Beijing 2008 Review
The Beijing Olympics concluded only a few weeks ago, and we here in the U.S. haven’t stopped applauding Michael Phelps and his record-breaking Gold medal run in swimming. We had lots of fun (stuck it France in that relay, huh?), as we watched all the finest athletes in the world compete on the biggest stage that comes around only once every four years. It makes perfect sense to have a video game, but at the same time, we have to understand the inherent challenge in making dozens upon dozens of different sporting events accessible and entertaining. The control issue is always paramount, and sadly, Eurocom can’t find a way to make it work, as Beijing 2008 fails on multiple levels. Want to toast the competition like Phelps in the pool or Bolt on the track? Well, forget it; there are no real names involved (guess they couldn’t get the licensing), and the athletes you use are shockingly sub-par. This is a major letdown, but then again…we kinda expected it.
The only decent aspect of this production is the graphics, which may surprise some gamers. There’s a lot of solid character detail, the diverse backgrounds are clean and well defined, and the coloring is excellent throughout. We never see as much of any event as we would hope – which would’ve opened the floodgates for a worthy virtual Olympics experience – but there’s little to complain about. We could be all anal and mention some of the small technical glitches, but they don’t really affect the gameplay and aren’t glaring. It’s certainly the best-looking Olympics game, but that’s only by default; it’s the first next-gen title based on the Games, so this should be a given. The only major drawback centers on the lack of a sweeping visual expanse; the Olympics is just plain big from front to back, and the graphics never convey a true epic sense of immersion. Where are the hordes of fans? Where’s the swarming media? Why does it feel like all the events are just practice?
The graphics really aren’t bad, but the sound most certainly is. As we just mentioned, there’s a lack of that good ol’ Olympic feeling, and the drab and even non-existent sound drags the game further into obscurity. As we just got finished mentioning, where are those screaming crowds in the stands? On top of which, the athletes never seem to be putting forth much effort, even in the track-and-field events, as they’re oddly silent even during the times when their bodies are under extreme strain. Have you ever heard a silent weightlifter? The soundtrack is just generic fluff that doesn’t do a thing to enhance the overall appeal, and when you combine the uninteresting music with lame sound effects, all you get is a decidedly bland experience. At the very least, though, the effects that do take center stage (it’s rare, but it happens) are often crisp and spot-on, so it’s not all doom and gloom. But while many developers have acknowledged the importance of sound, Eurocom just didn’t seem to care much.
In regards to the gameplay, there’s a few tiny morsels of good news and an avalanche of bad news. What would you rather have first? Okay, let’s go with the good- there are more events than ever to select from, and even though they’re not all here (that would be impossible), the player has a goodly selection including Track and Field, Swimming, Gymnastics, and plenty of miscellaneous events like Shooting, Weightlifting, Cycling, Table Tennis, and many more. Furthermore, even though many of the control elements are downright awful, you still have to master a large variety of mechanics in order to bring home medals in multiple events. That seems fitting. The competition is stiff as it should be, the somewhat effective graphics supply a workable foundation, and you can always go through a Tutorial before participating in any event. Beijing 2008 also has a prominent online presence, as there are leaderboards for each event and the community – if anybody used it – would be an excellent addition to the game. But sadly, we are now done with the positive portion of this review. Went by quickly, didn’t it?
The overriding negative factor is, of course, the control. Some mechanics just don’t seem to work at all, while others that do will result in busted controllers due to the ridiculous effort required. You’ll wrench the analog sticks right off in certain events, and we could never figure out the running events; it tells you to “Toggle the L and R sticks or hit the X and Circle buttons alternatively to gain speed,” but neither seems to have any effect on your speed whatsoever. On top of which, the launch from the starting blocks is terribly implemented. You have to gauge a power bar and when the bar reaches the end, you start; if you start to soon, it’s a false start, but if you start too late, your chances of catching your opponents are nil. It makes the track events nigh-on impossible, and needless to say, that’s a crippling flaw. The swimming isn’t much better (you still have the launch bar), but you might be able to manipulate the analogs fast enough to make it into the top 3. Good luck doing that with the Shot Put, though.
See, that’s the thing. While some events seem doable, others are completely impossible. Believe it or not, the only events we found we could actually compete in were the Gymnastics and Diving events. But even then, it’s hit or miss: for example, in the former, the floor and balance beam are both doable and even fun. You have to hit the right face buttons when the girl’s foot hits the beam or floor, and this takes both timing and precision. However, the Uneven Bars aren’t done quite as well (changing bars can be a chore), and for the men, the Rings work nicely, as you will have to combine careful analog use with quick button pressing. This is similar to Diving, too, although the 3M Springboard is much easier than the 10M Platform…can anyone else do different things with the right and left analog sticks at the same time without bursting a blood vessel? As you can see, the controls for each event vary from downright idiotic and controller-damaging to accessible and creatively implemented. But just try the Table Tennis or Kayak. It’s an absolute mess.
Worst of all, you can’t select which events you wish to participate in once the Olympics begin. It’s not like you select a certain athlete and then go through the Games with that contestant; you take an entire team through the two weeks, and each day, you have to accomplish something if you wish to continue. For instance, you have four events during the first day, and unless you qualify for the final in at least one of them, it’s Game Over. What brilliant mind came up with that scenario? The Triple Jump requires you to whip the analog back and forth at lightning speed, than a split second later, hit the R2 or L2 button at three precision points to accomplish the jump. The 400M on the track fails because the entire running mechanic fails, the 50M in the pool has the same problem (although we can at least get some speed and did qualify in 3rd), and the Shot Put really does have the capability of destroying a controller. And this brings us to a particularly pointless aspect of the game that absolutely defies any sort of logical explanation. See if you agree.
For some reason, the developers decided to implement a team upgrade system. By competing in events during the Olympics, you will receive points to allocate to a variety of different skills, including Stamina, Speed, Power, Fatigue, Agility, etc. …guys, this isn’t the Season mode in Madden. This isn’t like creating a character in a sports game and embarking on a career. If you’re competing at the Olympics, you’re in the best shape of your life, and you’re really not going to improve much during those two weeks. Furthermore, what sense does it make for the entire team to grow universally across all disciplines? There’s just so much that’s wrong here, it’s tough to know where to begin! The biggest downfall should be obvious: because you start off low on the skills chart and must build up, you start off using athletes who apparently aren’t much better than that dude who works next to you in your cubicle. Of course, this changes based on the event (the gymnasts and divers know what they’re doing), but as far as track and field goes…it’s a wash.
Beijing 2008 is far too erratic – and in some respects, even broken – to warrant a purchase. The difficulty is all over the place, the control mechanics span a huge range with the final result being uneven at best, there’s virtually no Olympics atmosphere, your team’s athletes are woefully outmanned in terms of ability, and there are no real names included. In short, if you loved watching the Olympics, than just stick with the fuzzy memories generated by Phelps, Bolt, the men’s and women’s beach volleyball Gold teams for the U.S., gold medals for gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, and all the rest of it. Reliving the real-life Olympics is a far better option that trying to experience them in a virtual realm; this game will frustrate, annoy, and soon tire most any gamer.
9/11/2008 Ben Dutka