Welcome to Handball 21 – a game with “janky, inconsistent mechanics, comical goalkeeping AI, lifeless presentation and shallow gameplay”. The Finger Guns Review.
Going into Handball 21, it’s fair to say I had next to no knowledge whatsoever of the sport itself, nor the game I was about to attempt to endure. Initially, there was some optimism that this may be a low-budget, niche but fairly well-crafted experience. My expectations were low, but the reality managed to somehow both surprise me and yet be completely expected. While the game is functional and runs solid enough, horrendously wooden animation, shallow mechanics and a general lack of flair make Handball 21 a hollow and uninteresting game to actually play.
As a newbie, a tutorial would have been quite appreciated to get me up to speed on the rules and Handball’s underlying mechanics. Sadly, there isn’t one. At all. Instead, there’s an option to view controls in the menu and an intrusive “help” box that covers much of the screen during matches. Not a particularly friendly start for newcomers like myself. But perhaps this game caters to a more hardcore crowd of fan, which may make this somewhat forgivable. Anyhow, using the loading menu tips to get a rundown, I jumped into one of the game’s modes.
Immediately, you’ll notice that Handball 21’s presentation is, well, soulless. The menu is uninspired and largely ripped as a copy of many of EA’s popular sports franchise versions. As a match starts, the same bland introduction cutscene will play, with players ambling around and a cardboard cut-out crowd feigning some shallow level of ambience. What struck me most however, was the complete lack of any commentary at any point. As any football fan can attest to in the last year, a sports game without a crowd is rightly less exciting. Now imagine those same matches without a voice or two to actually provide some sense of context or excitement. I wouldn’t have expected some excellent commentary voice actors, but even some basic commentary would have been appreciated to aid the immersion.
On the gameplay side of things, the mechanics function and exist, but are inconsistent and difficult to fully grasp. Handball as a sport is largely based upon attack vs defence, with an emphasis on quick play to shift a modicum of space in a stalwart defensive line. There’s a real power and sense of tactical prowess involved that actually makes it engaging to watch. Unfortunately, Handball 21’s mechanics capture none of that same magic.
As an attacker, you’ll have various options to pass, feint, shoot and sprint. Generally, the basic pass will do you fine, while bounce passes and feints are largely unnecessary and difficult to execute in a meaningful way. I found the best tactic usually involved sprinting up to the opposition’s 9 meter area, sprinting from left to right and using a jump shot into the corner as a far more effective option than trying anything tactical or thoughtful. Instead of being excited to try a new set play or draw out space in the opponents, simply bumbling up to them and pressing two buttons worked 9 times out of 10. It became rather superficial and clearly exposed the shallow mechanics underlying the game.
Conversely, defending is clunky and awkward. Using the left analog stick to “guide” your defensive line, your players will awkwardly crab walk in poor unison across your defensive area. This element takes away much of the autonomy of actually doing any defending and quite honestly just fails to actually work. The AI will easily wander into a gap you can’t directly control and you’ll be left at the mercy of your dumbfounded players. You have options to intercept, push, block and charge, but these systems are so fiddly and inconsistent it was more effective to just try and move my block-head players in front of the attacker and hope for the best. Intercepting rarely worked, blocking would be a roulette of a defender 6 metres away jumping while the close defender effectively guided the attacker through, and the pushing mechanic makes less sense than I can even adequately explain.
Now for the best part – the goalkeepers. My word. The goalkeeping in Handball 21 is next level hilarious, if it weren’t so clear how atrocious the AI truly is. Most goals scored come down more to the ineptitude of these blundering idiots than actual skill. Send a shot left, they’ll jump right. Throw a ball high, they’ll duck. On occasions shots were missing, the ball would hit the keeper who had inexplicably dived into it and ricochet in.
The fact the game does a dramatic slow motion camera angle for some shots made it all the more comedic to see my keeper half-skipping away and over the ball (presumably to a job they can fulfill much better than this one). If there’s one thing about Handball 21 I enjoyed, it would be the collection of hilarious goalkeeping mishaps that had me laughing and gasping in despair all at once. It was art, truly.
So the game doesn’t play particularly well and nor does it particularly look great either. Animations are stiffer than a wooden block, facial expressions are deadpan to the extreme and the in-match cutscenes (i.e after scoring a goal) are just bland. Again, I wasn’t expecting much in the graphics department, but watching a player throw a ball to his right without his arm actually moving was a new experience in my life I don’t particularly wish to ever witness again. The pushing animation provides another highlight. Once a player enters the 9m line, an enticing game of janky animation begins. The attacker will stop for a second in a recoil animation, then another, then another, until outside the area again. Imagine being stun-locked on a 3rd person action game, where the animation continually stops and resets itself and you can visualise the scene of it.
Okay, okay, I’ve beaten the game pretty hard up to this point, I know. One aspect that Handball 21 can be commended on is the authentic delivery of the players, kits and teams on display. A lot of work and effort was clearly placed into getting likenesses as close as possible within the graphical limitations. Having fully licenced kits and teams from across Europe’s top leagues will definitely aid those hardcore fans of the sport to be more immersed also, fulfilling the fantasy of carving out your own history with your favourite team or players. It didn’t mean a whole lot to me, but it’s absolutely appreciated and does provide an authentic feel.
There’s also a healthy smattering of modes on offer. Quick match, offline leagues and solo mode are all present. Solo mode being a version of Ultimate Team complete with squad building and card packs that are unlocked via in-game currency earned from playing. There are some brief options with tactics, budget and training gimmicks that you can invest currency in to boost your player’s performance. Again though, it’s unfortunately shallow and does little to change the actual match-to-match gameplay. Online mode is available too should you wish to suffer the jank and clunk with another poor soul. The level of content offered is decent and if you can find some semblance of enjoyment from its mechanics you’ll at least have plenty to do and play.
In short, Handball 21 is a poor imitation of the real-life counterpart it tries to emulate. With janky, inconsistent mechanics, comical goalkeeping AI, lifeless presentation and shallow gameplay, there’s little to recommend to anyone other than the most hardcore of handball fans. The greatest compliment I can give it is that while the game itself made me question my existence, I did at least watch a couple of actual matches of handball, which were far more enthralling than the virtual version. Stick with the real-life sport on this one.
Handball 21 is available now on PlayStation 4 (review version), Xbox One and PC.
Developer: EKO Software
Disclaimer: In order to complete this preview, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.