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Outlaw Volleyball

Review By:  Greg Lynch

Developer:  Hypnotix
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
# of Players:  1-4
Genre:  Sports
ESRB:  Mature
Online:  Yes
Accessories:  Memory Unit, 480p
Date Posted: 

7-24-03

Last year, the Xbox was graced with the surprisingly good golf game Outlaw Golf. It featured an amazingly solid golf engine and separated itself from the pack by offering over-the-top characters and adult-oriented humor. The game had a decent enough reception to not only convince developers Hypnotix to begin work on a sequel, but to branch the franchise out into other directions. Tackling volleyball next, Hypnotix would go on to make the best game of its kind to date with Outlaw Volleyball.

Similar to its golfing predecessor, Outlaw Volleyball takes a sport and turns it upside down with quirky, offbeat characters, a couple of interesting twists in gameplay mechanics, and a sometimes raunchy sense of humor. However, this time the group at Hypnotix seems to have found their footing, and really delivered the type of brilliance Outlaw Golf only occasionally hinted at. Compared to Golf, the graphics and gameplay feel much tighter this time around, the humor and commentary is consistently funnier, and the entire package just feels more solid.

Hypnotix makes no apologies for being inspired by Virtua Tennis’ gameplay, and it shows. Anyone who has played Sega’s now-famous tennis game will feel right at home with Outlaw Volleyball’s controls. Everything from how to serve to how pressing a button early “pulls” your character beneath the ball was lifted from VT, but that’s not a bad thing. Virtua Tennis represents the epitome of easy to learn controls that mask a subtle complexity only realized after hours of gameplay against a human opponent; Outlaw Volleyball utilizes that system amazingly well.

Serving is accomplished by holding down the A button then releasing when a meter reaches the peak for maximum power. The rest of the deceptively deep gameplay consists of bumping and setting to your partner (A), dinking the ball over the net (B), spiking the ball over the net (X), or blocking a return by jumping (Y). Placement of the ball is done through utilizing a cursor (which can be turned off in Options to make the game more challenging for both you and your opponent), and is achieved by getting beneath the ball as early as possible and holding down the appropriate button. While the button is held, the cursor can be moved to any point on the court and locked in by releasing it. The earlier you get under the ball, the longer you have to aim, and the harder you hit the ball.

The challenge comes in the form of not only knowing where the weak point on the opposing side is at the time of return, but also in keeping your opponent guessing. Since you get three hits, you must always decide whether to throw the other team off balance by hitting the ball quickly, or using the bumps to set up your partner close to the net for the fastest return. After some frustrating moments in gameplay, you’ll soon realize this is best achieved through the option to turn off the CPU help and taking control of both characters at the same time (the CPU still controls one of the characters when necessary). It sounds difficult, and takes a lot of getting used to, but once you get the hang of it you come to realize just how effective it is to control both characters. After a while, you won’t know how you ever played without it.

Fortunately, the nuances of the game are introduced to you in the form of some absolutely hysterical video tutorials (the first tutorials I’ve found worth watching), and through the use of character-building drills that are unlocked as you progress through the game. These drills start by covering the basics, such as bumping with cursor aiming, or aiming a spiked return, and get decisively harder the further you progress. While the earlier drills will help square you away for the first batch of matches, the later drills will help hone your skills against the AI that become much more brutal as the game progresses.

Each time you beat a drill, you are allotted a certain number of points to put into your characters stats, such as power, offense, defense, and speed. While the difference may not be readily apparent at first, changing from a moderately upgraded character to one without any changes becomes surprisingly difficult. This can be especially noticeable when you don’t upgrade the stats of your teammate, and you’ll notice a sudden change in timing for a maximum spike between the two characters. Since one without will require a lot more time to reach full power, you may find yourself releasing the spike button way too early, sending the ball into the net.

The game also features several interesting twists to gameplay to shake things up a bit. One is through the use of a “Momentum” meter. Similar to Outlaw Golf’s “Composure” meter, you are rewarded or penalized for how well you are playing. Momentum effects how quickly your turbo recharges, which it turn provides the ability to run at high speeds for a short time, do insanely powerful serves, or, most importantly, execute a special move that spikes the ball at a much higher speed. Learning when to do a special move becomes crucial in the later portion of the game, and does quite a bit to add to the game’s overall strategy.

