Who says you have to grow up? Here at SI.com's Game Room, our staffers review the latest sports video game titles to hit the market and welcome your feedback.
7/08/2008 05:30:00 PM
Back into the Rings
Beijing 2008 :: Sega
By Bryan Armen Graham
Fair or otherwise, a title like Beijing 2008: The Official Video Game of the Olympic Games will pay for the sins of its ancestors.
It's been 19 years since the Olympic subgenre peaked with Track & Field II for the NES, a cartoonish but engaging game which expanded gameplay beyond the button-mashing of its predecessor and included less common events such as fencing and taekwondo.
In the meantime, an entire generation of gamers has grown up without a single redeemable Olympic-themed video game. Instead, they’ve suffered (if only briefly) through lackluster novelty titles plagued by one-dimensional gameplay and marginal replay value. It's no secret why Olympic games have traditionally found homes on the previously used shelves at GameStops nationwide just months after their release.
This dismal track record was the reality facing the developers of Beijing 2008, the Summer Olympics simulation released Tuesday for PS3, XBox 360 and PC.
But when SEGA stopped by the SI.com offices last month to show off the nearly finished product, the game exceeded our expectations by directly addressing the gripes common to so many previous Olympic titles.
There's no question Beijing 2008 is the most comprehensive Olympic game to date. Players can compete for 32 different countries in 38 different competitions ranging from traditional swimming, gymnastics and track events to table tennis, cycling or archery. It's a beautifully presented game, supporting up to 720p in high definition. SEGA's decision to dispatch scout teams to the various Beijing venues during the game's development paid off, with 10 exquisitely rendered models of the actual arenas including the Beijing National Stadium (the "Bird Nest") and the futuristic National Aquatics Center (the "Water Cube").
The International Olympic Committee precludes the use of real athletes -- not even cover personalities Tyson Gay, Amanda Beard, Nastia Liukin and Reese Hoffa are playable characters -- but the game features more than 1,000 lifelike character models. The use of motion capture to create consistently realistic animations and movements is nothing novel, but the next-gen consoles allow on-screen characters to convey expressions like never before. The attention to detail is meticulous: from a sprinter's elation following a record-breaking heat to a weightlifter's facial tweaks and winces during competition.
Perhaps the most common beef with previous Olympic titles has been the monotonous gameplay. Entries dating back to the Track & Field days have been button-mashing affairs, inducing boredom among gamers in record-setting times. Making matters worse, designers have seemed almost allergic to gameplay innovations over the years.
But the developers of Beijing 2008 have deliberately looked to get away from pure button mashing, instead adopting innovative button schemes designed to resemble the real activity. While some events are based on rhythm, others are based on speed or power. The shot put depends on power and timing, while the discus places more emphasis on control. In gymnastics, the uneven bars employ a PaRappa The Rapper-like rhythm sequence system while the rings combine various elements of power, balance and technique. This variety keeps things fresh as players alternate through the different events, making for a more appealing experience.
Another innovation is the introduction of online leaderboards, which update automatically. These enable players to compare scores and compete against other users worldwide, keeping in spirit with the international competitive spirit of the Games themselves.
The 1990 launch of the Madden franchise -- just months after Konami's Track & Field II -- forever altered the business model of sports gaming. Prior to Madden, gamers could get by on a Bases Loaded or Double Dribble every couple of years. But the vast majority of sports games have since fallen into an annual-release pattern, with developers tweaking and fine-tuning familiar engines every 12 months. Conversely, Summer Olympics games are released quadrennially, meaning each successive game is essentially a reboot. There’s no "season" to follow and the athletes are constantly changing, putting titles like Beijing 2008 at a disadvantage with more familiar football and soccer titles due for summer releases.
But while Beijing 2008 might not be the kind of transcendent title capable of winning over casual gamers or non-sports fans, those already attuned to the Olympic spirit will find plenty to enjoy long after the closing ceremonies.