Thursday, September 24, 2009

Winter Sports 2009 Review

Winter Sports 2009, developed by RTL and published by Meridian4.
The Good: Ten events with several variations, several game modes
The Not So Good: Repetitive limited control schemes, questionable physics in all events, lacks online play
What say you? The monotonous roster of events limits this arcade Olympic title: 5/8

Nothing says the end of summer like...Winter Sports 2009?! Yeah, so I might be just a little bit out of season doing this review, but I have no control over when stuff magically appears on Gamer’s Gate (or do I?). The 2009 version of Winter Sports is the sequel to the Winter Sports 2008 that came out near the tail end of 2007 (confused yet?)
I’m sure that everyone is high on Winter Olympics fever (the only prescription is more cowbell), considering the last Games were played…in…(looks at Wikipedia)…2006. But, hey, the next ones are a scant five months away: let the hype machine begin!

Winter Sports 2009 has an inconsistent mix of graphics. The venues can be nicely detailed, but since there is only one per event, the visuals tend to get repetitive. Character animations range from fluid to robotic: the snowboarding effects are clearly the worst of the bunch with jarring jumping between motions. The effects are most noticeable with drops of water during the bobsled/luge/skeleton events: it looks nice so the developers felt it was necessary to over use them. Winter Sports 2009 doesn’t look terrible, but there are frequent moments of inconsistency that lowers the overall quality. The sound is worse off, with a repetitive collection of commentary and effects. I wouldn’t say that Winter Sports 2009 has a budget presentation, per se, but it’s not much better than that standard.

In Winter Sports 2009, you, yes, you, get to take place in Generic Event Featuring People From Different Countries That Is Totally Not The Olympics. The career mode consists of fifteen cups of assorted but pre-determined events. Now, you could argue the unrealism associated with being adept at all Olympic disciplines, but we’ll let that slide for now. Doing well earns experience points that you can assign to any discipline, although I have not see any noticeable difference in game performance by maxing out my figure skating skills. The campaign offers up specific objectives to attain during an event; it is the most original aspect of the game, as they usually aren’t limited to simply finishing well. The competition mode offers up a series of five, nine, sixteen, or a custom list of events; the specific events in the non-custom options seem to always be the same. And you can always enter a single event if you are pressed for time (especially since progress is not saved between events in a competition). You can also choose the difficulty level (which ranges from “pushover” to “requires perfection”) and venue, which has no noticeable effect on gameplay. Finally, you can play nice with others, but only on the same computer as Winter Sports 2009 lacks online competition of any kind. Overall, I was pleased with the features of Winter Sports 2009: there is a good selection of ways to compete and the campaign offers up a nice deviation, though the game could use more unpredictability in event order and online play is a must.

Now, the events. What initially seems like a nice assortment of ten distinct events devolves into one of two actions: timing or driving (or both at the same time). Snowboarding has you steering your character and pressing spacebar when you reach the edge of the half-pipe. Then, you enter a quick time event where you must press specific keys in order to complete tricks. Pressing the keyboard arrow keys in a circular pattern is essentially impossible, so I hope you brought an analog gamepad. This is disappointingly limited, as you can’t choose your own tricks (like in Tony Hawk Pro Skater) and thus removes any strategy whatsoever. The speed skating event is purely button pressing: you must time your pressed with on-screen cues that make absolutely no sense: am I supposed to press when the blue arrow is full or what? I am still confused by speed skating. Figure skating is the same as playing Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band: press the right key at the right time and land that triple axel. More innovation or user input, like choosing your own tricks (either in real-time or beforehand) would make figure skating more interesting.

Alpine skiing and all of the sledding events (bobsleigh, luge, skeleton) are identical: shut up and drive. You start by mashing a key or timing it to maximum power, and then navigate your way down the mountain or track. The sledding events place an optimal path to follow, and doing so maximizes your speed, while the skiing events just place the flags you must navigate between. There are downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, and Slalom events to choose from, but they are all the same other than the length (I guess that goes for real life as well). Ski jumping involves balancing (steering) yourself as you hurtle down the ramp and jumping at the right time: it’s pretty difficult to get the timing down exactly as they want you to.

The two events that are the most unique are biathlon and curling. Biathlon is a lot like speed skating, in that you must alternate between button presses in order to move, but at least there are shooting elements that use the mouse to break up the monotony. Curling involves aiming and choosing a power level, usefully illustrated with a picture of the rink (or whatever it’s called) so you know pretty well how far it’s going to go. Once it’s gone, you can sweep, but I have yet to figure out the purpose of sweeping, as you seem to have to do it constantly in order to make it reach the target. This is the most strategically deep game in Winter Sports 2009 as it doesn’t rely on pressing lots of buttons. Of course, it’s no better than dedicated curling games, and with the rest of the respective events contained in Winter Sports 2009, there’s no real reason to get this. If the events were more along the lines of biathlon and curling with unique mechanics, than I could justify paying for the game, but as it stands, this is clearly not the case.

Winter Sports 2009 is a mixed bag, and unfortunately for Olympics fans, the mix is generally on the negative side. The game does have some nice game modes: a career spanning fifteen cups, a campaign with specific challenges, and competitions of multiple linked events. The experience points earned in the career mode don’t offer any discernable performance boost, and the competitions don’t seem to be randomized, so replay value is sadly low. The game also lacks online multiplayer, although you can play on the same PC against your friends. The real problems with Winter Sports 2009 surface when you play an event more than once: it’s all quite repetitive. Almost all of the events have one of two control schemes: pressing specific buttons at the right time (snowboard, speed skating, figure skating) or driving (alpine skiing, ski jumping, bobsled, luge, skeleton). Variety comes in the form of biathlon and curling, but only two events to break up the monotony of pressing buttons and driving down the same track isn’t much in the form of variety. Some of the events don’t even make sense as feedback is limited (speed skating specifically), and the physics are generally horrible (snowboard specifically). Winter Sports 2009 doesn’t have a single event that isn’t done better somewhere else. Once is enough for almost all events, as the mechanics repeat themselves ad nauseum. Thus, only people who really have a hankering for winter competition will want to check out this title.