Winter Sports 2: The Next Challenge Review
For whatever reason, these compilation sports games keep coming out for the PS2, and the latest – not surprisingly – focuses on a variety of winter sports. The problem with these titles is always the same: while there’s plenty of different events that can appeal to any number of people, the multiple events require multiple gameplay and control mechanics. Now, this is a challenge, even if you have a big budget. But most all these games have small budgets and are only designed to be $20 impulse-buy purchases, which means the developer typically doesn’t have the means of generating solid and accessible gameplay for each and every event. The Olympic-based titles have all been awful and Winter Sports 2: The Next Challenge is essentially the same thing, so of course we had our reservations heading into the experience. On the one hand, we can say this is an average, semi-entertaining sports game, but on the other, it falls into the same aforementioned trap, thereby creating frustration for the player. It’s not terrible, though, which is better than we expected.
As we just said, we don’t expect the budget to be high for something like The Next Challenge, so we wouldn’t anticipate cutting-edge visuals. But is it really so costly to produce a passable graphical presentation that isn’t continually marred by aliasing, clipping and other major technical issues? We’re well aware that the PS2 isn’t the PS3, but we’ve spent enough time with PS2 titles in 2008 to know there are far better visual depictions sitting on store shelves for Sony’s last-gen platform. The best effect found in this game is the night sky seen through the ice rink at the start of an event, but other than that, everything is either lackluster or mediocre. The character modeling is generic and flawed, the arena and crowd detail doesn’t pass muster, and the various gameplay effects are just plain boring. We would’ve hoped for more in the way of snow spray on the skiing events, a better and more fluid sense of speed in the bobsleigh and luge events, and in general, a more realistic and involving set of effects. Basically, this is a sports title that falls well short of the desired graphical achievement level.
The sound is a little better, but we could’ve done without the painfully bad commentators. They’d make ridiculous observations and lame jokes throughout the course of some events, and it turned out to be more annoying than comical. The soundtrack was okay but extremely bizarre, as some of the music just didn’t seem to fit this format at all. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we would often be in the midst of an event and suddenly say, “…what the hell are we listening to?” The effects are decent in some events and almost non-existent in others, but then again, how much sound is involved in the likes of Ski Jumping and Curling? The roar of the wind could’ve been more in-your-face and the swish of ice could’ve been clearer in said events, but that’d be splitting hairs. For the most part, the effects aren’t too bad, but they just don’t sound accomplished or professional. Much like the graphics, this category just screams “budget title!” and you’ll just have to accept this drawback. Some say you get what you pay for…
The first event we tried in Winter Sports 2 was figure skating. You may ask why, but the answer is a simple one if you think about it: when’s the last time you played a video game that included figure skating? Besides, we figured we’d get an idea of the gameplay mechanics by checking out something that requires timing and tricks. Now, we’re not really sure what’s going on, but have game developers for such games completely forgotten the fact that the PS2 controller features buttons other than the analog? What is with this constant fascination with constantly using the analog to dictate control for different events in these sports compilations? It sucks. There are these other buttons; they’re called the “face buttons.” There’s a X, Circle, Triangle, and Square. If you want timing sequences in something like figure skating, why in God’s name do you limit us to pressing the analog in a certain direction? We just can’t figure out this approach; perhaps it’s easier to program and implement or something, but either way, it almost never works and only ends up irritating the hell out of us.
The good news is that the figure skating timing mechanic is easy enough so you can be successful with little to no effort. The other good news is that even though we have many events to choose from, only one or two are borderline impossible due to a weird balancing issue regarding the difficulty or completely wonky controls. The speed skating event, for example, is just plain ridiculous. Nobody can figure out what you’re supposed to do there. But on the flip side, other speed events like the skiing, luge, skeleton and bobsleigh all work relatively well, primarily because all you do is steer and use a face button (or two) to give yourself a competitive edge. When downhill skiing, you just hold X to go into a crouch and move faster and press Circle to take sharper turns, and this is basically the same for the bobsleigh, although you press Square to lean into the turns. But while you should easily be able to snag top honors and best times in the chute of ice, good luck topping the list in the skiing events. For whatever reason, there’s always one top time that’s extremely difficult to even approach.
That’s the strange balance issue we just talked about. Some events take almost no effort whatsoever to win Gold in, while others – like skiing and speed skating – can be overly challenging. You do have the option of testing each one out by selecting Single Event, and when you’re ready, you can try the Competition or Career modes. Competition puts you in a 5, 9, or the full 16-event competition where you’ll have to face the other winter sport powerhouses in the world. Your default team is Germany – which makes sense – but the likes of Norway, Finland, Switzerland, and other Northern European countries can give you a serious run for your money. You will receive 3 points for a Gold medal, 2 for a Silver, and 1 for a Bronze, and whichever country has the most points at the conclusion of all events wins overall first place. Career mode is exactly what it sounds like, but there isn’t anything all that special about it. For the most part, the main allure of this game is playing against up to three friends, or simply conquering all the available Competitions. Then, of course, you have the Campaign; an interesting addition that features a bunch of mini-game-like events.
For instance, you’ll have to pick up 20 gold coins in a certain span of time in the Super G, beat the top average speed in the Skeleton, and…er…do math. Yeah, there are a few seriously strange challenges to complete, but at least it breaks up the monotony of the straightforward Competitions. This is a nice addition that other compilation sports titles should’ve tried, even though a lot of the challenges are just too silly and random. All in all, the control afforded you throughout each event is pretty solid (if a little loose at times), and despite our reservations about the heavy focus on the analog and some event mechanics that make little sense, we did have fun for a while. We took an easy overall win in the 5-event Competition (we even got a Bronze in speed skating), and after testing out every event, we’re not completely unhappy with the result. Trust us, we’ve had far worse experiences this year, which is why we’re probably willing to make a few more exceptions than normal.
Winter Sports 2: The Next Challenge isn’t an abysmal game. It really isn’t. It’s actually slightly better than average and could very well be worth your time if you’re a big fan of the 16 featured events. The control can be iffy, a few of the event mechanics are horrendous, the technicals are sadly well under par, and the Campaign includes plenty of “what the hell am I doing this for?” moments. But you can wrap your brain around most of the gameplay, and that’s a definite plus. With multiple difficulty levels and the chance to include some buddies in your play time, you could have plenty of fun when the wintry weather keeps you inside. Heck, you could get really quite good at a few of your favorite events, so we’re happy to report that you won’t find this one unplayable. In many ways, while still seriously lacking, it could be a step in the right direction… But seriously, don’t forget about the face buttons, devs. Please just use them over the stupid analog in the future.
12/16/2008 Ben Dutka