the Japanese market, titled “Volleyball World Cup: Venus Evolution“, focused almost exclusively on women’s volleyball, as volleyball is a bit more popular in Japan than it is in the US, and women’s volleyball seems like a good seller across the board (though, in fairness, probably for the wrong reasons). Agetec, who have long since validated their “port over weird, limited-appeal games” card in the gaming market, have seen fit to bring this game stateside, as Women’s Volleyball Championship, a volleyball game with a decidedly more simulation-oriented gameplay style and generally more robust set of options in comparison to your more casual-themed product, and at a budget price of fifteen dollars to boot. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth your investment, of course, but for fans of the sport who are looking for something that takes things a little more seriously, let’s take a look and see if this is what you’ve been hoping for.

Women’s Volleyball Championship certainly offers you a lot of play options to choose from. You’re offered the standard Exhibition mode for one or two players (or two CPU opponents) to play against one another if you just want to get down and play. You’re also offered Championship competition mode, which offers Tournament and League play, for teams to compete to determine who is the best (each of which allows multiple players or CPU players to be used as needed). There’s also a Season Mode, where you take your chosen team through a schedule of matches with the intention of getting through the Season with a winning record and taking home the top prize. You’re also offered the option to create a player for use in the Original Team (more on that later), the option of editing team formations, and a Tutorial to explain how to play the game for newcomers. There’s plenty to do for the casual and serious volleyball fan alike, though the game generally leans towards the latter as we get further into the experience, as you’ll see.

Visually and aurally, WVC is generally serviceable, but not particularly fantastic. The courts and character models are generally interchangeable, and the characters generally are jagged, flat and not particularly well-animated. They look okay enough that you know what you’re looking at, but the only visually impressive part of the game is that the framerate remains consistent throughout; otherwise, the game is passable at best and ugly at worst. Aurally, there are a few music tracks here and there that are mostly upbeat techno/videogame sounding tunes, which are okay but not great, and the various sounds of the fans cheering and the ball being spacked around sound exactly as they should. The announcers, however (John Sarver and Nancy Williams), are generally around early Smackdown/Madden quality; their voice work is largely cut into samples that are played when needed, which often means you’re hearing someone shouting an answer to a mundane question or shouting, then immediately returning to a normal voice tone, and in both cases, this is certainly disconcerting. There are also odd voice stutters as the game loads while people are talking, which just furthers the problem. You can ignore it or turn it off entirely, but even so, it’s not anything god.

The core gameplay of WVC is simple in the sense that it requires little explanation, but complex in that it requires a lot of effort to learn. If you know how volleyball works, then you probably know how a round of play goes, but if not, here’s the deal: in the beginning of each set, one team will serve the ball, and the teams will volley the ball back and forth until one side drops the ball or sends the ball out of bounds, whereupon the process will start again. How this works in game is simple enough, but requires more effort to learn than I can appropriately explain. When you’re tasked to serve, you’re given a sliding power bar, and the objective is to put as much power behind the serve as possible. Each of the four face buttons performs a different type of serve (floaters, jump-floaters, overhand and underhand), meaning that you’ll have the option to make a different serve type depending on the situation and your personal preference. When the ball is to be received, you can press any of the four face buttons to pass the ball on first reception; the button used is irrelevant, by all indications, but timing is crucial, as you need to press it when it comes to the receiver’s hands, as pressing it too early or late will cause the pass to go wild. Upon receiving the ball, if done properly, you will then be provided with various possible spikers, each of which is mapped to a button or a button/direction combination, and pressing that will choose the spiker. When your character goes up to spike, pressing one of the three face buttons will begin charging power for your spike, and releasing the button stops charging and sets the power for the shot. You can also move the target for the shot around with the left stick, hold down R1 with the shot button to “wipe” the ball (hit it so it hits the opposing block and goes out of bounds if someone is attempting a block on you) or use Triangle to “dip” the ball (which is essentially faking a spike by way of underhitting the ball to force rear players to make the save instead of being blocked). You can also attempt to block incoming spikes, which is, again, as simple as pressing a button, and can be modified with the triggers to encourage the blockers to close up or spread out as the situation dictates. You’re also able to dictate quick offensive operations with the triggers (which you can set up prior to playing a match), by pressing the trigger and the button you desire during your initial reception pass, for some more variable offensive options. Generally speaking, moving around is a cinch, and most operations require no more than two buttons to implement, but mastering the timing required to play effectively will take a considerable amount of effort, and doing so is often the difference between winning and losing, even on the easiest difficulties.

