Is there any gaming genre that’s quite as mired in the past as the athletics sim? International Track and Field seemed to strike the perfect arcade formula to replicate the frantic pace of the 100 meters sprint all those years ago, and we’ve not really progressed very far in the meantime. Sure enough, hammering out the same RSI-inducing button-mashing pattern is a good way to simulate the fatigue that goes into any track meet, but innovation in control has been sadly lacking in the proceeding 20 years, leading the way to a raft of copy-cat titles with little merit beyond slightly flashier graphics.
To Sega’s credit, Beijing 2008 does throw a few improvements into the mix along the generally straight and narrow path to Olympic glory, but on the whole the formula remains unaltered. Time to grab the ice pack and the Deep Heat then, because this is going to be painful.
Jumping the gun
Perhaps variety is the biggest strength of any title firmly routed in local multiplayer, and we’re well served by just over 35 real-world Olympic events here. From the usual track and field disciplines through to Ping Pong and Judo, you can pretty much guarantee that your friends will all be able to find something they like, and more importantly, something they’ll probably be quite good at. Multiplayer sessions tend to be lengthy and competitive as a result, and it’ll be hard for a single player to dominate the podium.
On the track, play mechanics remain largely as you would imagine, alternating between A and B to sprint and either trigger to hurdle or begin another context-sensitive action. The pacing is furious enough to be tiring but stays just the right side of completely punishing, with sprints and long distance running tending to be both enjoyable and challenging.
Indeed the only real issue with these sections comes with the starting mechanism. Instead of simply hammering away at the sprint buttons when the pistol sounds, you’ll need to carefully fill up a power bar with either trigger, then depress it at precisely the right moment to kick off successfully. Not a bad idea in practice, but the animation is a little too delayed, meaning you’ll either end up with a fantastic start or a good second off the pace, there is no middle ground. It’s an unfortunate slip-up and one that really should have been caught in testing. Fortunately, it doesn’t completely ruin the experience.
In terms of presentation, the animation is fluid and the overall representation of the crowd and peripheral elements are excellent, with some fantastic texturing and lighting contributing to a good sense of stadium atmosphere. All we’re missing are the other events happening simultaneously in the background, but maybe that’ll be one to save for the next-next-gen.
A strong field
Veering off the track brings about differing results however, which was probably always going to be the case with a game that casts such a wide net. The rhythm-based events such as gymnastics usually balance risk and reward very well, with harder sequences impressing the judges but leaving you open to a catastrophic slip or a string of mis-steps during the routine. Likewise, cycling and weight lifting offer up well-pitched challenges that require both technique and tactical thinking to succeed. The shooting events are also well designed, rewarding accuracy and timing across a number of different stages. They also tend to be incredibly addictive and competitive.
Perhaps the most successful are the events that attempt to map the motion controls directly to the analogue sticks, bringing about a sense of synergy that’s relatively new for the genre. The diving events involve tracking a spinning marker with each analogue stick (representing the head and lower body) as your character flies through the air; and a similar scheme is implemented in the parallel bars and rings, requiring speed and concentration to succeed. It’s smooth, it makes sense, and it works extremely well.
The field events are also catered for very competently, with a couple of disciplines that eschew the predicted mentality to offer up something a little different. The Javelin is a prime example, with power and angle dictated by the left analogue stick as you run up to the line, sweeping from right to left in a throwing motion. It feels natural and ends up a great fit for the event, and the hammer throw and discus also utilise similar control schemes to improve the experience. The long and triple jump are essentially untouched however, with the angle meter falling into place on a short button press.
Almost inevitably, it’s the more outlandish events that fall foul of the worst implementation, with kayaking, table tennis and Judo virtually unplayable at times. Kayaking in particular is terrible, as your boat reacts with all the grace of a brick in a sea of treacle. All the shiny water effects in the world can’t hide such an abysmal control scheme, unfortunately. It’s a shame, because these are the events that could have held the most interest outside of the main package, and as always, they tend to be woefully short on quality.
The main Olympic mode is a fairly predictable affair as you choose a nation and run through qualifying events to make it to the big show, and the rather limited team customisation options essentially boil down to swapping out character models from a choice of around six or seven. There are some RPG elements to take into account as you build your squad with particular strengths in mind, but the whole experience feels tacked-on as a token effort, and it’s hardly worth playing through as a result.
Not that you particularly need it, that is. As a competitive multiplayer offering, Beijing 2008 manages to tick enough boxes to make it a worthwhile purchase if you’ve got the friends to back it up. Even if you haven’t, the usual suite of Xbox Live functionality and world record leaderboards will keep the competitive amongst you entertained for quite some time, and whilst it isn’t as polished as it could be, the little innovations and tweaks to the standard formula prove that there might be life in the genre yet. Who’d have thought it?