Handball 21’s immersion-breaking animations, frustrating glitches and awkward gameplay mean the niche sport’s simulation scuffs its shot.
Handball 21 brings a simulation of the niche sport to fans for the first time in four years. Developed by EKO Software, responsible for a passable rugby game earlier this year, Handball 21 is a dedicated simulation in the same vein as FIFA, complete with licensed leagues and career modes that hope to rectify some of the criticism received by the last game, Handball 17. Unfortunately, flat gameplay, stuttering animations, and some immersion-breaking glitches mean this game is once again more amateur league than pro circuit.
Outside of France, Germany, and Scandinavia, handball is a niche sport slowly gaining popularity, particularly during the Summer Olympic Games where the sport is often one of the standout tournaments. Unfortunately, Handball 21 doesn’t do much to help separate it from other sports games in a meaningful way. Generic instrumental music plays through the menus, character models look plastic and lifeless, and throwing animations seem wooden and robotic. The defense is controlled by moving a stick back and forth which feels overly sensitive and hard to control. Clunky animations occasionally affect gameplay as well, particularly the “push” mechanic.
Passing the ball to the pivot, a player who typically stands in front of the goal in the midst of the defenders, usually results in a series of stumbling animations rather than the more realistic jockeying seen in the sport. The animation takes a little over a second to complete each time, and often three or four are chained together. The result is a slow, awkward stretch of time where everyone watches a player take a few steps back, and in doing so, nullifies the effectiveness of an entire position.
Another position that can feel useless is the goalkeeper. Handball is a high-scoring game, and saves are difficult to make, but occasionally the goalkeeper animations are less effective than if the keeper stood still. When the opponent is taking a shot, a brief window allows the player to move the right stick to get the keeper in position. This sometimes results in a “save” that sees the goalie move his foot away from the ball, or duck under a shot like he was playing dodgeball. Sometimes these failures are made more comedic by the slo-mo camera that’s sometimes applied to goalbound shots. There were also instances of shots flinging the goalkeeper into or through the net, even if the goalie caught the ball. This at least has a chance of being addressed, as an effective patch for FIFA 21 showed.
Shooting, at least, is satisfying, and although jump shots are over-powered, this is reflective of the real-life sport where jump shots are a common way to get past the defense. The game features a mode similar to FIFA‘s Ultimate Team, with the ability to design jerseys and logos, a feature not even available on EA’s behemoth soccer sim – though strangely, a name can only be chosen from a short list of presets. Packs of players, challenges, and boosts can be bought with coins earned through playing matches, in a system that won’t contribute to the huge gambling controversy games with loot boxes often invite. Other modes include a quick match, multiplayer, and league campaign, which is all pretty standard stuff.
Handball is a difficult sport to make into a video game, with its physicality and defensive lines tricky to convey onto a controller and into a game engine. For Handball 21, the resulting game is a mess of questionable controls, awkward animations, and glaringly bad goalkeeping. It took four years for Handball 21 to continue the franchise, and it might be the last: based on this latest outing, only hardcore handball fans would miss it.
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Handball 21 releases on November 12th for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Screen Rant was given a PS4 code for the purposes of this review.
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