Winter Stars Review
Game: Winter Stars
Developer: 49 Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
Remember when the games arcades were filled with skiing simulators? Gamers would pop in their change to try and replicate the feeling of hurtling down a mountain at high speeds. But then sometimes the machine wouldn’t be working properly, and you would head down the course, bashing into the barriers the whole way down. Or, even worse than that, if you failed there would be crowds of people watching you make a fool of yourself.
Well now, with Kinect on Xbox 360, gamers can take part in a whole range of different sporting events, all from the comfort of their living room. You can act as stupidly as you like, go crazy, and no-one will know. A lot of different sporting games have hit Kinect since its launch, but there have been many more with poor execution than there have been successful ones. Can Winter Stars take a collection of events from the Winter Sports calendar, that certainly wouldn’t be listed among the most popular sports for gamers, and make them fun to play with motion control?
STORY: Strangely for a sports game, Winter Stars features a deep career mode, complete with a somewhat cheesy storyline behind it all. When I say somewhat cheesy, it must be said that the scripting, animation and voices all combine to make the story cutscenes hilarious; unintentionally. Before you even reach the main menu, you find yourself controlling a downhill skier, steaming down a slope. You aren’t given any tutorial at this stage, but it is quite fun to be chucked right into a game. You eventually crash, as is scripted in the story, and your character breaks his leg. The story from there revolves around the idea that you cannot perform any more due to your leg, and you put together a new team of competitors to take on all comers.
The story is managed via a progression tree, where cup competitions and individual challenges are mapped out in an ever-growing tree, that is unlocked further and further as you successfully complete previous events. Most of the eleven events that are available in the game won’t be playable until you have played to a certain stage in the career mode, where they will unlock. This makes for an interesting progression, and adds real motivation to playing through your season, but it is also a little frustrating that you can’t access any event from the get-go. The story itself isn’t motivational, and the writing sways from being boring and wooden, to the downright ridiculous. The story mode is a good idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
GRAPHICS: It must be said, initial impressions of the visuals aren’t great. Whilst the high-definition slopes and bob-sleighs are nice enough, the character models and animations could easily be taken from a game in the last console generation. Backgrounds and courses are realistic, with a lot of attention paid to banners and little architectural details, but the crowds of spectators everywhere let the whole thing down with their uninspired animations. Faces, eyes especially, look incredibly odd and unrealistic, however, strangely, lip-synching in the title has been matched up very well. That tends to sum up the graphics in the title overall, some of the main features haven’t really received the level of polish you would expect for a current-gen title, but certain aspects are still visually impressive.
SOUND: Audio in the game is also a little lacklustre, exemplified by the voice-overs found in the story mode. It seems fairly clear that the cast isn’t made up of seasoned professionals, and the delivery is very stilted, with poor timing. This does end up with you losing interest a little in the story scenes, as the monotonous voices don’t help the poor script. Sound effects are all handled well though, and everything sounds like you would expect from watching the sports on TV, such as the sound of blades cutting across ice, or the whoosh as someone launches off the ski jumping ramp, but then we are pulled back down to earth a little by the bombastic, over-the-top music, which whilst being very dramatic, is probably a little to in your face. I suppose it is the sort of music we have gotten used to hearing in SEGA arcade sports games, for example, and this game does definitely sit in the same sort of category as those, but you couldn’t say the compositions are particularly original or inspiring.
GAMEPLAY: Gameplay from event to event is complex and deep, meaning players really need to learn the different events, which is not a bad thing, but some of the events are really hampered again and again by less than reliable movement detection. There are eleven different events in the game, these being: bob-sleigh, paraskiing (a truly crazy event), biathlon (a mixture of cross-country skiing and shooting), figure skating, downhill skiing, snowboard cross, short track (speed skating), ski flying (more commonly known as ski jumping), freeride skiing, curling (like lawn bowls on ice) and snowmobile. A good selection of speed, precision and unusual events, but not all of them hit the mark.
Each event also has an adrenaline meter. Players build this up by successfully performing parts of the event, and it can then be deployed as a kind of boost, to speed you up or increase your score. This is always deployed with a thrust of your arms forward, but detection of this is a little hit and miss, sometimes registering, other times not at all, and sometimes the boost will flicker on and off, as if the sensor is having difficulty detecting that you are there. This is all pretty irritating, as when you need a boost at the end of the race in order to clinch a victory, you want the boost to work first time.
After you have unlocked the events in the career mode, each sport has the following options; interactive tutorial, training, upgrades and start the event. The interactive tutorials will explain all of the actions required for each sport, and give you the chance to try them out. The game actually detects which sports you have never played, and will offer you the tutorial before you play a new event. This is a nice touch, as most of the events would leave newcomers clueless without the tutorials. Training is just that, it allows you to try the event, without the pressure of a competition. You can simply try free training, or you can start time trials in certain events, where you try to beat your best times. These two modes together are a good way to learn each event, and the tutorial is certainly necessary if you want to get the hang of all the motion control inputs.
