Throughout New Zealand there are pockets of fans absolutely devoted to their American sport of choice; NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB all have significant followings here, and all are served well by their digital versions. It would be fair to say Lacrosse (or LAX, for short) doesn’t have a foothold here – more of a toe hold with a small community. For most Kiwis, it’s an oddity of a sport you might play a few times in high school and never touch again.
It’s not one of the huge US sports either, but it doesn’t do bad for itself - there are professional leagues, college LAX is broadcast on ESPN, and so on. There have been a few attempts at a game but none have had huge mainstream success, and the big game studios won’t touch it.
This is an aspect New Zealanders should actually be able to identify with. Rugby and league are niche sports in the international sense, and those games don’t sell very well (side note: Lacrosse 16 developers Big Ant Studios are familiar with this situation - they made Rugby League Live 3). So it’s down to local and indie studios to try and faithfully recreate the sport they love - which is exactly what has happened with CPL16.
This game was actually funded out of an Indiegogo campaign, and it’s great to see console and PC gamers being served by crowdfunding. It is a very solid game, considering the barriers it faced - a small indie title relying on the power of the people to be made doesn’t often translate into as solid a title as this, even if there are issues to be ironed out.
From the start, it’s clear this game has been made by devout lacrosse fans. Its depth is visible on the loading screens, which set out the multitudes of different button combinations that must be used for specific tackles, shots, and evasive maneuvers. It has a very deep career mode that puts both Madden and NBA 2K’s recent offerings to shame - although it also has no licencing, so you’re playing with fictional people (until the community makes those real teams, in which case it’s very easy to download and replace your roster).
It is absolutely awesome to see fans of a sport making an in-depth game about their love. But that depth makes the game incredibly inaccessible to new audiences. As one example, to tackle, you have a half dozen different options all involving a combination of the right thumbstick, left bumper and a button - as well as using the left thumbstick to direct your guy. The same system is used for different types of shots and evasive moves.
A partial reason for the success of those NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL games (and let’s include FIFA here) is their ability to reduce complex physical movements to single buttons. All of those games have an ability to use complex controls - for instance, how you move the right thumbstick in the NBA 2K series influences the kind of shot you make, or you can use different button combinations in Madden to make different passes as the quarterback and different receptions) but they also have a simplified one-button method; this is not the case in CPL16. The complex controls probably contribute to a great experience for LAX players, but make it very difficult for Joe Blow to pick up and play.
It is absolutely awesome to see fans of a sport making an in-depth game about their love.
A lack of training mode makes for an even higher barrier to entry, as the only way to learn the rules and controls is by playing actual games. This becomes an exercise in futility when you’re being penalised every play for being offside, which makes you have to spend 30 seconds in LAX’s equivalent of a sin bin, and aren’t sure why. (Googling helped me learn you can only have a certain number of players in each half of the field, and the AI doesn’t look at you across the line and hold someone back, they just do their thing.)
It also serves to make playing defense a frustrating and futile experience. You’re given tooltips on a range of different checks (the LAX version of tackling) to perform, but they very rarely work and the vast majority of the time the ball is passed before your player is within cooee anyway.
Once you can understand the rules and play the game you’ll have a rewarding experience, as the gameplay itself is solid, though it’s let down somewhat by the physics and AI. The run speed for players feels like a normal person’s light jog, and when you sprint, they go just slightly faster, and players on defense, running backward, manage to keep up with you. Players never feel like they are actually colliding with each other or running on the grass they’re playing on.
The AI for your teammates is also not great. Often the ball will be rolling along the ground after being knocked out of a player’s control, bouncing off a goal post or similar, and they will just ignore it and stand there - allowing the opposition players to scoop it up and head off downfield. You can see an example of that toward the end of this clip.
The graphics and commentary are ok, but not great, and two areas I found bemusing were the fact the developers chose to have stadiums half empty, and that there are very very few African-American players.For the uninitiated, lacrosse is often seen in America as a sport of affluence, played primarily by white people.
One of the statements made on the Indiegogo campaign page is:
For the first time ever, people who have never played lacrosse can pick up a controller and play a full game of lacrosse. This will open the sport up to millions of people around the world who have never even heard about the game, who are too old to play, or are intimidated that "they don't know the rules."
Unfortunately, CPL16 doesn’t meet that goal. You’d be hard pressed to find a person who has never played lacrosse, who picks up a controller, understands how to play, and does well. It has a huge learning curve.
But, it is an aspirational game, and Australian Big Ant Studios should be proud of the game they’ve put out. If they and Crosse Studios can afford to make a second, third, fourth iteration, then this will serve as a solid first-up title to tweak, rather than if they had used a bare-bones approach and made new additions each year. This game just needs small tweaks to get to a casual-friendly state. I don’t think it’ll ever become a huge seller internationally, but it does need to serve more than just the LAX hardcore to remain financially viable, so a shift toward casual gamers would serve it well.
It’s tough to put a finger on CPL16. It’s not a good sports game, but it’s not a bad one either. It’s a promising title which may bud and flower extremely well in years to come - or it may flounder and a follow-up never be financed. Lacrosse lovers will enjoy it no matter what, but the majority of New Zealanders would be better served giving it a miss until they’ve checked out the sport and understand the rules.