Review: Offbeat Sports Games Provide Variety

Sports games may be perennial best-sellers — and cash cows for their publishers, especially EA Sports — but even their most die-hard fans will acknowledge that they're kind of predictable.

Those of us who buy "Madden NFL" or "Tiger Woods PGA Tour" year after year pretty much know what we're getting.

Each year's edition may add some features — updated rosters, new courses, perhaps a fresh way to play — but we're happy to buy essentially the same game over and over.

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Sometimes, though, fatigue sets in for even the most dedicated Maddenphile. Despite the pleasures of the ultrarealistic sim, sometimes we want something a little flashier, a little easier or a little less hardcore. Or just something different.

— "All-Pro Football 2K8" (2K Sports, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): Since EA acquired exclusive rights to NFL players in 2005, 2K's well-regarded pigskin franchise has been warming the bench.

With "All-Pro Football," 2K has done an end run around EA by signing up retired (or dead) players. So instead of playing with, say, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, you can field a team that features Johnny Unitas and Jerry Rice.

There are dozens of hall-of-famers to choose from, but you're limited to just two "gold star" talents and 11 picks overall; the rest of your squad is filled with no-names.

After you've named your team (my Norfolk Scorpions are now running roughshod over the league), get ready for a robust, fast-paced game. The football engine is smooth, with a running game that surpasses "Madden."

But 2K fans will be disappointed with this game's thin set of features: There's no option to run a franchise over several years, and it doesn't have any of the amusing minigames we've come to expect.

Still, if you've ever wanted to see Dick Butkus tackle Troy Aikman, "All-Pro Football" was made for you.

There is a minor controversy swirling around this game. Its roster includes O.J. Simpson; one of the teams, the Assassins, has a knife-wielding mascot.

After some wise guy at the GameTrailers Web site combined them in a video, some news outlets accused 2K of insensitivity.

But while either element may be in dubious taste, 2K didn't create the video in question — and you won't run into O.J. or the assassin unless you choose to.

Three stars out of four.

— "The Bigs" (2K Sports, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; Wii, $49.99; PlayStation 2, $39.99): Apparently, kids today don't have much patience for the national pastime. Even nine innings is too much of a commitment; why can't we wrap it up in five?

The five-inning rule is the most radical change in "The Bigs," a companion to the more realistic "MLB 2K7."

Otherwise, it delivers flaming fastballs, diving catches and exploding scoreboards galore. Batting and pitching are easy to pick up, but fielding is sluggish and base running is atrocious.

While "The Bigs" is built for multiplayer, it's disappointing that the solo game doesn't let you play through a full season or try to build a franchise over several years.

There is an entertaining "rookie challenge," in which you create a player and then tackle specific challenges, but the missions can get repetitious.

Overall, "The Bigs" is best appreciated in short blasts.

Two stars.

— "Hot Shots Tennis" (Sony, for the PlayStation 2, $29.99): Like the speedy, playful "Hot Shots Golf" series, "Hot Shots Tennis" is meant to appeal to gamers who don't have time for more demanding sims.

The presentation is the same, with cute, big-headed anime characters frolicking all over the courts. Sadly, though, the magic isn't there this time.

The tennis itself isn't bad: It's easy to pick up and play, and before you know it you'll be launching wicked crosscourt shots.

But "Tennis" is missing the extras that made the golf series so addictive. You can't buy your characters better equipment or improve their skills, and the menu of game options is limited.

It's fun to play with friends, but makes for an unsatisfying solo challenge.

Two stars.