Upgrading allows you to add extra skills points to your event team members, improving their talent, or to equip upgrades for their equipment. XP points that are gained in play must be spent on these upgrades, and additional upgrades will become unlocked the more you successfully play through the career. It is hard to tell whether these upgrades really make a difference or not, because you obviously get better at the events the more you play them anyway, the effects of the upgrades are negligible at the end of the day. And obviously, once you have learnt the basics, trained and upgraded your equipment, you can start the events, and try to be the best.
snowboard cross, freeride skiing and snowmobile are all the same basic event. They all involve downhill racing, with jumps and tricks involved. Reach the finish line in the allotted time, performing tricks for extra points. The problem is, whilst the basic steering controls are very sensitive the trick controls don’t make sense and aren’t always recognised by the game. To perform a basic trick, whilst going over a jump the player must make a roof shape over their head with their arms. Why a roof? This seems pretty random, but even worse, to perform a major trick…make a roof shape whilst standing on one leg! This control system is crazy, and easily leads you to lose your balance and for the on-screen character to careen into a tree, for example. This is even worse in Snowmobile racing, where tight turns are very hard to make (unless you lean to the side with one leg in the air) and you are likely to fall off the machine every five seconds.
Bobsleigh and downhill skiing are less complex events, what with the main objective being steer, keep your balance and be fast. The control systems work perfectly for these two events, and you really seem to have true precision over your movements. Perhaps a more in-depth game, featuring these two speed-based events would have been a better package than including some of the less impressive events in Winter Stars. You really get the feeling of speed, and the events are both actually fun, as you try to complete each course with as few errors as possible.
Paraskiing is just what you might imagine, skiing with a parachute. The event makes no sense, as you are on ground some of the time, before pulling down on your parachute to launch yourself in the air, where you can perform tricks. Despite the craziness, the in air controls are actually very precise and you get a good feeling of floating in the air, descending and ascending respond very well. Ski flying is also a fairly good event, as there is little you could get wrong about a simple ski jump. You have to adjust yourself in the air to make sure you land cleanly, and time your leap to get the best distance – but unfortunately the very nature of the event means it is all over very quickly.
Figure skating works a little like the dancing games of old where, in a rhythm-action style, players have to hit certain poses at the right time. Detection becomes an issue here, and it was particularly hard to trigger your adrenaline in this event. Short track is another ice skating event, this time speed skating on a track. I found this mode to be annoyingly easy once you found a good rhythm, and the A.I. players had no chance of catching me, making the event somewhat redundant. Then there is curling, a strange sport, which is weirdly compelling to play. The controls make sense, being fairly intuitive, but again don’t always detect tremendously well. As this is a turn-based slow sport, you can at least take your time to make sure your movements are correctly detected.
Finally is the biathlon where players must ski around a course, stopping occasionally to shoot targets. The skiing itself is not much fun, and can be incredibly tiring if it is a long course, especially when most tracks have two laps. The shooting makes sense though, point at the screen with one arm to aim, fire with your other arm, but the movement of your cross-hairs is hindered somewhat by the lag in detection and it can feel like you are really having to work to drag your aim across the screen, when suddenly it whizzes around quickly. This makes precise aiming a little difficult. Overall, a real mixed bag of events, some that are fun, others that perhaps should have been left out entirely.
MULTIPLAYER: Both online and offline multiplayer modes are on offer here, but of course the detection issues are still present. When you couple the detection issues with split-screen two-player offline, things get a whole lot worse. The game gets confused at times who is who, and will switch players around by mistake. This is the worse kind of Kinect mistake, and surely the developers should have been more aware of this issue. You can create your own custom multiplayer cup events, which can include “fun” races such as coin-collecting ones or Mario Kart style power-up events, and this could lead to the title being a good party game if it controlled a little better. The option to choose either standard controls or family controls is good for party play too, as this enables all ages to play the game with little trouble, but it does make the game incredibly easy. Perhaps the option to choose different difficulties from player to player would have been a better option, so better players would have a handicap. The modes just need a little more refining and there is the basis of a good multiplayer game here, if only all of the sports were fun to play!
LONGEVITY: The game is huge, with the career mode constantly expanding and growing as you go along, you won’t run out of things to do for some time. The problem is, you probably won’t want to keep coming back in order to complete all of the cups, simply because there are too many niggling irritations with the controls and the events. Multiplayer could add extra length, as would the achievements, which are by no means simple to attain, but there are other sports titles on Kinect that make better use of the technology, and that won’t cause such frustration.
VERDICT: Unfortunately, a game which promises so much and shows a lot of potential is let down by its poor implementation of the Kinect technology. Ok, the graphics aren’t stellar, but for the events they are functional. Some of the events are truly fun already, and others have the chance to be, if the motion control detection was better. The whole package however, is hampered by the control method. If fewer events had been included and refined more, the end result would have likely been far more fun to play, and as such the title seems like a missed opportunity. You can still have a little fun if you find the right events in the middle of this, but the reward isn’t that great and players don’t buy games to wade through hours of frustration for minutes of enjoyment. Unfortunately, this Winter Star won’t make your gaming wishes come true.