Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Release Date: October 22, 2007
EA has taken a lot of flak lately for buying out smaller development houses and positioning itself as one of the only sources for video games. Many consumers are grumbling that perhaps EA is getting too big for its britches and that acquiring other companies is just a convenient way to stymie innovation. After all, if you're the only show in town, you can do everything your own way and stick to a simple money-making formula for all the games you make. Forget new franchises and gameplay, just keep putting out Madden and watch the cash roll in. Obviously, the hardworking men and women at EA take exception to such suppositions, and they are willing to roll up their sleeves and show that they've still got it in them to make a fun, simple game that the whole family can enjoy.
EA Playground can best be described as a more kid-centric version of Wii Sports. You star as a new kid at school who's challenging other kids on the playground to various mini-games in order to win marbles and stickers. Stickers serve as progress markers, while marbles act as the game's currency. Once you gather up enough marbles, you can trade them with the "Sticker King," who will provide you with power-ups for all of the mini-games, evening the playing field, so to speak, for the later stages. Once you've beaten all of the challenges set before you, you earn the right to challenge the Sticker King himself in order to become the biggest kid on the block. EA Playground features seven unique games (Dart Shootout, Dodgeball, Kicks, Paper Racers, Slot Car Racing, Tetherball and Wall Ball), and most of them are surprisingly fun to play.
Dart Shootout plays as an on-rails FPS, with the Wiimote cursor acting as your crosshairs. You'll move along a preset path through the playground, with targets popping up along the way; kids with their own dart guns will also leap out to take shots at you. You can shoot darts out of the air for bonus points, and if things ever get out of hand, you break out a handy shield to deflect enemy volleys. The levels culminate in a boss battle, a multi-stage affair where you whittle away at his or her health as you try and keep up with near-constant attacks. It was quite enjoyable, and the controller's sensitivity and targeting also seemed perfectly calibrated.
Dodgeball pits you in a 3-on-3 (occasionally 4-on-4) bout of ducking, dipping and dodging in an effort to be the last man standing. Successful dodges fill your power meter, which will eventually allow you to unleash Mega Throws with the intent of dislodging your foe's glasses from his face. Also, if you find yourself outnumbered, pressing B with the proper timing will allow you to catch a ball and bring back one of your downed comrades. The only downside to this particular mini-game is that the AI is wildly inconsistent on both sides of the ball. In some games, my teammates would wipe out the other team quickly and with almost no help from me, while in other cases, it seemed like no sooner did I pick up a ball than they were both down, leaving me to bear the full brunt of the other team's attacks. The enemy AI was similarly frustrating, either standing in one place and letting themselves get nailed or executing physically impossible maneuvers that would make Neo and the rest of "The Matrix" crew look twice. I couldn't really decide whether I liked this particular mini-game or not, though it seemed to be frustrating more often than it was fun.
Kicks is a sort of hybrid between soccer and volleyball. You and a teammate pass the ball back and forth until you are ready to take a shot on the opponent's goal. A perfect pass sets you up for a power shot, which is obviously more difficult for the other team to stop. When your foes have the ball, you can play either "upfield" defense or goalie, and you must time the flick of the Wiimote to make the diving stop. It can be tough to learn the timing so that your passes set up the big shots or your kicks down clang off the goalposts, but once you get it down, this is one of the most fun mini-games you'll find.
Paper Racers is the most innovative of all the mini-games, and the control scheme alone makes it worth playing. The premise of the challenge is that you must pilot a paper airplane through a course and reach the finish line within a certain amount of time. Normally, this would be little more than standard fare, but flying your plane is an absolute blast. You see, you hold the controller as though you are holding a paper airplane. Thrusting it forward achieves initial liftoff and grants you a speed boost during the course of the race, while dipping and twisting the nose controls the pitch and yaw of your onscreen aircraft. This is the kind of mini-game that fully utilizes the Wii's unique control scheme, and it really has the potential to become a game unto itself. It would really be a good idea for EA to spin off this game, add some depth and release it as a stand-alone title; it's really that fun and innovative.
