Publisher: Conspiracy Entertainment
Developer: 49 Games
Release Date: December 18, 2007
Right about this time of year, we hit the ultimate in gaming doldrums. All of the good stuff was released back in November, and very few worthwhile games will be hitting store shelves until later in the spring. It's during this soul-sucking stretch of nothingness that we are subjected to games like Winter Sports: The Ultimate Challenge.
The game boasts nine different sports, but really there are only seven. The main events are Alpine Skiing, Bobsleigh, Cross-Country Skiing, Curling, Figure Skating, Ski Jump and Speed Skating. The title also includes Skeleton and Luge, but they look and feel exactly the same as Bobsleigh, only with fewer people riding. Really, everything feeling the same is one of the biggest sins of Winter Sports, as nearly all events play the same as the others. All of the downhill skiing competitions consist of twisting the Wiimote and Nunchuk back and forth to make the turns through gates, Speed Skating and Cross-Country Skiing each rely on moving the controllers in a rhythmic fashion, and the Ski Jump event is so stripped-down and ends so quickly that there really isn't much reason to fret over how to control it at all. The only remotely unique event is Figure Skating, but it relies on a virtually broken rhythm drumming mechanic that is so frustrating it's unlikely you'll want to even play it.
There is a wide variety of game modes, so the title may be good for entertaining the kids on a cold winter's morning. You can choose from Campaign, Career, Classic Competition, Competition 7 and Competition 15. The Competition 7 and 15 events are just what they sound like: You undertake the specific number of events and are ranked and awarded medals at the end of each. The player with the most points and medals in the end wins. The Campaign mode puts you on a board filled with hexes, each representing a specific challenge in a specific event. Complete the challenge, and other adjoining nodes will be unlocked. Beat them all, and you have too much free time.
Finally, Career mode places you in a seven- or 15-event tournament, and you must ski and skate your way to the medal podium. Placing highly in each event nets you experience points, which you can then use to up your stats on any of the various sports. The weird thing is, these points don't seem to make you any better; they just cause the judges to give you more lenient scores and for opponents to record slower times. I guess a better term for them would have been handicap points.
In addition to the above modes, you can also compete in single events, and that's probably the best way to play Winter Sports anyway. That way, you can focus on improving your abilities in the events you actually do slightly enjoy, while steering clear of the other stuff. Good luck finding a fun event, though; I'm still looking for that magical eureka moment when I come across something I truly enjoy. In other words, don't hold your breath thinking this actually has the potential to be a fun and enjoyable title.
Further compounding the boring and unsatisfying gameplay are the truly ugly graphics. Character models are not only unrealistic, but they are also flat and utterly devoid of character. While you won't notice how bad they look from afar, just you wait until that first medal ceremony, when you are greeted by a face only a mother could love. The rest of the game suffers from the same "make it functional but don't make it pretty" mindset. Landscapes are dull, animations are rudimentary, and there's absolutely no sense of speed or thrill. If I'm strapped on a board for the Skeleton and shooting down a hill at 100 mph, I'd like to at least feel like I'm moving fast, but that's not on the agenda here.
One thing Winter Sports does pretty well is the commentary. The two-man booth team seems knowledgeable of the events, and they are quick to make a biting comment when you screw up. Even better, when it's become obvious to them that you haven't won, they'll start chatting about something completely unrelated, such as where they should go for dinner or if they want cream and sugar in their coffee. It's never mean-spirited, though, and you may find yourself chuckling at their verbal barbs as you slowly shush down a mountain trying not to slam into the walls.
When it comes right down to it, I honestly can't think of any reason to recommend Winter Sports: The Ultimate Challenge for a rental, let alone a purchase. I suppose if you are the world's foremost expert on the Winter Olympics, you may be interested, but if you are the world's foremost expert on the Winter Olympics, then you probably have more important things to do than play a game. While a healthy number of game modes and good, insightful commentary are nice, they do little to mask the fact that the title is ugly and not much fun to play. There's enough shovelware on the Wii already, so don't encourage any more, and skip this one at all costs.