Another twist comes in the form of the different gameplay modes. Along with the standard Sideout (only the serving side can score) and Rally (anyone can score) modes, the game also includes Hot Potato, Casino, and Timebomb variations. Hot Potato requires you to watch a timer and either score quickly or place the exploding ball on the opponent’s side when it is ready to blow up to earn you the point. Casino mode tallies a dollar for every return volley until the point is won. The money is then given to that team, and the overall winner of the match is the person with the most money at the end. Timebomb simply consists of a timebomb being placed wherever the ball lands from a lost point, requiring the team to maneuver around it until it explodes, or else be thrown into the air for a few precious moments. All of the modes are a blast, but unfortunately none of the extra modes are available on Live at this time. However, it should be noted that Hypnotix is currently looking into adding them as downloadable content.

Arguably less amazing is the inclusion of a fighting mini-game in which you can fight an opposing team member for their remaining portion of Momentum. The fighting is fairly basic, including block, punches, kicks, and a special move, all to the tune of the game’s only noticeable portion of lackluster animation. It can be great fun to take out your frustrations on a real opponent, but since it isn’t available in Live, and feels cheap to use it against an AI opponent that never uses it, you’ll probably ignore it or to turn it off in the Options menu.

The online portion of the game runs very smoothly, even on matches against Live opponents with less than stellar connections. However, as I mentioned before, it doesn’t support the game’s extra modes, and I found it difficult to find anyone playing at times. This, coupled with a lackluster interface and the fact that Live supports up to four players on only two Xboxes, makes for a slightly flawed experience. Hopefully, word of mouth will help the game achieve the sales it deserves, and finding matches will be less of a problem. Hypnotix is currently looking into the possibility of adding additional game modes, fighting, and ladders, with the obligatory additional characters and courts already in the pipeline. Overall, it is a great first attempt from the developers, but it could have been much more.

The game does a great job of strutting the Xbox’s muscles in terms of graphics. The models of the characters are incredibly detailed, and someone more conservative might even say too much so thanks to an amazing attention to details of both male and female anatomy (thankfully for some, anything offensive can be easily averted by turning off voices and player reactions in Options). The courts feature deformable terrain (the sand and snow look suitably beaten as the match progresses, and it does a great job of mirroring water effects in the sewer level) and are wildly original. There are enough particle effects, bump mapping, flashy explosions, and eye candy to make any Xbox fan happy. My only complaint would probably fall on the spectators, which feature a fairly low polygon count. However, the complaint is minor since the only time you will really notice is occasionally during the up-close player reactions, or possibly when you zoom in to watch an instant replay.

The audio portion of the game is equally amazing. Steve Carell returns for a repeat performance as the announcer, but this time his lines are wittier and rarely fall flat. The character voices are equally well delivered, though not quite as consistently funny as Carell’s commentary. Regardless, they do a great job of bringing the characters to life. Both have the capacity to grow old after a while, but there is always the option to turn them off. The real surprise comes in the form of the game’s soundtrack. The developers decided to forgo the big name bands, instead opting for a large number of lesser-known but incredibly talented musicians. This decision not only allows for fewer repeat songs during gameplay, but also means you won’t hear the same songs you have already heard on the radio over and over again. While the game does support user created soundtracks, it may be a long time before you decide the music has grown old enough to bother with it.

When all is said and done, Hypnotix has surpassed all my expectations for the game. Outlaw Golf was a great game in its own right, but this game is exponentially better in every aspect than their first console outing. With fantastic graphics, a great sense of humor, and gameplay that outclasses the competition by leaps and bounds, it is one of the freshest single and multiplayer sports titles I’ve played in years. The Outlaw series is already on the road to greatness, and waiting for the next game in the series has just gotten that much more difficult.

Highs:

  • Easy to pick up and play, yet deceptively deep.
  • Sharp graphics and voiceover work.
  • Huge number of unlockables.
  • One heck of a soundtrack.

Lows:

  • Lackluster Live play (for now).
  • Some may find the later portion of single player difficult to a fault.

Final Verdict: 

It’s hard to believe this is a game created by the same group that gave us Deer Avenger 4 and Panty Raider. Hypnotix has proved once again they can do marvelous things when they put their mind to it. With the philosophy that gameplay comes first and juvenile content comes in a close second, they’ve made a game that contains both fantastic gameplay and a great sense of humor. I can’t recommend this game enough. (No, really. I need more people to play against in Live.) If you were one of the many people who felt Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball didn’t live up to your expectations, or just want a volleyball game that has fun to spare, this game is the one you’ve been waiting for.

Overall Score: 9.0

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