Ski and Shoot Review
The world of video game sports is similar to the world of real-life sports: each sport has a distinct level of popularity in the U.S., and of course, the big ones are football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. Worldwide, soccer is the sport of choice, which is why soccer video games also do very well in terms of sales. But there are more obscure sports out there, and for the most part, the winter events typically aren’t a major focal point of attention, which is why skiing games can’t be considered “blockbusters.” Snowboarding games have done well in the past, but the idea of turning the biathlon into a video game…well, it’s a challenge. The problem is that much of the biathlon is – let’s admit it – boring for the spectator; it’s cross-country skiing combined with shooting. Now, from the athlete’s standpoint, it’s amazingly impressive, as they have to be able to go all out, then slow themselves down enough to be accurate with a rifle. It really is incredible; we’re not denying that. And even though last year’s Biathlon 2008 was actually decent, our hopes weren’t high for Ski and Shoot. How’d it turn out…?
Well, we always try to go into every game with a clean slate. Therefore, we examined every aspect with a keen eye and an open mind (it’s kinda what we do), and first off, we determined that the graphics simply aren’t up to snuff. Yeah, it’s just a budget PS2 title, but really, there isn’t enough in the way of environmental detail and the character design is lacking. Basically, much like the gameplay, it’s a lot like Biathlon 2008; in fact, it almost seems as if the developers used the exact same engine. The courses are okay and the presentation is consistent, but at no point did we say to ourselves, “hmm, that looks pretty nice.” It’s a fairly bland and uninteresting set of visuals and the only good news is that you’re going to be spending most of your time concentrating on the center of the screen, so you likely won’t notice the graphical shortcomings. All the trees look the same, the snow doesn’t exactly feature intricate, minute details, and the effects are almost non-existent. It’s just a lot of “meh.”
The sound is better than it was in Biathlon 2008, though primarily because the announcer and soundtrack play more of a significant role in Ski and Shoot. 49Games made a few odd choices in terms of music selections – as they always tend to do in sports titles like these, for some reason – and the sound effects are stale, but really, the biathlon is a very quiet sport. All you hear is the sound of snow swishing beneath your skis and the occasional crack of the rifle. However, they did go to the effort of giving us some excited crowd noise and the announcer certainly makes himself known, so the experience does feel more dynamic. It’s just very difficult to make everything sound appealing because after a while, this sport gets a little monotonous. As we just said, this really isn’t a spectator sport, and one of the reasons for this is – wait for it – a general lack of raucous sound. There’s no crazy arena to pump you up. But all in all, the sound here isn’t a bad effort.
As far as we can tell, the gameplay is basically identical to that of Biathlon 2008. There are a few extra additions to ramp up the depth, but besides that, the control boils down to the player keeping a close eye on two meters that sit in the center of the screen during an event. On the left is your permanent stamina meter and if it drains entirely, you’re going to struggle mightily to even move. On the right is a more complex meter: it shows the amount of energy you’re putting into your skiing, denoted by a rising blue bar. So long as the blue bar stays in the white, you won’t be pushing yourself and cutting into your stamina, but once you see a yellow bar start to rise, you have to be on the lookout for the dreaded red. A red bar starts to creep down from the top of the meter if you stay in the yellow for too long, and that red will eventually take pieces of your permanent stamina away. When it happens, the screen will lightly flash to let you know that a portion of your energy has disappeared and isn’t coming back.
Obviously, this is a balancing act. You don’t want to burn yourself out before the race is over, but you also don’t want to sit in the middle of the pack because you’re so scared of that yellow bar. On the other hand, the game is easy enough so you rarely have to worry about this, so it’s sort of deflating. At first, you applaud the mechanic’s effectiveness and the inherent tightrope challenge, but after playing for a while, you’ll realize a few things. Firstly, regardless of the event type, you always approach each race in exactly the same way. Secondly, because you spend so much time focusing on those meters in the center of the screen, it’s easy to miss turns in the course and lose track of where you are. Thirdly and finally, the meter mechanic is simple enough so that success relies almost entirely on the shooting aspect of the event. If you have to spin around in too many penalty loops, you’re likely going to have trouble staying out front, but even then, you’ll rarely lose.
Shooting is all about having a calm, steady, and timely hand. What you don’t want to do is sprint to the shooting range when you see it off in the distance; if you can’t resist the urge, you’ll be facing the targets while breathing heavily, which will make your aim wander all over the damn place (and holding your breath might not help as much as you think). The key is to head into the blocks with as little strain as possible, which will let you have a steadier hand. There are a few problems: for whatever reason, it seems as if the gun doesn’t react to your direction as often as it should; pressing down on the analog just doesn’t make the gun respond quickly enough. Also, we’re back to the lack of challenge issue. Sure, your character won’t be so great at shooting when he first starts out at Level 1, but even then, you likely won’t miss many targets. And when you get better, you’ll probably never miss. Thing is, you rack up the experience points relatively quickly and it won’t be long before you’re an excellent athlete. We’re not necessarily complaining, though.
At the very least, it’s fun to play, just like Biathlon 2008 was (to some extent). You can create your own character and build him/her up as you progress through the events, and although there really aren’t any other gameplay modes, you can always challenge a friend if you wish. The concept and core gameplay mechanic is almost too simply and too easily mastered, but the competition will get stiffer and you won’t be constantly blowing away the best athletes on the course. You will earn points that you can distribute however you see fit; you can up your Speed, Technique, Stamina and Power, and as we hinted at earlier, you will gain levels. For some reason, it’s almost always entertaining to ski around the course, manipulating those meters and going for perfect shooting sessions. Is it enough to warrant a purchase? Well, at this price…maybe. If you’re a fan of the sport, you really don’t have any other option in the video game world, anyway.
Ski and Shoot really isn’t much different than Biathlon 2008, and that’s not a bad thing. But at the same time, it’s a year later, and without any visible enhancements – besides the inherent abilities of particular athletes, which just don’t have a big enough impact – this one almost feels out-of-date. Obviously, as it’s on the PS2 and is a budget production, one could say it’s “out-of-date” the whole way ‘round, but we’re analyzing the competition, here. Ski and Shoot features better sound, but with the exception of some screwy frame rate issues that plague the game when you’re next to other racers, there’s really nothing to separate it from Biathlon 2008. Oh well.
4/2/2009 Ben Dutka