The actual game modes and options are generally pretty easy to understand, at least. Your Exhibition Matches work exactly as you’d expect, and you can play with either one player versus the CPU, two players versus each other, or CPU vs. CPU matches where you can just watch the game. Championship Mode allows you to choose from League or Tournament play. With League Championships, you select at least three teams to compete, and games are played over a series of rounds based on how many teams are competing (so, if there are eight teams, there will be four matches a round for seven rounds, so that every team plays against every other team), and the team with the best record is declared the winner at the end. For Tournament Championships, however, standard tournament bracket rules apply, twelve teams are entered (four of which get a bye into the second round, while eight play each other in the first round), and the team that wins all of their games is the winner of the tournament. Season Mode lets you take control of a team and play through a season with them in an attempt to be the best team on the roster; you’re scheduled various games across various dates, and you can arrange your team as appropriate prior to each game. You go through three sets of games in Season Mode: an International Cup that works like a League Championship, an International Tournament that works like the standard bracket tournament, and a final playoff between the winners of both championships (unless one team one both, in which case there’s no playoffs), which offers a good amount of depth if nothing else.

Knowing how volleyball works is a big part of the experience as well, and while it’s beneficial if you know your volleyball terminology up-front, you’ll end up getting a crash-course while playing WVC if you’re ignorant to the specifics of the game. Each player takes one of six positions on the court, as either Wing Attacker (offensive player), Middle Blocker (specialized blocker), or Setter (sets the ball for return spikes). You’ll also have a seventh substitution player, the Libero, who can step in and substitute for defense but cannot serve, attack, or set in play. You’ll need to pay attention to whether or not you want to use a Super Ace (a hitter who is especially solid in offensive capability) or a Libero, what sort of condition your players are in, what sorts of Quick Operations your team should be using, and other special skills your players might have. You’ll also have to pay attention to team motivation; as your team plays in the various modes, they become more or less motivated as they win or lose games (with Exhibitions and Championships starting them at a clean 100 of 200, and Season Mode dictating their motivation as you play your games), and losing teams are generally going to play more poorly than winning teams, though certain skills can also counteract this.

You’ll also have a bunch of other things to customize and consider before you start in any game mode. Match settings, for one, are set before starting Seasons/Championships as well as prior to Exhibition matches. You can customize the CPU difficulty level, how many sets (series of matches) there are (one set, best of three, or best of five), how many points are needed to win a set (from five to twenty-five, in five-point increments), the scoring system to be used (between Rally Point, where you get the point if you win the rally, or Sideout, where you only gain points if you served and won the rally), Home and Visiting team condition (how good of a shape they’re in to play), turn Entrances on or off (which are just your standard introductions), and choose the arena to play in (one of six from various parts of the world, or you can simply choose Random to have one chosen for you). Some of these options aren’t available across different modes, mind you, but most are in some form or fashion, allowing you to tailor the experience to your liking as needed. You’re also offered thirteen teams to choose from, with twelve representing different teams from around the world, and one being an “Original” team for custom characters to reside in.

As far as custom character creation goes, when you jump into Player Creation Mode, a player is generated automatically for you to train into a usable character. You’re given seven turns, each with nine training segments, to train the player into top shape. These players join the Original team once they’re saved, as noted. Each player has nine parameters that can be influenced through training (Attack power, Block accuracy, Passing skill, Stamina, etc) from G to S, with G being pitiful and S being awesome. You can also bring cards in to be used for training purposes, in Basic and Special categories (of which you may bring in up to three of each). Each training segment, you will choose three cards to dictate the workout of your player from a pool of seven, as well as a Special card if applicable. Basic Cards come in three varieties (each having different effects on the player), and are applied at the end of every turn for additional training bonuses, assuming the player did not become injured while training. Special Cards can be used in addition to the three normal cards used in training for added effects. As you train your characters their stamina depletes, and when they become tired, their head droops to indicate their exhaustion. Tired players are more likely to injure themselves (which loses training time and depletes statistics earned), but can be revitalized with certain cards (Rest, Stretch) or by moving on to the next turn immediately. After the seven turns, you are shown the actual numerical values of the character you have created and are allowed to save the player or quit and start over. Saved players can be substituted into positions for the Original team before you start play in each of the different modes, so you can assemble your team as needed when you jump in to play.

In short, the game, from character creation to general play and beyond, is exceptionally in-depth and simulation oriented, and for the sort of player who looks for these sorts of things, WVC will fill your needs exceptionally well. For everyone else, however, you might want to know that this game is a bit on the problematic side simply because unless you are willing to, as we say when this sort of thing happens while playing RPG’s, GRIND at the game for a while, you probably aren’t going to have a lot of fun with it.

