'ATHENS 2004' Game leaves players hurting

To compete, you're likely to end up with blisters -- on your fingers.
The problem with an awe-inspiring game like "Doom 3" is that, by comparison, even the next-best game seems about as exciting as a water Slurpee.
That's why I'm cautiously easing back into the steady stream of so-so games, starting with a new title from Sony's 989 Sports studio that celebrates the 2004 Olympics.
"Athens 2004" isn't terrible. In fact, it's probably the best Olympics-themed game ever made. But that doesn't mean much. Like most of its predecessors, the "Athens" video game primarily is about frantic button mashing. And you'll probably blister and bruise your fingers and strain your knuckles in no time if you have designs on the gold.
I'd thought about this and thought about this and had decided that there's no other way to make a video game based on Olympic events. How else do you simulate the building of speed and power and still keep the game interesting?
Fortunately, Sony has come up with a decent answer in a new Party Mode. But we'll get to that in a minute.
What's featured
"Athens 2004" features 25 activities in seven Olympic sports, an improvement over past Olympic video games. You'll get swimming, sprinting, hurdling, high-jumping, pole-vaulting, javelin-throwing, archery, skeet-shooting, weightlifting, an equestrian event, gymnastic events and several others.
For variety, the game earns my esteem.
However, in terms of game play, any event that requires you to frantically, alternately tap buttons to increase speed (as in swimming and track events) or power (weightlifting) is going to leave your fingers numb and probably blistered.
Some events, such as the 100-meter butterfly and 100-meter breaststroke, are absurd and seem to require two people -- or one horribly double-jointed person -- for success.
To propel your swimmer across the pool at a medal-caliber pace, you'll have to alternately, rapidly, mash the X and O buttons for speed. I couldn't manage it with one hand and had to use my left and right index fingers to furiously poke the buttons and keep my speed meter at a respectable level.
Then, of course, your swimmer needs to breathe. So every so often you'll have to stop mashing the "speed" buttons for a second, losing precious time and position to hit the "breathe" button. Then resume the tapping -- or pounding, rather -- of the speed buttons.
An alternative
Just thinking about it makes my fingers hurt, but there is an alternative.
In Party Mode, for one to four players, some activities work with the PlayStation 2 Dance Mat (sold separately for about $40). Developed for dance games such as the popular "Dance Dance Revolution," the mat is surprisingly adequate for "Athens 2004." The running events especially are much more fun when you run in place on the interactive mat. They collectively provide a decent workout, although if you live above someone, you might want to play while they're at work.
Oddly, my favorite game in "Athens 2004" is my least-favorite Olympic event -- men's floor exercises. In the game, it's a perfect -- albeit not too challenging -- blend of precise timing and button-pressing. Only a small portion of the elaborate routines are executed by way of the violent tapping. Women's floor exercises include dance routines -- perfect for the Dance Mat.
At its best with the Dance Mat, "Athens 2004" is a fun party game you can enjoy with your friends during the Olympics. Without the mat, it's a bronze-medal rental choice.
X"Athens 2004," by 989 Sports for PlayStation 2, is rated E for everyone.

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