Box Score: Left behind by the mobile revolution

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Box Score is a weekly column that offers a look at sports games and the athletic side of the industry from the perspective of veteran reviewer and sports fan Richard Grisham.

As a guy who travels the country a lot, my iPad, iPhone and 3DS are constant companions. Between the three devices, I’ve got everything I could possibly want to communicate and be entertained. The phone is my hub – calls, texts, tweets, camera, and music – while the tablet is a go-to device for watching shows and reading books. When it’s time for real gaming, I bust out the 3DS for a Mario or Pushmo fix.

There’s one massive hole in that equation, though. While dozens of quality stat-based management and bite-sized novelty sports titles are available, good sports simulations are virtually nonexistent on any of them. This became painfully evident the past few weeks. On several flights across the country, I dove deep into the “best” of what the iPad has to offer in the genre (three $10 “big name” titles) and experienced something I’ve never felt before – relief at being told to power down my portable electronics for landing.

Crossing over middle America, I careened from game to game on my iPad with growing disillusionment. I started off with Madden 12 HD, which wound up being a disastrous choice. If you haven’t seen the game in action, don’t bother trying. It’s one thing for a game to be poorly built – between the hideous visuals and the need to press the “slow motion” button to actually execute a play, that part is covered – but another one entirely to exact $10 from your customers for this “experience.” I guarantee you many thousands of gamers just like me bought Madden for the iPad expecting (at worst!) a decent game worthy of a few hours of time. Instead, they got arguably the worst mobile game available on the platform.

My mood set to foul, I headed next to NBA 2K12 HD. While it’s immediately better than Madden, it’s only a marginal gain. There’s a lot less happening onscreen, so you can actually follow what’s going on. I guess that’s a bonus, but it’s still nowhere close to a substitute for a full-fledged hoops title, thanks to the slippery controls and PS1-era visuals. 2K12 deserves a pat on the back for including the full Jordan Challenge, to be sure. However, the iPad Jordan doesn’t look anything like His Airness does in real life, and within a couple of games I was ready to be done with the whole thing.

Above: This does NOT look like MJ!

Up next was FIFA 12 HD, which was immediately the superior title. Not only does it look significantly better in action than the others, it also plays fairly well. The development team smartly implemented touch controls in spots for things like choosing your target for corner kicks, which makes something I find incredibly random in the console game much better. FIFA offers a franchise mode that, at first glance, appears to have some depth to it; roster management, multi-year goals, and a demanding board of directors are all part of the process. Even so, the core of the gameplay remained clunky due to the controls.

Therein, of course, lies the only real problem with mainstream sports games on tablets – the inability for virtual joysticks and buttons to replace the traditional physical controller. With no sense of location, my left hand continually slips off of the directional pad while my right is never exactly sure what button to press, or exactly where they are. While I’m sure if I spent a few hours practicing I would get more comfortable, it doesn’t change the fact that learning an entirely new way to fundamentally play a sports game is the last thing any of us want.

I need to flick real sticks and press actual buttons.

The logical next choice is my 3DS, which actually has these things. Sadly, it’s all but barren of sports titles. Other than a handful of pretty good soccer franchises (PES and FIFA), there’s nothing of value; the Madden launch title is abysmal, and there are no baseball, basketball, or hockey games at all. Sports games were notoriously poor on its predecessor, so I’m not expecting a sudden change here.

Which leaves, of course, the Vita. Launching next week, I’m pinning all my hopes squarely on its back. As a guy who’s desperate for some quality mobile sports games, I’ve pre-ordered the system along with FIFA, Virtua Tennis, and MLB The Show. My travel schedule only gets more hectic this spring and summer, and I can’t wait to finally be able to play these games the “right” way – and, in the case of MLB The Show, transfer my progress between the Vita and my PS3. It’s an expensive proposition, but considering the usage I plan on getting out of it, it may wind up being worth it.

So for now, I’ll keep using my iPhone, iPad, and 3DS for what they’re best at, and add a fourth machine to my rotation next week. It’s one more item to carry and one more charger to bring, but the payoff should be worth the hassle. Or so I hope.

Richard Grisham has been obsessed with sports and video games since childhood, when he’d routinely create and track MicroLeague Baseball seasons on paper. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and four-year old son, who he’ll soon be training to be an NFL placekicker. As a freelance journalist and writer, his work has appeared in GamesRadar, NGamer, and 1UP.

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