Officially licensed products are great; you get all the realism and authenticity you could hope for, all delivered via beautifully realised visuals and sky high production values. Sadly, due to a commitment to the brand, you also get the kind of po faced delivery and reverence to the product that can so often rob a videogame of much of its fun. While I’m sure the officially licensed videogame of the London 2012 Olympic Games will be an extremely competent take on this most famous of sporting events, I’ll be amazed if it captures the fun of a, oh, I don’t know, Virtua Athlete 2K. That game didn’t have the real athletes, or the real locations for that matter (Climax Stadium anyone!?), but what it did have was bundles of charm (something that is so often lacking from ‘official’ products).
Summer Stars 2012, the latest athletic compilation from 49Games falls somewhere between the two. It’s an unlicensed product, and thus doesn’t have the real athletes and genuine Olympic events and locations, but sadly, it also fails to capture the OTT charm of Sega’s charismatic Dreamcast era output. It’s a solid enough game, and the bright, solid visuals do lend the experience a degree of charm, but the consistent attempts at humour on the part of the very American commentary team tend to come across more like an especially bad episode of Total Wipeout rather than anything you might call genuinely funny. There is the occasional zinger “The pigs in the petting zoo can do that”, but for the most part, the visuals, delivery and gameplay all fail to capture the most positive aspects of either end of the gaming spectrum.
Of course, that’s not to say that Summer Stars 2012 is a bad game (far from it), I just wish that 49Games had embraced the more arcade-styled sensibilities that occasionally raise this game above its place as a budget alternative to the inevitable fully licensed product (which is funnily enough being developed by Sega).
Tone and visuals aside though, any game of this ilk inevitable lives and dies by the quality of its myriad of athletic events, and in fairness to Summer Stars, most of them are actually pretty entertaining. With some clever use of the Wii remote, Nintendo’s ageing motion controlled behemoth actually proves the finest place to experience Summer Stars 2012’s somewhat uninspired, but nonetheless enjoyable charms. Sure, traditional buttons are fun enough in that classic gaming kinda way and Kinect is fine if you want to go jumping around the living room like a lunatic, but as a well pitched balance between the two, the Wii remote feels just about right. Sure, the visual fidelity does take a hit for the Wii release, but thanks to the use of solid primary colours and a somewhat simplified visual style, the downgrade to standard-def isn’t too harshly felt (just watch out for the cold dead eyes of the athletes – terrifying stuff).
Some events inevitably fair better than others, but of the 18 sporting events on offer, the majority, while rarely brilliant, are certainly competent enough. There is a bizarre gulf in the difficulty in some of the events, with most running events proving outrageously easy in comparison to the always taxing pool-based events, but taken on their own merits, most events deliver their fair share of fun, and most importantly, can prove extremely competitive.
While the lack of online infrastructure found in the PS3 and 360 versions does inevitably have an impact on the longevity of the single player experience, this is the kind of game that really should be experienced with friends (real friends……not online ones). Competing against each other in local multiplayer is the reason a game like this exists and is, without question, the best way to experience Summer Stars 2012.
With numerous cups, along with the option for custom events, there are plenty of ways to enjoy Summer Stars 2012 with friends. Yes, the tutorials are occasionally unclear, and the majority of events will take a few tries before you know what it is you’re supposed to be doing, but despite the occasional dud (fencing is particularly pants), it won’t be long before you and your buddies and battling it out for the fastest times and longest throws. There is also a fully-fledged mountain bike tournament for those so inclined, but honestly, I wouldn’t bother. Yes, it’s kind of playable in a competent kind of way, but for the most part, it comes across as a poor man’s take on ‘extreme’ racing. With OTT tricks and loose handling, this feels both out of place and largely unnecessary. I appreciate that it was a chance for Summer Stars to set itself apart from the competition, but realistically, it has to go down as a largely failed experiment.
Although inevitable more fun with friends, Summer Stars 2012 does deliver a fair amount of content for the lone wolves of the gaming world. The ‘Missions’ are little more than in-game achievements and the single events and cups don’t do anything more than one would expect. In the Career Mode however, 49Games has clearly gone to great lengths to keep the mini-game set-up as entertaining as possible in the long run. With a solid sense of rpg-lite progression and a fair degree of variety, Summer Stars 2012’s Career Mode certainly proves to be the game’s proverbial ace up the sleeve.
Summer Stars 2012 will inevitably struggle to compete with the officially endorsed Olympic product, but in fairness to 49Games, they have made a decent stab at creating a more light-hearted, carefree alternative to Sega’s glossy, but most likely, charm-free take on the biggest sporting event in the world. With Sega now locked into development on the officially licensed Olympic product, there is a clear gap in the market for a truly arcade-styled take on athletic events. While Summer Stars 2012 does just about enough fill that void, I can’t help but feel that a stronger commitment to exaggeration would have benefited the game no end. Instead, we are left with glimpses of the game that Summer Stars 2012 could have been and a product that struggles to deliver a coherent identity of its own.
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