Summer Athletics: The Ultimate Challenge Review
There’s something inherently challenging in creating a game that must recreate multiple sports, especially when many of the competitions would require a completely different control mechanic. So when it comes to titles like Summer Athletics: The Ultimate Challenge, we sympathize with the developers because in our opinion, they weren’t in an enviable position. However, instead of rising above, 49Games fails where so many other studios have failed: they just can’t bring us an Olympics-type video game where the control is both accessible and sensible, and furthermore, the technical aspects of the production fall by the wayside. Beijing 2008 was terrible but this title is even worse due to overly complicated control, a severely lacking presentation and terrible graphics and sound. From swimming to pole vault to cycling, they get very little right and a whole lot wrong, so if you were entertaining the idea of a possible purchase, we’re about to disabuse you of that notion right now. Sure, it may seem appealing for simple family-oriented athletic entertainment, but nobody is likely to enjoy themselves.
As we just said, the visuals are a low point of The Ultimate Challenge. Everything is washed out and bland, the texturing is bad, there’s a ton of shimmering and anti-aliasing issues in the background, and unless you’re a fan of fuzzy, out-of-focus scenes, you’ll be disappointed. We understand that this is a PS2 game, but it’s a very late-gen PS2 game, and we’ve already had the likes of Final Fantasy XII and God of War II, so it’s not like the system is devoid of impressive graphical depictions. Just about any sports game on Sony’s last-generation console looks better – even those released towards the start of the system's lifespan – and it’s clear that 49Games didn’t really care much about providing gamers with an authentic and realistic recreation. The character modeling is generic and very light on any detail, and each of the arenas appear quiet, half-filled with fans who are mostly uninterested in the proceedings. Ironically enough, the graphics in Beijing 2008 were actually the lone high point.
The sound in Summer Athletics features a mostly non-existent soundtrack, an inconsistent and boring announcer, and basic sound effects that do nothing to enhance the realism and absorption factor. The announcer is often late in his commentary and the crowd never sounds as if they’re into the action; the cheering and roars sound as if they’re coming from very far away, for some bizarre reason. There are a few ambient effects in certain events, like the quiet sound of the player inhaling and holding his/her breath in the archery events, but that’s the only highlight. Even swimming and cycling, both of which should feature little effects that bring out the sport’s intensity, sound terrible, and everything remains bland and ho-hum. Yeah, it’s true that certain events – like archery – ask for supreme silence from the onlookers, but that doesn’t mean everything needs to sound muted, and it doesn’t mean the graphics should be so washed-out. All in all, the technicals fall well short of acceptable and in some ways, it’s hard to ignore this significant downfall. We just tried to ignore it and soldier forth, though.
You know, for the sake of the gameplay. Our Summer Athletics experience started out okay, but things took a steep downturn after the initial impression, and we ended up hating the controls with a passion. The first event we tried that put everything into a rosier-than-accurate light was the archery single competition, which we’ve always been fond of. You hold the R2 button to pull the bowstring back, and once it’s as maximum tension, you can release the arrow whenever you wish. You simply aim with the left analog stick and release the R2 button when you’re good and ready, taking into account any cross-breezes that can alter the flight of the arrow. With a gentle touch on the left stick and a wee bit of patience, we were able to snag the Gold without much of a problem, and that was using the “Pure” setting with “Average” opponent difficulty. The latter you’re familiar with and as for the former, you can choose between a Pure and Arcade, which does change the experience considerably. Things are obviously easier when set to Arcade, although the game should be more rewarding set on Pure.
Instead, the control schemes just seemed to get more and more cumbersome and complicated, regardless of the difficulty mode. Swimming, for example, has you using the L2 button to dive into the pool, the R2 button to kick underwater and perform turns, and manipulating the left and right analog to swim forward. One analog goes clockwise and the other goes counter-clockwise, and the faster you spin ‘em, the faster you swim. This isn’t an atrocious setup, but it’s extremely awkward and we had a whole lot of difficulty getting used to it. It got worse when we tried the triple jump, javelin, and other track-and-field events, even though we desperately attempted to come to terms with each and every control scheme. The tutorials didn’t help much at all – the sentences weren’t even constructed correctly – and most of the time, we had to figure things out for ourselves. After three or four (or more) tries at a particular event, we started to get an idea of how to proceed, but even then, the movement mechanics left a whole lot to be desired. We spent most of our time frustrated rather than entertained and that’s the cardinal sin of any video game.
You can opt for a single competition or the Career mode, and the latter lets you upgrade your athlete after each successful completion of an event. It’s pretty standard stuff and does add a bit of longevity to a game that lacks a significant immersion factor, but you probably won’t want to finish. There are events like the Decathlon to participate in as well, but all of them revolve around the same selection of events and you always have to deal with that incredibly iffy control setup. We found diving to be relatively accessible and the cycling wasn’t that bad, either, but outside of archery, we couldn’t find a way to have fun with any offered sport. Factor in the technicals that only drag the game down further and the presentation that never really fits the mood or atmosphere, and Summer Athletics: The Ultimate Challenge ends up a clunky, irritating experience with very little redeeming value. In the description of the game, they say the “intuitive controls” will appeal to the whole family, but dear God…they’re not going to appeal to anyone with a normally functioning hand.
We have no way of recommending this game, even if you’re desperate for some multiplayer summer sports fun. Beijing 2008 is another waste of money, but at the very least, this one doesn’t cost as much. Well, whatever. Bleh.
11/10/2008 Ben Dutka