As the weather starts to turn cooler as we approach autumn, many athletically inclined people start thinking of sports played in ice and snow instead of sports played in the water or grass. It can also be said the season for winter sports videogames is coming up, too. Enter Winter Stars. Developed by 49Games and to be released by publisher Deep Silver, Winter Stars is a motion-controlled game for the Xbox 360 Kinect, PlayStation Move and Wii and the Balance Board. In other words, couch cushion-gamers need not apply!
In Winter Stars, players can compete in vaguely Olympics-themed variety of, well, winter sports, covering para skiing, curling, ski-doo, bobsled, downhill skiing, figure skating, biathlon, ski alpine freeride, snowboard cross, ski jumping and speed skating short track. I personally had the chance to test drive a few of the sports from the demo version of the Kinect game.
Winter Stars offers players a single-player or competitive multiplayer mode. Local multiplayer is two-player for all platforms except the PlayStation 3, which allows up to four players. Online multiplayer is for up to four players on any platform. The single-player story mode is the version that was demoed, which features a storyline revolving around three angsty athlete characters. Also, keep an eye out for a reporter, who gets victimized by all sorts of random comedic calamities and provides color commentary during cutscenes. It’s amusing stuff to watch at least once around, but in case you want to skip the cutscenes, you can.
Bobsledding was the first game I demoed. Running in place gets you a fast start, which is important to build momentum quickly. Graphics are clean, crisp and sharp, but honestly, you won’t be able to pay too much attention to them when you’re in the middle of a bobsled run. When you’re speeding down the track, the player can lean their body to more accurately guide their sled. I found the leaning motion in this game to be accurate and intuitive. That doesn’t mean this particular game is easy — players will careen down the course at breakneck speeds and will need to be quick in their responses. Luckily, there’s also a maneuver to hard steer the sled from walls when you careen into them, which will happen at least a few times.
The second game was the far more intensive game, the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Players will pump their arms to build momentum, leaning to steer, running in place to ski up steeper grades, and burning adrenaline (for temporary bursts of speed) from a meter by extending an arm forward. Once the player reaches the firing range, he or she will emulate a basic rifle-cocking, aiming and firing motion, but of course, the quicker and more accurate the player is, the better it is for their position when resuming the skiing portion of the course. The motion control, especially in the rifle firing portion of this game, felt crisp and accurate.
Last, I had the opportunity to do a competitive demo of snowboarding. This game, at least to me, was particularly fun, even if it also involves a complex buffet of motions to try out for tricks, over and above the basic character controls. Controls involve taking a sideways stance to emulate a snowboarder’s standing position and leaning for balance, crouching for speed, and running in place to get back on the track after failing — which will inevitably happen if you try more of the wilder moves.
The real fun is in learning the more spectacular snowboarding moves, including riding the rails and performing spins, board grabs and more when launching from a ramp and putting air underneath the board. In my demo, I lost to my live splitscreen opponent, but I found myself distracted and enjoying myself when trying out the more splashy moves — such as the Karate Kid-like “crane pose” maneuver.
As players advance through Winter Stars in single-player mode, they can unlock additional courses and accrue points that can be used to enhance their attributes. However, there is no setting to handicap difficulty in the single-player Career mode, according to the developer. Each course also has two different day settings complete with appropriate lighting effects, but I also hope in the finished version of Winter Stars there will be full day versus night selections, as well as weather options, at least for the multiplayer courses.
Winter Stars seems like it has loads of potential as a party game with an athletic, burn-your-calories side to it. Play this game for an hour, and you will sweat, but you will also have a good time as you’re laughing, too. The graphics, while not exceptional, are very good and very clean. Overall, based on the demos I tried, the control is as sharp and clean as the graphics. Players shouldn’t need to blame blurry, soft-edged graphics or Kinect for mishaps and misfires. Unlike old-school sports games, which involved button mashing and other repetitive gimmicks, Winter Stars should provide enough variety and repeat play via differing events, challenges and cups to keep most players engaged for a long time.
The release date ETA on all platforms for Winter Stars is late November, just in time for the holidays.