Winter Stars
Developer: 49 Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: 1-2 split screen, 2-4 online
Words By:

As winter fades into springtime I finally discover why no one had picked up this game to review. Several of our reviewers had a quick go then carefully placed it back on my desk, where it would languish until I foolishly picked it up, determined to get the game reviewed come hell, high water or bad knee.

Winter Stars didn’t start well for me as although the main Kinect sign-in menu recognised me, remarkably the game (which presumably uses the same recognition software routine) didn’t, meaning I had to fiddle around re-doing the Kinect recognition sequence and using a joypad, not a good start to a Kinect game.

Winter Stars is a collection of eleven snow and ice based events; 4-Man Bobsled, Figure Skating, Biathlon (cross-country skiing & target shooting), Paraskiing, Curling, Snowmobile, Downhill Skiing, Freeride Skiing, Snowboard Cross, Ski Flying, and Short-Track. The first three are available from the start and you unlock the others by completing cup tournaments and challenges.

The presentation is basic, with a horrible parallax-patterned, gag-inducing loading screen, which only serves to highlight how long the loading times are. The story-driven single player mode with its team spirit, pep talks and angst immediately grated as I’m firmly of the opinion that ‘does every single bleedin’ game have to have RPG-style XP and “character development” these days?’ Anyhow, the XP gained can be spent on new equipment and skills enhancements in preparation for the challenges ahead, including a purchasable “retry” ticket, allowing you to retry a failed event, a feature that has been a standard option in every other sports game, ever. The game allows for a simplified, “Family Friendly” control system that leaves you feeling like a non-participating spectator with its occasional button presses and simplified everything. Feeling insulted by this gameplay-lacking idiot mode I changed the controls and was immediately assaulted by a series of tutorials and controls requirements that put strain on both my weak knee and my trick back. I found that I couldn’t do more than 20 minutes or so of any of the unlocked events without feeling distressed and needing a rest, a first for me in any motion-controlled games on Kinect, Wii or PlayStation Move that normally energise and encourage me to be more active. It’s likely a lot of people will receive the game’s own health and safety message ‘Feeling tired or sore? Take a rest!’ just after they’ve popped a knee or ripped a back muscle!

Between the actual cup events there are also a number of required special challenges that link the cups, such as training sessions that provide arcade-style action between events. For some unfathomable reason the idiots who designed this game removed the option for the simplified “family friendly” controls, and so because they have some ridiculous difficulty levels these challenges are SO difficult that many will find them harder than the cups themselves, or even find it impossible to unlock the next cup because the required challenge is SO tooth-grindingly, knee-poppingly hard that they have to give up or face physical injury.

Sadly, in addition to the fatally flawed game structure the Kinect sensoring seems a bit fussy, and although many events are accurate and instinctive (the bobsled and the downhill skiing for instance) some of the controls are a bit awkward and badly thought out. For instance, the Biathlon shooting element requires you to stand and point at the target with your left arm, and hold your right hand up palm to the camera like a Policeman that’s trying to stop traffic. When the sight is over the target you’re supposed to swing your right arm down to fire, which feels odd, looks silly and doesn’t work particularly well. You also reload your rifle by doing the same ‘fire’ arm-swing action in reverse, which is obviously asking for trouble and leads to many wasted shots resulting in a time penalty for each miss.

No matter what the lighting conditions and how well set up the Kinect setup sequence told me it was, the game kept telling me “You are leaving the field of view” when I wasn’t even moving! Several events require you to crouch which then results in an on-screen message telling you to “move away from the sensor”! It’s probably just as well that Kinect means I wasn’t holding anything as it may well have become a projectile. In some events, sometimes your competitor reacts instantly to your leans and other control inputs, and at others he/she seems to develop a mind of their own and head straight off into the trees. Also, considering the number of racing/timed events, and although a voice tells you your position and glowing icons show the positions of AI opponents ahead of you, there are no split times or checkpoint time to let you know how far ahead or behind you are.

On the graphics front the scenery is simplistic (the trees look like they came from the ‘snow-covered Lego pine trees’ library) but passable. Unfortunately Winter Stars’s ‘stars’ also betray their Wii compatibility with faces that look like they’re all victims of severe Botox addiction. The cut-scenes aren’t badly animated and most of the in-game motion capture looks the part, but the facial expressions are so bad – I know we’ve been spoiled by the likes of L.A. Noire and Assassin’s Creed but this sort of standard really is pathetic. Their clothing is also unimpressive - garments are basic, fabric textures and movement are non-existent, even the frilly ice skater’s dress doesn’t flow with the movement of the skater.

Old enough to remember how wonderful and addictive the single-buttoned joystick-controlled Epyx/US Gold Winter Games series was on the Commodore 64/128, this is yet another huge disappointment for me on the sporting game front. While I accept that a dodgy knee may have tainted my opinion of the game and limited my enjoyment, that had nothing to do with many of the other frustrations and annoyances that this game threw my way. This may be 'one for the kids' but I doubt it as the events just aren't fun or satisfying or visually stimulating enough to keep their interest, and I genuinely worry about the more mature gamer with more serious physical conditions and weaknesses than I, whose competitive spirits may make them try and contort themselves in the way that this game requires in order to get a skier down a mountain or hit a target. Be warned.

Best Bits

- The music is nice but way too grand and emotional for the game.
- The high-pitched surprise in the announcer’s voice regardless of which position you’re in. Unintentionally hilarious.
- The inexplicable cuddly Yeti.
Worst Bits

- Fiddly menus.
- The most annoying Kinect calibration we’ve seen.
- Awful character model faces.
- Painful loading routines.
- Intrusive health and safety pop-ups - ‘Feeling tired or sore? Take a break’. Oh alright then, if you insist,

by: Diddly

Copyright © Gamecell 2012