Minggu, 10 Agustus 2008

Beijing 2008 Review

As the athletes assemble for tonight's opening ceremonies, you may find yourself regretting that your parents loved you too much to foist you on some manic Russian gymnastics coach, or that they couldn't afford to build a heated Olympic-size pool in the backyard, or that they bought the cheap dinner plates that broke the first time you hurled them across the lawn. And as you ruminate about how your Olympic glories were so unjustly denied, you may find yourself looking to soothe the hurt of those broken dreams by watching real, world-class athletes do what they do best in Beijing. Or you may decide to compete yourself in Sega's latest Olympics game, Beijing 2008.
Don't even bother. Sure, Sega's Olympic cash-in is definitely full of all of your favorite events and it has a reasonably authentic visual style, but the gameplay is shallow and repetitive and the basic setup of the competition is clumsy and unsatisfying.

But let's start with the good points first. Whether you're a fan of the 100m hurdles, the uneven bars, or platform diving, you're bound to find something you like among the game's nearly 40 events. Even slightly more offbeat events, such as kayaking, archery and judo, find a place here. If you've got a favorite track and field or gymnastics event, it's probably in the game somewhere.
The overall presentation of events is equally solid. The judges and the overall setup and the apparatus are all set up in a very convincing manner and, gratuitous replays aside, really help to draw you into the experience. The wide range of locations, from the track to the kayak slalom to the judo mat, all feel convincingly real. Though the crowds can be a bit monotonous, you really get a sense of the enormous scale of the competition. In fact, all that separates this from the real broadcast of the Olympics are those annoying movies that show how each of the athletes overcame some profound personal tragedy to compete in the Olympics.

The actual quality of the graphics is also quite good. The athletes all look very real but there is some unfortunate repetition of character models here and there. We were quite amused to imagine the US shot put champion taking the medal stand only to look over and see his identical twin brother from Poland came in second. Boy, we bet there's a heck of a heartwarming tale of how they overcame adversity to compete together. The animations are very lively and add a lot of interest to the game. You really will be fooled at times that you're watching the real deal here.

Unfortunately, the actual mechanics of most of the events are, at best, a prescription for repetitive stress injuries and, in a few rare cases, nearly uncontrollable. When will developers finally find something to replace the aging Track & Field format? Don't get us wrong; we love the old Konami game just as much as anyone, but the concept of rapidly smashing two buttons to simulate running is, at 25 years, well past its prime. You can also toggle the analog stick on your gamepad to get your speed or power up, but try slamming it back and forth for a full three-and-a-half minutes for cycling or the 1500m track events and see if you ever feel like playing again.
And it appears that you have to use a gamepad with this one. We got our first indication when we opened the manual and saw it filled with discussions of left triggers, right thumbsticks, bumpers and A and B buttons, but our fears were fully confirmed when we went into the game's keyboard configuration options and discovered that there's no option for the gamepad's triggers or bumpers. We suppose we could try to play without these buttons but since they control key actions like launching off the line in a race, jumping, throwing, shooting, diving, lifting, dismounting, and balancing. It didn't seem like we would get very far. Nevermind the events like kayaking or archery that require two analog sticks.

Some of the controls for certain events actually work well, and in most cases it's because the controls are really close to the real world action you're simulating. Using the analog sticks to balance on the rings, or to draw and aim a bow, or to do any of the shooting games, is perfectly natural. Rotating each of the sticks in opposite directions for swimming or weight lifting, or using them to track moving targets in diving, is a little more abstract but it can still work if you're willing to just accept it.

The absolute worst events are kayaking and judo. The kayak is as nimble as a tank and is steered with just as much finesse. Having to negotiate a slalom course using the two analog sticks to control your paddles is nearly impossible. But at least with kayaking the controls have an obvious use. In judo, the game pretty much tells you, and this is not a joke, to try different button combinations and see what works. What's even more ridiculous is that the game also advises players on the defensive to use the same button combo of the move that the opponent it using. We honestly can't believe a description like this made it into the manual and the tutorial. These are supposed to be world-class competitors at the top of their game, right? It's appalling that we're being asked to experiment just to discover the basic functionality of an event.

Nevermind all the other problems--how watching the meters and bars keeps you from appreciating the athlete's motion, or the considerable amount of luck involved in starting off the line in a race, or the randomness of the scheme that results in us getting five fouls and one world record all during the same event. The bottom line is that the control scheme for many of the events frustrates your ability to enjoy the few things that the game gets right.

There are two basic formats for the competition here, the à la carte Competition mode where you and your friends can compete in whatever events you like and the more serious, progressive Olympic mode that includes trials and daily challenges. The competition mode is definitely more attractive because you can just jump right to the events you care about, but it doesn't have a big payoff in the form of a big ceremony. For that you'll need to start your own Olympic game.

In this mode, you'll have to qualify for different events day by day, and if you fail at enough of them, you'll have to reload and start all over. This isn't much of a problem if you get a day full of easy events like table tennis or pistol shooting, but if you find yourself stuck with hurdles and pole-vaulting, you may be fighting again and again just to progress to the next stage. The control scheme has an accomplice here and it's the bizarre role-playing system that lets you upgrade your athletes. Nevermind the fact that these athletes come to the Olympics because they're already the best in the world, but who thought it would be a good idea to have the player's team of athletes start out behind the curve? You spend the first part of the Olympic mode playing catch-up, hoping like crazy that the game doesn't load you with a day's worth of terrible events.

And after all, isn't that what the Olympics are really about?

Closing Comments

They scored big here with the authentic presentation and the great selection of events but then they married it to a series of mini-games with such poorly designed controls that favor luck and calloused fingers over skill and insight. Video games based on the Olympics always seem to rely more on the visibility of the actual games than about delivering inventive gameplay and Beijing 2008 is sadly no exception.

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