Slot Car Racing is sort of the poor man's Mario Kart. Your RC car will zip along the track, and you can pick up a few different power-ups along the way. From nitro boosts to electric zaps, the pickups will serve as your only real hope for victory. While the races are pretty simple to win at first, by the time you get into the upper echelons, you'll find yourself frantically bumping, boosting and zapping to try and keep your opponents at bay. It's a fast-paced, exciting game, and you'll often find yourself gripping the controller a little bit tighter as you round the last bend and have the finish line in your sights.
Tetherball hearkens back to the days when games were simple, before all this fancy technology came along and made kids fat and lazy. The game has you and another kid hitting a ball back and forth, trying to whack it hard enough to make your opponent miss and force the ball to wrap around the pole a set number of times. You swing the Wiimote to strike the ball, and consecutive hits will build up your power meter. Once the meter, fills, you can hold the A and B buttons as you strike and unleash a Mega Shot. Usually, this punch is enough to catch the other kid off guard and bring you to the cusp of victory. Unfortunately, this was one of my least favorite mini-games, as I could never quite perfect the timing to consistently strike the ball. Also, a lot of the matches seemed random, with the characters simply batting the ball back and forth until the computer eventually missed.
Finally, Wall Ball is essentially squash without the rackets, as you and an opponent take turns smacking a ball in the hopes of making the other guy miss. Various power-ups will appear as you play, and their effects vary from warping the ball to another spot on the wall to speeding up the ball or giving you a powered-up shot. Sadly, Wall Ball suffers from some of the same shortcomings as Tetherball, as most matches devolve into a battle of attrition as you mindlessly swing the controller and wait for your opponent to miss. The power-ups and Mega Shots make this mini-game a little more fun than Tetherball, but those two games are by far the weakest links in the EA Playground chain.
For a game aimed at kids, this one has a surprising amount of depth. Not only can you compete with over 20 kids for stickers, but each of those kids also has between three and five "dares" for you to complete in order to earn marbles. Dares are typically more challenging versions of the mini-games, with tasks such as dodging a constant barrage of dodgeballs for 15 seconds or winning a game of Kicks without ever letting the opponents score. The dares add a nice degree of depth and challenge to what would be an otherwise shallow experience. On top of the dares, the game also features bug hunts, basketball dribbling and free throw challenges. All of these little touches go a long way in making the game worth the price of admission. While the single-player experience still isn't lengthy by any means, it's far deeper than you would expect.
When you're done with the single-player experience, EA Playground makes for a fun multiplayer title for the whole family. The game supports up to four players, meaning there should be ample opportunity for everyone to get in on the fun. If all your Miis have become maxed-out pros in Wii Sports, then this might be a good way to keep those good-natured competitive fires burning for a while longer. EA Playground is one of those titles that really screams to be played with friends, and missing out on the multiplayer component would be a shame. I really wish you could use your Miis on this playground, but unfortunately, you are limited to the pre-designed character models.
The graphics are cute and colorful, and most closely resemble that of MySims. The kids run about with a carefree air, and the smiling faces and hearty laughter will likely make you nostalgic for old days in the schoolyard. You may not find yourself rubbing your eyeballs in graphical disbelief, but the game still looks good, and the Wii never seems to strain to keep up with the action. While the graphics fit the game, the sound tends to waver between whimsical and cute to downright irritating. A lot of the soundtrack seems to be gleaned from an old midi machine, but the music in some areas of the playground does hold a bit of charm. Furthermore, there is an option to simply turn off the music if it's getting to you, so credit EA for understanding that some people will find the music more enraging than enjoyable.
As you may have gleaned already, the controls are fairly simple, and it is doubtful that you'll spend much time digging through the manual. While the power-ups you obtain will require a little bit of extra effort, the hardest maneuver in the entire game requires you to hold the A and B buttons while you swing the controller. Most of the controls are incredibly intuitive, and there are only a few things that could have been done better. The biggest fault is that the game doesn't support the Nunchuck attachment so all movement is controlled with the directional pad, which is a major pain when playing Dodgeball or maneuvering around the overworld playground map.
Surprisingly, EA Playground is a title that delivers far beyond expectations. I expected it to be little more than another Wii Sports rip-off that tried to cash in on the holiday rush. The mini-games are actually quite fun, and only Tetherball and Wall Ball stand out as weaknesses. If you're looking for a great family game or something to hold the kids over until the next Spongebob or Naruto game, then EA Playground is a great choice. And don't tell anyone, but the adults in the house might just have a good time, too.
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