Summer Athletics Review
The Beijing Olympics are over now but as always, watching them was an amazing way for couch potatoes everywhere to vicariously experience the thrill of being a world-class athlete. I mean, it's the only way it'll ever happen, right, since the most exercise us video game fans get is running across the Barrens in World of Warcraft? Now we have four more years to wait until the next Olympics—four more years before continuing our couch-side pursuit of gold medal glory! In the meantime, Data Design Interactive, the developer responsible for that awful Ninja Bread Man game, does its best to keep the dream alive.
Summer Athletics isn't as beautiful or expansive as “Beijing 2008”, the official game of this summer's Olympics, but the cool thing about playing a track and field game on the Wii instead of on another platform is that you actually need to move to do it.
Twenty-six events spread among seven disciplines: swimming, jumping, diving, throwing, running, cycling and archery, offer a variety of gameplay and interesting control schemes. Run the 100 meter sprint by moving the nun-chuck and Wii-mote up and down as fast as you can; throw a javelin by holding the wii-mote on your shoulder like a spear; do the breast stroke by moving the Wii-mote/nunchuck in rhythmic, forward-sweeping circles. Success in events like diving and discus-throwing requires rhythm and timing while archery needs a steady hand. Some events can only be won by sheer stamina. Believe me, after waving two Wii controllers up and down at top speed for the duration of a 1500 meter race, I swore my arms were gonna drop off.
If you think your arms are up to it, the game offers three modes of gameplay. Single Event lets you brush up on individual disciplines; Competition lets you compete in a series of preset decathlon-style events and create new ones of your own; Career functions like the simplest of RPG's, letting you “level up” your athlete by spending points earned in competition on attributes like Speed, Technique, Power, Jump Power, and Stamina.
In addition to the various modes, there are four levels of difficulty to choose from: Easy, Medium, Difficult and Champion, and two styles of play: Pure and Arcade. Pure is the most realistic, where winning is dependent on skill and strength alone while Arcade brings a measure of strategy to the table in the form of “boosts” usable at any time during the competition. These boosts make you run faster, jump higher and throw harder, but they come in limited quantities.
In theory, the boost idea is a fun one but in reality, it doesn't work very well. When a boost is available, an icon appears, telling you to press the “A” button. That sounds simple enough but too often, pressing the A button doesn't seem to do anything. The boost is obvious in foot races but in events like the shot put, it's hard to know when to boost and hard to tell the boost is affecting your performance. Aside from playing like an even easier Easy mode, Arcade mode doesn't play much differently than Pure mode.
That said, a cakewalk Arcade mode could be the shortcut to setting some amazing athletic records which you can track as well as many (fairly goofy) Achievements. Things like, “making a false start” at the beginning of a race or “knocking over five hurdles”. I guess klutzy people need trophies too.
Single Event and Competition modes allow for local four-player multi-player and can be played simultaneously in split screen or sequentially in full screen. Both single and multi-player generate rankings and records based on a scoring system that is unclear but seems vaguely connected to how well you perform in individual events. Don't ask how it's connected—I can't tell you.
Other problems are the lack of on screen event tracking and the many inter-event loading screens. There's nothing in the UI that tracks how many events you've completed. That may seem like a small thing but if you're running out of steam during a twenty-six event competition, you might like to know how much longer your stamina needs to last. You might also like minimal load times but if so, you're out of luck because in between each event you're forced to endure static, boring loading screens.
Year to year, sports remain more or less the same so sports games often depend on innovation in graphics to keep players' interest. No one's expecting Xbox 360 graphics on the Wii and that's good because it ain't happenin'. The graphics in Summer Athletics are passable, but not much more. The characters are really plastic and stiff, sort of like Olympic Barbie and Ken. Character creation allows you to choose from eight preset male and eight preset female athletes or to create up to eight of your own. Customization options are purely cosmetic and include hair style and color, facial features, ethnicity, outfit and country of origin.
Like the graphics, the sound and animation are no more than adequate. The sound is minimal, consisting mainly of an echo-y announcer and a crowd that sounds more like a staticky radio than a crowd of cheering fans. The animation follows suit by being equally mediocre, and could have benefited from motion capture, especially in the running events. Looking at the back of your athlete through a four minute race would be easier if he didn't run like his shorts had given him heat rash.
Overall, Summer Athletics isn't a horrible game but it suffers the lack of creativity its ho-hum name implies. While the Wii controls make it relatively entertaining, it makes us beg for more: more events, more stats and customization and more sound, not to mention better graphics and animation. Fingers crossed that Data Design Interactive uses the next four years to improve on it rather than making a sequel to Ninja Bread Man.
The Good: Interesting control schemes; 4-player split-screen/sequential multi-player; getting to smack your brother in the face while doing the backstroke
The Bad: Limited selection of events; mediocre sound, animation and graphics