Handball! Thousands of football fans optimistically shout that during matches every weekend, but did you know handball is also an increasingly growing sport? Well it is, and the folks behind Rugby 20 – NACON and EKO Software – have teamed up once more to bring the official Handball series back to Xbox for the first time in four years. Can Handball 21 succeed where previous offerings faltered, or should they just blow the whistle on trying to recreate this sport in the gaming realm?
Well, if the other instalments in the Handball series didn’t do anything for you, Handball 21 probably isn’t going to either. It’s a bang average sports game at best, with gameplay that needs bringing into the modern era. In fact, Handball 21 is only saved from pure disappointment by the official licenses acquired and just one decent mode.
For the uninitiated, I’ll start off with how matches work in Handball 21, because if I don’t explain it, the game definitely won’t. Two teams of seven players (including Goalkeepers) go head-to-head on a court in a match of two 30-minute halves. The idea is to throw the ball into the opposition goal and whichever team has the most points at the final whistle, is declared the winner. Straightforward enough, however the same can’t be said when actually taking control of a team.
There’s a terribly lacklustre list of controls in the menus and no mention of rules, effectively alienating potential newcomers to the sport. The small mercy is the option to overlay the button layout during matches, so you can attempt to learn on-the-fly. Once you begin to play, you almost instantly realise the one-dimensional experience it provides. Much like basketball, it’s end-to-end with the opportunity for goals galore, which is exciting, right? Wrong, simply because it’s all so regimented in Handball and it doesn’t translate well here at all.
There are two phases of play: attack and defence. In defence, the six outfield players will rush to form a crescent-shaped wall around the goal area. Oddly, you manoeuvre the entire wall from side to side and hope to intercept or block shots and passes. When attacking, your guys get into their respective positions outside of the wall, while the player in the pivot role floats in between the defenders. Granted, EKO Software cannot do anything about the fundamentals obviously, but the way it’s been implemented isn’t very enjoyable.
The problem is that if you get anywhere near the goal area, the opposition shove you away and that effectively renders the pivot useless. You just end up shooting wildly to avoid the boredom of throwing the ball around teammates again and again to no avail, with both teams being pretty stiff in the movement department. Defensively, the whole wall shifting about isn’t too bad; it’s the lame efforts to intercept which are frustrating. When there’s a rare block causing a loose ball, the players are ridiculously unresponsive in reacting to it.
The worst part of it all though is how utterly terrible the keepers are, even when you take control and choose the correct direction, They basically do anything to not save the goal attempt, including leapfrogging over it and allowing the ball to slowly roll over the line. Handball matches can be pretty high scoring as it is without the equivalent of an arm-waving inflatable in the nets.
To give a little bit of credit where it’s due, I appreciate the fact the developers have ensured a multitude of shot types are present. There’s the normal shot and jump shots, but the bounce and spin style variations have been incorporated to offer a decent selection. But, that’s me clutching at straws somewhat as the gameplay overall just doesn’t feel or look good enough for today’s standards. The animations aren’t great and visually it’s so far behind, you really wouldn’t know it’s a newly released sports sim.
Moving onto the game modes and the Quick Match simply allows a one-off encounter, which is the case with the Online Match offering too. Well, it would be a single match versus an online opponent if you can ever find someone else searching for a bit of competition. After numerous tries at peak and off-peak times, I’m yet to locate a soul.
An alternative option is to play League mode, but that’s restrictive in the way there’s only one season to proceedings and you can’t make transfers or anything like that. You do at least get to choose from 10 different European leagues, with the top two tiers of Denmark, France, Germany, Poland, and Spain available here. It benefits massively by possessing a whopping 2,299 actual, real-world players, which is music to fans as they can use their team’s favourite player. And the official licensing also helps elevate the next mode on the list to be the pinnacle of the game.
Hands down, and despite the uninspiring name, the Solo mode is the best feature Handball 21 brings to the court. It’s the place to use your My Squad, which is similar to EA’s famed Ultimate Team, where the idea is to build a fantasy team from scratch. Everything you do in-game will earn currency to spend on opening packs and there’s a fantastic range of pack types to purchase – without a solitary micro-transaction in sight.
What the Solo mode does is enable you to put your dream team to the test through multiple seasons, across different league systems. Through winning, you’ll earn another currency to use on staff, scouted players and stamina recovery; all of which when combined with the pack opening ensures your squad evolves into a team of all-stars, eventually. There’s something to work towards and that provides a much-needed longevity for anyone who likes the gameplay.
Sadly, there’s not much fun to be had in Handball 21 on Xbox due to the aforementioned gameplay, which ends up either frustrating or causing boredom. When you’re happier simulating matches to get through a season, you know it’s not good enough. And that is a shame because the Solo mode would’ve been highly recommended if the matches were bearable. Could the enjoyment levels be higher for a hardcore handball supporter? Maybe a tad, but even if the gameplay isn’t a chore for you, there’s still not enough content in the whole ensemble of modes.
Just put down the ball and walk away from Handball 21; unless you’re super curious, then possibly grab it at a sale price.