Biathlon 2008 Review
Some sports make the transition from real life to video games without any difficulty whatsoever. The entire concept of the sport fits beautifully into a virtual interactive environment; the hard hitting and intensity of football, the speed and athleticism of basketball, the strategy and nostalgia of baseball, etc. But when it comes to something like the biathlon, we imagine it must be super challenging to make this sport entertaining for gamers. That's not a knock on the sport itself, because we have the greatest respect for these athletes who absolutely must be in world class shape to even begin competing in the likes of the biathlon. But it's not a contact sport, speed isn't really a factor, and the only strategy happens in the individual's head and isn't related to a team. How do you make this engaging for the person who sits there with a controller in his hand? How do you capture the incredible challenge biathletes face? It's tough, but RTL actually makes it work. Sadly, though, Biathlon 2008 may be too simplistic for most gamers.
As is the case with many low-budget titles that don't have the financial backing of a Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy, the graphics aren't much better than average. There's plenty of that good old-fashioned "jagginess" going on in the character depiction, and while the backdrops are quite picturesque, they lack a sense of distance and clarity. It looks very much like an older PS2 game, which is about what we expected. Now, this doesn't mean one should simply dismiss the title due to its unimpressive visual presentation, because the gameplay is always the most important factor (by far). We just wish everything about our environment was more refined and accomplished; it would've been most exhilarating to ski through some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. Snow is, by default, pretty to look at, and it's even prettier in a countryside setting. But the developers simply don't capitalize on this opportunity, leaving us with a production that fails to appropriately capture the ambiance of the biathlon. It's not a crippling issue, and we've certainly seen worse visuals on the PS2, but it's still disheartening.
The sound isn't helping, but then again, there really isn't a great deal of sound in a biathlon. It's actually one of the quietest sports out there, minus the crack of a rifle every now and then, we're left with the gentle "shush" of the skis and the occasional roar of the crowd. The announcer jumps in with something generic to say, usually when the checkpoints roll around, but that's about it. They could've ramped things up a bit with a diverse and fitting soundtrack, but they only include one or two different tracks, which makes every event immensely repetitive. Again, we understand the innate challenge of selecting songs for a game centering on the biathlon (we have no idea what we'd choose, either), but when you pin all your hopes on one track, you're gonna lose no matter what. It could be the perfect fit, and yet, the player will soon get annoyed at the repeating song. The effects seem accurate, but it's sometimes hard to tell...it's difficult to gauge the realism of a few rifle shots and the shifting of skis on snow. We figure it's fine, but there's nothing to write home about.
If you're not familiar with the biathlon, here's a brief explanation- it's cross-country skiing combined with target shooting. This may not sound all that riveting, or even very challenging, but that only means you don't understand the difficulty of this particular event. To start with, cross-country skiing is one of the most demanding activities on earth, and it can put your heart rate through the roof. ...now, try skiing over a few miles than settling down enough to fire a rifle accurately. This isn't easy, but perhaps the biggest downfall of Biathlon 2008 is that it doesn't show just how tough the biathlon is, and that's a travesty. At the same time, we can't say we didn't have fun when playing, which - and no offense to RTL or Conspiracy - surprised us to some extent. While the gameplay is too easy to master, the actual process of going through each event and building a competent athlete in Career mode is fairly entertaining, albeit repetitive. Basically, once you figure out the recipe for success, the game's difficulty falls off almost completely, and winning becomes merely a matter of patience.
We had no idea how they would approach the gameplay, but they utilized a decent mechanic for the cross-country skiing. A running gauge dictates your power and stamina, and it's your job to keep yourself as fresh as possible throughout the entire race, which can last over 10 minutes, even on some of the earlier courses. At first, we couldn't quite figure out what to do, but it quickly became clear- you hold X to increase your speed, which increases the amount of energy you expend. A blue line represents this, and if you stay in the white area, you'll be fine. However, if you cross over into the gray area, the line becomes yellow and if you keep it up, a red bar will start to crawl down from the top of the gauge. That's your failing stamina, which means you'll have to back off on the energy and try to make the red line recede. This may sound complicated, but provided you keep tapping the X button to stay in the safe area, you'll be fine. You will encounter the yellow and a bit of the red on some steep climbs, but you just need to be gentle and take advantage of downward slopes to refill your lost stamina. Going into a crouch by pressing the Square button will help in this capacity.
Now, this does work very well. However, we spend all our time looking at this gauge and that becomes the focal point of the entire game. You almost never pay attention to the course, and you don't really have to, either; running into other skiers or barriers isn't a problem. It's almost like they're not even there, as you only need to adjust your direction for turns in the track. It's a bizarre setup, because there's virtually no consequence for skiing like a drunkard (provided you keep going forward), but you absolutely must keep a close eye on the gauge at all times. If you do, winning won't be too difficult. If you don't, it'll be impossible. As for the rifle shooting, it's about what you would expect. You aim with the analog, fire with the X button and reload with R1. Depending on your technique rating and your fatigue coming into the firing range, the scope will float around, forcing you to hold your breath to steady the gun. This is a straightforward mechanic and works just as well as the cross-country skiing controls, although the aiming is a tad loose.
You will travel to 13 different locations around the globe, and many of the sport's biggest names are here, including Michael Greis and Magdalena Neuner. The courses are based on real-life courses, even though many of them only differ in terms of length; the challenge tough climbs should present was overridden by the ease at which we mastered that gauge. After creating our own character, we worked our way through the Junior Cup without any problem whatsoever, winning some events by a minute and a half or more. There's a simple upgrade system for your character, where winning races will let you allocate the maximum number of points to your four attributes: Speed, Technique, Stamina, and Power. Stamina is crucial early on, as you'll need to be able to maintain a solid speed throughout any race, and the more stamina you have, the more you can push yourself. It was fun for a while, but the difficulty level never really took off - we were approaching world records within only a couple of hours of play - and the repetitiveness got yawn-inducing.
Thing is...there just isn't a lot here. You ski and you shoot, and neither is all that hard to do. There's a Career mode with plenty of events and races, but it really doesn't matter if it's an Individual, Pursuit or Mass race; the gameplay never changes and everything remains the same. Keep an eye on the gauge, stay patient and steady with both the skiing and shooting, and you'll easily trounce the competition. Sure, you can compete with up to four players, but that doesn't alter the situation. What they have here functions well enough, but there just isn't enough involved to keep someone entertained for more than a few hours. We never really get the feeling we're actually skiing, either; there is some resistance when skiing, and the physics never felt quite right. But beyond that, the control was fine, the way we handled stamina and power on the course was fine, the technicals weren't fine (but we could live with them), and the crux of the game (Career mode) was fine. But after you've completed your first event, you should know that every event after it will be almost identical. And it's so easy, you'll soon grow tired of torching the competition.
Biathlon 2008 is better than we had anticipated, and as we said earlier, we fully understand the challenge in transporting this sport to the virtual interactive world. RTL didn't do a bad job, but the final product is too bare-bones to recommend a purchase.
4/10/2008 Ben Dutka