If there’s one complaint that I have as a primarily PC gamer, it’s that there aren’t many sports games on the PC. Sure, there’s FIFA and NBA 2K but there’s no Madden, no MLB (okay, it’s basically PlayStation exclusive but you know what I’m getting at) and no NHL. That last one’s really burning me because I willingly played those NHL game re-skins that EA was putting out for PC from NHL 07 to NHL 09. And, no, eSports doesn’t count because the vs. AI modes of MOBAs and CS:GO aren’t particularly fun and the AI kicks my ass repeatedly at SC2.
And that brings me to ClusterPuck 99. With sports games lacking on PC and licenses for pro sports costing an obscene amount of money, devs have to be creative with sports games. And that’s exactly what PHL Collective have done with ClusterPuck 99. They’ve taken the important parts of hockey and soccer and distilled it down to the essential experience. Then they went mental and added spikes and turbo pads and death. You know, the important part of sport.
ClusterPuck 99 is designed as a local multiplayer game with support for up to eight players with controllers and up to 16 in total with AI players. You can take your game on to twenty maps of varying degrees of difficulty and insanity with the objective of outscoring the competition in a timed game (of up to ten minutes) or an untimed game with a goal limit (first to up to 10 wins).
The controls are very simple. Move your puck with the left stick, aim with the right, charge a shot with the left bumper and shoot or check with the right bumper. The latter two controls are also on the B and A buttons while moving and aiming/shooting can be done with the keyboard and mouse, respectively. Personally, I think CP99 is best played with a controller but there’s nothing stopping you from trying with a mouse and keyboard.
The long and short of the game is that two teams (of players that look like circles) attempt to get a ball into the opposing team’s goal. What keeps the game mixed up is the variety of maps. There are about half-a-dozen “competitive” maps have two goals, walls and a variety different layouts to mix-up gameplay. For example, the “Boring” map that looks a bit like a rectangular hockey rink isn’t prone to high scoring games but the other layouts, like the U-shaped map, open up the game to more mistakes and more bounces that lead to more scoring.
If you want more scoring and more insanity, there are the “Classic” maps. I prefer to think of them as the arcade maps. There is a much greater variety in the layouts of the fields. There are varying shapes and walls creating obstacles in getting around that you can also use to your advantage. There are also turbo pads, bouncy bumpers and death spikes to either throw you around the map or kill you. Usually, they combine to kill you.
As much as I like playing the competitive maps, the Classic maps are so much fun to play. These maps force the mistakes that open up the scoring. While a bad bounce will lead to a goal on a competitive map, an ill-timed turbo pad or bounce off a bumper or a shove into some spikes can turn the tide of a match leading to high-scoring, back-and-forth matches. I love being able to play the AI in a two-minute match and watching the lead bounce back-and-forth before a 6-5 win or loss. It’s exciting and unpredictable which makes for loads of fun.
And despite the fact that the game is built around local multiplayer, the replayability is pretty good when just doing battle with the AI. With all of the maps, three difficulty levels, different win conditions and the ability to select the number of players on each side allows you to mix up the games enough that the game feels fresh even beyond the normal replayability of a sports game.
Beyond the standard single-game mode with a variety of maps, there is a challenge mode. There are ten challenges ranging from target practice to shootouts to first-to-three contests to obstacle courses. It gives you something to do outside of individual games and allows you to push yourself to improve your skills. That last part might just be me because I want to unlock the five new team colours that you can get by getting gold medals in the challenge mode.
What ClusterPuck 99 reminds me of is DiveKick. What DiveKick did was distil fighting games down to their core elements. It eliminated the combos which dropped the barriers to entry. It emphasized strategy and reaction times over memorizing combos. Basically, DiveKick took the fighting game genre and made it simple while still feeling like a proper fighting game.
The “competitive” maps feel very similar but it’s the layout of the fields make each game play out different from the others but there aren’t any spikes, turbo pads or death traps. That turns ClusterPuck 99 from something that could be very arcadey (not that that’s a bad thing) and hones a hockey/soccer style game down to its core elements. You can aim, shoot and check. There’s no ridiculous physics tricks, no impossible to remember stickhandling tricks on the analog stick, a new fighting engine or the like that you get in EA Sports’ FIFA or NHL games. CP99 is pure put the biscuit in the basket and it’s all the better for it.
Since I mentioned competitive maps, it almost seems as though this game was designed with eyes to an eSports future in mind. Given that it’s only local multiplayer, I don’t see it getting too massive. It would limit the game to LANs which would make things like leagues nearly impossible. Even with online, I don’t think it would reach that sort of top five eSport level but I’d imagine it would get some interest. It would be that game at conventions that would have a small but dedicated crowd interested in watching and playing. Not every game is going to be highlighted by The International but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a dedicated eSports crowd.
As for the graphics, it’s very clean and futuristic. The menus and competitive maps make me think of the Apple Store design motif from the rebooted Star Trek franchise. They’re simple and clean and bright but don’t feel plain. There are some menus which are an eye sore or hard to navigate. No such issues here. And I’ve already mentioned the map design so I don’t think you need to see that twice.
I didn’t notice too many glitches with the game. I couldn’t quite figure out the exact criteria for scoring. I think that a goal counts if any part of the ball crosses the line. If you’re in danger of scoring an own goal, the whole ball has to cross the line. If the ball gets pinned against the wall in a scrum of players, it has a tendency to randomly jump to someone on the outside of the scrum. That keeps the play moving so it’s not too bad but annoyingly random. And the AI isn’t particularly good at passing. On Hard difficulty, you get a bit of dump-and-chase play but nothing resembling passes. Apart from that, the AI is smart and challenging enough.
When you look at triple-A sports games, developers keep adding more and more to games but they never feel significantly better. When you look back at EA Sports’ NHL series, fans look fondly back on the 16-bit era. It didn’t have fancy graphics, intense controls, realistic-ish physics and a multitude of game modes. They had simple but solid gameplay that was accessible and fun. ClusterPuck 99 keeps in simple and succeeds as a result.
ClusterPuck 99 was played on Windows PC but is also available for Mac OS X and Linux. The review code for this game was provided by PHL Collective. Your impressions of the game may change depending on platform played on, PC specs and whether you need the latest in photo-realistic graphics and ragdoll physics to enjoy a sports game.