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Graphics: Having watched many of the 2008 Olympic events, I can say that I’m impressed with the level of detail put into the graphics in Beijing 2008. The athletes appear to have real expressions when they complete an event, and their warm-up techniques, such as stretches before a swim or light jogs before a race, are spot on. If you look closely, you’ll see nice definition to the muscles and skeletons of each participant. The opening credits feature a flyby of the National Stadium (aka “The Bird’s Nest”), which has been faithfully recreated, even down to the scrim that adorns the interior rim. Because Beijing 2008 is focused on the actual competition, it would have been easy for graphics to take a back seat, but the only downside to the visuals is the editor, which can be used to create your own player. The options are extremely minimal compared to today’s customization standards, making the editor superfluous.
Interface: I was appalled at the lack of intuitiveness of the interface in Beijing 2008. The most common error is that the word “Skip” does not mean “Start.” For every event there is a thematic cut sequence, showing your players limbering up or moving around the arena where they are going to compete. During this time, you are given the option of hitting “A” to skip or “B” to view a tutorial. Because I wanted to gain the full experience of the game, I would watch these cut scenes, making sure not to miss anything. As I stared at the screen, feeling as though the sequence was going on a bit long, I finally realized that I had to hit “A” to end the cut scenes, or else I would be stuck in a loop of never-ending camera angles, watching my athlete warm up.
Hitting “B” isn’t a much better choice. Being a newbie to the game, I thought I’d try the tutorials, but was disappointed to find that if I blinked, I would miss the instructions. Even worse, if I accidentally started the events, I found it impossible to pause to review the tutorials again. Instead of having the player simulate the actions they need to take, all of the instructions are quickly flashed across the screen, and then disappear without any prompting. Only players who double as speed readers will be able to understand what they need to do on the first go-around.
Finally, the menus are all sorts of faulty. When you compete in the events during Career Mode, you gain experience points to spend on various attributes, such as strength, agility, endurance, etc. It’s so incredibly hard to figure out how to distribute these points, it’s no wonder I kept losing all my matches. Also, when choosing an event, you have to click the title, click again to choose the gender of your athlete, then click “compete” at the bottom—a button that is always there. It shouldn’t take me more than one attempt to start a simple game, but somehow the developers found a way to make it challenging for me just to get started.
Gameplay: While I certainly applaud Beijing 2008 for creating a variety of events for the player to choose, repetition in these events severely impedes its ability to be an enjoyable game. To run a race, players must usually mash a button to sprint, but in Beijing 2008 the button-mashing style of play occurs not only in running, but also in almost every other track and field event, as well as in swimming. This causes more cramped hands than anything else, and there’s not just one running or swimming event, but 11 in which you need to “alternate tapping ‘A’ and ‘B’ to gain speed” on land, and four in the water. It’s definitely a shame, because some events are quite interesting, such as the parallel bars, in which you need to hold certain positions by moderating how hard you hold buttons or keeping your athlete’s hands steady using the two thumbsticks. In the end, getting good at the individual sports is more like physical training than plain old fun. All of these factors make playing Beijing 2008 more frustrating than enjoyable.
Multiplayer: Regardless of the problems it has, Beijing 2008 proves once again that Xbox 360 developers have the tools to push a game online and make it fun. The navigation is extremely easy, and challenging your friends to any of the events online is a breeze. This doesn’t completely make up for the fact that you can only play with one person locally, but it’s a good feature nonetheless. This is especially true because playing against fellow humans is more fair than competing against the built-in AI Olympians.
Sound FX: In most sports games, such as the Madden series, colorful announcers describe the multiple outcomes of the game as you play through it. In Beijing 2008, there seem to be roughly three or so stock phrases: “Welcome to the (insert event name)!”, “They have to be pleased with that result!” and “That’s not going to cut it, they’ll have to work harder if they want to advance.” It was just so repetitive, uninformative and dull, that I eventually just drowned it out.
Music: While not very prominent throughout the game, the ballads have a sense of both being “Olympic” and distinctly Chinese. There are powerful drums, much like the ones used in the Opening Ceremonies, mixed with various string instruments that conjure up images of lazy tea houses. The only thing lacking in the score is sheer content.
Intelligence: It is my personal belief that you shouldn’t need to be one of the best in the world at video games in order to compete with the AI. The game makers apparently disagree. Now granted, I do understand that this is the Olympics, and you’re supposed to be competing against the best athletes globally, but really, competing against these AIs felt a little too much like I actually challenged Michael Phelps to a swimming race. The first time I participated in one of the foot races, the race began, I blinked, and all of my AI opponents had already zipped off the screen. Even after running the event several times, to the point where I thought I was going to be the first person in history to tear a muscle in my finger from tapping buttons too hard, I still couldn’t keep up with the cyborgs I was racing against. I’m not talking about them barely beating me either; it was more like I was scared they were going to lap me, even in the 100m. That’s not fun or even remotely fair, and this was on the easy setting. I like challenges in my games, but not insurmountable ones.
Difficulty: It’s certainly possible that I’m just completely awful at this game, but the fact that I couldn’t even qualify for one of the 4 events on the “easy” setting, to me means something is awry. Not only did I not qualify, I never achieved higher than 7th of 8. Take for example the long jump. You mash buttons to gain speed, then you have to hit “A, B, A” at the right time to initiate the jump, and quickly stop your angle meter as close to 45 degrees as possible. After many attempts, I finally got the event down to a science. On my last attempt, I almost broke my poor fingers off attaining a top speed, got marks of “Perfect!” on each of my steps, and took off at a 39 degree angle. Before the results came in, I cheered as if I had already won the gold, and then discovered that I’d placed 8th. At that point I was saddened to find that controller-hurling wasn’t an event, because I was sure to place in that.
Overall: I absolutely love the Olympics, and get “the fever” every 2 years. I love the music, the cheesy back stories, and the overly excited parents and fans. With that in mind, I wanted to love this game, and just couldn’t. I was hoping for this to be the Xbox 360’s answer to Wii Sports, and it’s just not. It’s repetitive, painful button mashing is far too hard to play to warrant any real enjoyment. It’s really a pity because if it had just tried to be a little simpler, all the other mechanics are there to be a great game. It just goes to show you that a good idea can only get you part of the way there- lousy game interaction can truly destroy a game, as it has with Beijing 2008.
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