Let the Virtual Games Begin

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Beijing Olympics are underway, and thanks to NBC and its assorted networks and Web sites, you have probably spent time pondering the intricacies of sports you never cared about before.

Table tennis? Water polo? Badminton? I'm far more interested in watching obscure athletes take their shot at glory than in watching Kobe Bryant and the Redeem Team try to break the U.S. basketball jinx.

And when video games become an Olympic sport, I'll be ready. My prime Quake death-match days will probably be long past, but maybe NBC will invite me to provide expert commentary. Until then, I can participate in Olympic competition the same way I've come to enjoy football, baseball and auto racing: with a joystick in my hands.

Beijing 2008 (Everyone; Xbox 360, PlayStation 3; $49.99; Sega) Sega has the official Olympics license this year, and this is the publisher's second crack at simulating the Summer Games. The lighthearted Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games was a diverting collection of Wii mini-games, but Beijing" takes a more serious approach that could turn off casual sports fans. There are 38 events in this package, including track and field, swimming and gymnastics. The racing events all require similar technique, requiring you to rapidly push two buttons to simulate running or swimming. (Fans of Konami's '80s-era Track & Field games will feel right at home.) Gymnastics events ask you to duplicate on-screen patterns, like Dance Dance Revolution without a floor mat. And events such as discus and pole vault each have their own control schemes.

All the action is beautifully presented, which almost distracts from the game's biggest flaw: It's very difficult. Beijing starts you off with ridiculously weak characters (considering they're supposed to be Olympic-caliber athletes), and it takes a long time to build them up to a competitive level. That's okay if you're playing with friends and everyone's sluggish, but the single-player mode is bound to frustrate all but the most dedicated Olympics followers.

Big Beach Sports (Everyone; Wii; $29.99; THQ) You don't have to be a world-class athlete to participate in these "summer games." Big Beach Sports brings six outdoor challenges (volleyball, disk golf, cricket, bocce, soccer and football) to the Wii. As with every other Wii Sports wannabe that has come out in the past two years, the games are a mixed bag. Disk golf is pretty good, requiring you to develop a decent sidearm throw, and volleyball duplicates the set-and-spike action of the real thing. Even if you're not familiar with bocce, it makes for a fun head-to-head competition. However, soccer and football (even two-on-two) aren't well-suited to the Wii remote, and the inclusion of cricket in an American game is just weird. Even the sports that work aren't likely to hold your interest for long. Big Beach Sports is a passable party game, but it doesn't have the substance to satisfy a solo player.

Summer Sports: Paradise Island (Everyone; Wii; $29.99; Destineer) The games featured in this anthology (badminton, volleyball, miniature golf, horseshoes, lawn darts, basketball and croquet) are the ones you're more likely to see Americans playing during their summer vacations. Unfortunately, only a few of them are well executed enough to make you want to stay inside and play on a hot day. Paradise Island looks like an inviting place, but beneath the lush tropical scenery lurks some dreadful programming. In lawn darts and horseshoes, for example, you're supposed to mime throwing with the Wii remote, but the game doesn't seem to register how hard you're throwing. Likewise, there's no connection between the way you swing the remote and the animations in volleyball and basketball. Mini-golf and croquet are more accurate, and almost fun to play. But when you can play all these games (except for lawn darts) for less money in real life, why bother with the virtual versions?

-- Lou Kesten, Associated Press

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