For one, the game is very stiff in its play mechanics and gameplay structure. The controls are very rigid and, in most respects, require spot-on timing. The tutorials are not particularly helpful and require manual consultation in most points to accomplish anything, and even then, you may well be left in the dark on how things work until you spend some time doing trial-and-error experimentation with the game. It’s also fairly odd that you cannot attach custom players to normal teams, so teams like Kenya (who aren’t as good statistically as Russia, for instance) simply aren’t particularly worthwhile to play as unless you are looking for a challenge. This sort of mechanic was okay ten or twenty years ago, but now it only serves to limit the amount of teams one would be willing to normally play as. Also, you can’t rename the Original team or the players in it except in Season Mode, and while you can rearrange the player setup for the twelve world teams and save the arrangement, you can’t do this for the Original team, which is bizarre because the Original team is the team who would benefit from such a thing the most.

For another, a lot of the mechanics are random or simply time intensive with no real tangible reward. Cards are reasonably expensive and burn out after one training session, whether they are used or not, making building a player a pain in the ass for all but the most dedicated gamer. Coupled with several bad draws in the workout routine, even with the best cards imaginable building a player can be frustrating if you continually draw useless cards. I mean, I understand the mechanic here perfectly fine, but why would you do this? You don’t go to the gym and say to a personal trainer, “Hey, give me a bunch of random workouts to do of not entirely viable use for my personal development”, you go and focus on building the specific things you need to build. Giving the player various workout options with variable bonuses and negatives and leaving it to them to figure out a strategy for success would have been fine, but this mechanic simply doesn’t work well at all. Also, paying attention to player stamina in Creation Mode means nothing because even with significant stretching and resting, a player can still randomly field an injury even when they reflect they are in good health prior to attempting a workout, and while this is realistic, it’s also a waste of cards if a player gets injured in their fourth set and misses out on a bunch of boosts. And while the training mode tells you what sort of parameter boosts you’re getting out of your training, it doesn’t really advise you of any sort of special skills your character might be earning, meaning if you’re looking to train up a certain skill, you’ll have a lot of trial and error to go through before you can find the right combination to run with… assuming you can draw it again on a second go-round.

But the biggest problem is that it’s very difficult to know who this game is supposed to be targeted toward. It’s entirely feasible to believe that there are hardcore volleyball fans out there who have been waiting for a simulation and luck-intensive volleyball experience, and in that case, this game is for them. But the casual volleyball fan is going to be put right off by the stiff, precise controls that require a significant amount of time learning them, and the hardcore fan may well still be put off by the fact that the game is generally very limited in what you can do with it and mostly based on grinding and luck more than any sort of actual strategy or skill.

In the end, Women’s Volleyball Championship is a game that, for fifteen dollars, will probably be an interesting diversion for fans of volleyball who are looking for a simulation oriented play experience, but probably won’t move the Earth for you unless you’re big on trial and error gaming. The core volleyball mechanics certainly feel realistic, there are a multitude of statistics to manage, and the game offers enough game modes for you to play around with to your hearts content if you’ve been looking for such an experience. However, casual fans may be put off by the drab presentation, steep learning curve, and lack of customization options, while serious fanatics may well find themselves disapproving of the random creation mechanics, the grinding required to build custom teams, and the lack of features available in certain situations. Women’s Volleyball Championship is really only going to appeal to the most hardcore volleyball fan, unfortunately, and even as a budget title, it’s hard to recommend to anyone who doesn’t fit that description.

The Scores:
Game Modes: GREAT
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: MEDIOCRE
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: DREADFUL
Miscellaneous: POOR

Final Score: MEDIOCRE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Women’s Volleyball Championship is an inexpensive volleyball simulation that will generally appeal to someone looking for a volleyball simulation, but will probably alienate the more casual fan by way of how it does things. The more simulation oriented fan will find much to enjoy, between the large amount of gameplay modes, realistically intense gameplay, and multitude of statistics to manage. Casual fans will ultimately be put off by the punishing difficulty curve and oddly limited customization options, however, and the more serious fan may well find the random nature of character creation and the need to spend hours grinding with no real strategy involved to be off-putting. For fifteen dollars, Women’s Volleyball Championship might be worth the investment if you’re unsure of where you fall with your interests, but for most, it will probably only occupy small amounts of their time before being put aside.

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