People like to tease the sport of curling, and it’s such an abstract little game that the response to it is understandable. It’s like lawn bowls, on ice, where two of the athletes use brooms to “sweep” the ice for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent. Of course, once you sit down and watch a game of curling, the depth of tactics, the precision of the players, and the impact of those sweepers on who wins and loses starts to become clear, and curling turns out to be a fascinating sport. But to get to that point you need to sit down and pay attention for a few hours, and in 2021, who’s got time to do that?
Because curling is such an incredibly niche sport, there’s no way you’re ever going to see a curling game approach the quality of an EA or 2K title. On the one hand, that’s actually a good thing because it means that Curling (the rather blandly-titled Switch game) is free of all the microtransactions and cynical, near-desperate marketing nonsense that plagues the big sports games. With Curling, assuming you’re a fan of the sport of curling, you can sit down and just enjoy the sport, without having to open packs of virtual cards or wade through 70 pages of deals and adds just to get into a game. On the other hand, we’ve seen niche sports games do a much better job in terms of presentation and structure than Curling.
I will say up front that the Curling does, in fact, play a decent game of curling. I’ve played the real sport once (I was not good), and watch it on TV often enough. Once you understand how the Switch game works, the physics are not bad and the flow of the game works as you would expect from curling. Given that there are a number of sports games out there that fail to even superficially resemble the real-world game, this is in itself an achievement, particularly when you consider that the sweeping element of the game is both critically important, and incredibly subtle. The developers needed to make sure that the effect of the sweeping was clear enough without it unbalancing all the other elements that go into curling.
The developers, who are no doubt a true micro-development team, made the right decision in making sure that the basic game was the focus, but that’s not to say the rest of it is exactly forgivable. For one thing, Curling does a truly dismal job of onboarding new players. Not only are the controls rather esoteric and the aiming/power system twitchy enough that it needed a proper tutorial, but there’s no effort to explain the game of curling itself to new players. Football, tennis, ice hockey or baseball games can get away with an assumed level of familiarity with the sport because just about everyone knows how the sport works. Curling absolutely needed some explainers and yet it offers none.
Then there’s the issue that there’s just nothing to the game. You pick whether you want to play against the AI or local multiplayer (no online), then you choose the number of ends that you want to play (from a “short” play of four sets through to a full 10 set simulation)), and then you pick the type of stone you want to use (each has “weight”, “strength” and “time” statistics, though what those mean are never explained) and… that’s it. That is all Curling offers. This is going to sound like nit-picking, but it just goes to show how limited the game is – there isn’t even an in-game menu option. The only thing you can do once in a game is quit out of it. Just think about the last time you’ve ever played a game where there isn’t even a settings or pause menu. More seriously, while I wasn’t expecting a fully licensed story mode, I really did expect some kind of competition mode, at least, to give some sense of continuity between matches, and a couple of different arenas to play at. Even the worst sports games offer that much, and while Curling plays like a better game than many of its rivals in the Z-tier, it certainly doesn’t behave like it.
It should probably go without saying, but Curling isn’t very pretty. The character models are aggressively functional and the art is all low-resolution. These things don’t necessarily bother me, but there is one graphical decision that can absolutely kill a game. There are six different stones to choose between, and each of those are coloured differently. However, if you and your opponent both happen to choose the same stone, then you’ll both be playing with the same colours on the ice, and if you know anything about curling then you’ll know that that makes it almost impossible to figure out who’s actually winning if there aren’t colours to differentiate each team’s set of stones.
I do feel bad for having all these criticisms of Curling. The sense I get from it is that the developer genuinely wanted to give players a decent simulation of the sport, and focused all their efforts and limited resources on the on-ice action. They actually delivered something that’s genuinely enjoyable and accurate to the sport. Unfortunately, there’s the complete lack of anything supporting the on-ice action has left this feeling more like a tech demo than a completed game. But who knows? Perhaps this will actually sell enough that a Curling 2 can deliver a more rounded product.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb