Handball, what a glorious sport, and no I am not talking about the sport played in the quadrangles of primary and high schools during recess and lunch breaks (also known as Downball), where my reign of dominance terrorised the myriad of victims who fell to my lethal right hand. No, I am talking about the popular hybrid basketball-futsal European sport where players must throw the ball into a net. Now I confess that prior to this review I knew next to nothing about the sport despite watching it a few times on TV. However, as an avid sports lover, I felt that it was my civic duty to at the very least sample the digital offerings of one our Europe’s more quaint sports.
Who said white men can’t jump?
For the uninitiated, Handball is a sixty-minute (two thirty minute halves), seven-a-side sport where each team has six outfield players and one goalkeeper. Players must dribble (bounce) the ball if they move more than three steps; if they choose not to bounce the ball a player must either pass or shoot after three steps or after three seconds if remained stationary. Defenders can block shots and passes, as well as make some frontal contact, however a defender must not knock the ball from an attacker’s hand. A goal is scored by throwing the ball into the net from anywhere on the court except the goalkeeper’s 6-metre safe haven. There are a few more rules involved but those are the basics.
Handball 17 is published by Bigben Interactive and developed by Eko Software and it’s instantly apparent that Handball 17’s budget is much lower than the sports titles you’ve probably become accustomed to. There are four modes included: Career, Season, Local Match and Online. The mode with the most legs is Career Mode, which is akin to FIFA’s Be A Pro Mode where you create a player and make your way up through the Handball ranks. After creating your player with a good amount of customisation options you select the team that you will begin your illustrious career with. As you play through the season you can upgrade your player’s skills with points awarded from completing matches and sizeable bonus points awarded for completing challenges (such as winning three games on the trot). Once the season is completed you are then offered a contract from new (and hopefully) better clubs with the aim of furthering your Handball career. Rinse and repeat. The one major facet in this mode is that there is no stats menu, meaning you never know how many goals your player or other payers on you team have scored or any other statistical information.
Season Mode is essentially Career Mode but without the created player benefits. For players that like to wheel-and-deal there is no list management option, meaning you cannot trade players with rival clubs. Local Match is the game’s versus mode where players can battle for Handball supremacy from right on the couch with any of the 82 included teams from Europe’s top leagues. One surprising omission is that players are unable to play together (in all modes), with a noticeable lack of co-op. The final mode is the game’s online mode, which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to test out as the half a dozen times I attempted to find I match I couldn’t find an opponent.
The gameplay mechanics are rather simple, with attackers having the ability to execute three types of shot either as a standard (feet on the ground) or jump shot (which is accompanied by a slow motion effect). Scoring a jump-shot over 2-4 defenders can be satisfying from time to time, but given that is how 80% of goals are scored the glamour wears off rather quickly. Passing, sprinting and dodging make up the remaining skills in the attacker’s arsenal. Defenders have the ability to block, intercept and push in order to stop the opposition from scoring. I found attacking to be a lot easier than defending, especially with a couple sweet spots on the court providing to be continuously fruitful and quite often I conceded goals through questionable defending.
From a technical and production point of view the game emphasises its low budget with player’s faces looking nothing like their real life counterparts. Instead, players look like they have all been made with the game’s create a player system, and it’s not uncommon for teams to feature what look like identical triplets separated at birth. Furthermore the player’s movement is hit and miss, with some movements such as dribbling and shooting all seeming apposite, however a player’s defensive movement feels a little rigid, especially when it comes to blocking and pushing. The AI-controlled goalkeepers (except for penalty shots) are the biggest culprits, as they pass and interact like they have rigor mortis. Additionally, the way a player runs in devastation when being sent off or in celebration when scoring a goal is quite comical. Lastly, the commentators are downright awful. For one, half the players and team names don’t have any voice recordings, meaning you’ll often get “Great goal by… (silence)”, moreover they use words like impermeable to describe a good defence. For a game of this ilk the graphics are about what you’d expect and pleasingly the game ran fairly smoothly.
If you’re happy and you know it open your mouth and run
Handball 17 is far from the worst sports video game ever, but it’s far from the best as well. It’s most criminal feature is the lack of depth and features in its modes, with the game severely lacking staying power. It doesn’t help that game’s production is a shambles with players looking like run-of-the-mill computer creations, and many players not having their names recorded for commentary purposes. Most of this could be forgiven to an extent if the game was actually enjoyable to play, but sadly there are very few redeeming features here. This could simply be because that some sports simply don’t translate to the video game medium very well (our precious AFL has been guilty of this numerous times). It’s a disappointing result because with its fast-paced and high-scoring matches Handball is actually a rather compelling sport to watch, however the 2017 video game rendition, which retails up to $90 AUD, is hard to recommend even for the most fervent handball fans.
Reviewed on PS4