In case you hadn’t noticed, the Olympics are a few weeks away and interest (or incessant coverage) of sport is almost at fever pitch. In the race to release Olympic related software it was Mario and Sonic who first crossed the finish line however Summer Stars 2012 – in no way affiliated with the Olympics at all – manages to get in before the official London 2012 tie-in. With eighteen events in which to grab gold, as well as support for both motion and standard control schemes, Summer Stars has a lot to offer on the surface. However, what lies beneath the marketing spiel and bullet points leaves a lot to be desired.
Things begin solidly enough with a practical if rather mundane menu full of smooth curves, clean lines and world flags; it has all the charm of a snazzy business website. Avoiding the hideous gaze of International Olympic Committee lawyers, the first text box you’ll encounter in the game asks you to command a ‘nameless team’ entering an unspecified tournament to win gold. You can select a nationality but the customisation ends there; I chose the UK team for the purpose of comparison and was presented with a pair of graphically underwhelming athletes. Despite their less than top tier appearance these two turned out to be multi-talented supermen, between them able to compete in every event from archery to mountain biking. The bulk of the game lies in the ‘Career’ mode, featuring a honeycombed grid of events that, once completed, will open up adjoining events. Mixed in amongst the standard sports are challenges that twist the game play into new and bizarre versions. Earning medals will give your team XP and new equipment – the XP contributing to rapidly increasing levels that reward your team with skill points. Using these skill points can artificially increase your performance in each discipline, such as making you faster during sprints or steadying your aim for the archery competition.
As soon as you’re ready to try out the first sport one of the many awkward aspects of the game comes to the fore; uncomfortably dire vignettes complete with unfunny dialogue. There’s a constant feeling that you know the voice actors hate every moment, every poor joke and every incredibly lame insult that they’ve had to deliver. Without any affiliation to a particular sporting body or tournament, Summer Stars has a degree of leeway to increase the entertainment value between the game play and the writers choose to pepper the game with an attempt at comedy. Imagine watching the worst moments of The One Show between every event and you’ll have an idea of the level of wit on display. Despite the lack of boxing in the list of events you’ll be sorely tempted to punch the screen when Ryan and Cindy, an incredibly annoying pair of news anchors, arrive on screen to bicker and provide inane, repetitious commentary. Even worse,there’s a layer of rivalry between certain athletes – most often from the UK and USA – wherein bullish American stereotypes trade lukewarm insults with your team, for no other reason than to spur you to victory. These soul-crippling interludes last only a couple of minutes but still manage to overstay their welcome, wearing a joke so thin that no amount of adlibbing by the voice actors can redeem the scene (or their dignity).
Work through the appalling introductions and you’ll find that the gameplay of Summer Stars has about as much personality as dear old Ryan and Cindy. Track and field games from past decades revolved around button mashing and Summer Stars hasn’t moved too far beyond these primitive origins. Most events require either quick-time events, rapid stick wiggling or a combination of the two. A sprint, for example, threatens your controller (and sanity) with a stamina draining session of constant stick jiggling – a grind at the best of times, least of all when it’s an epic 400m sprint. On the other end of the spectrum you have the trampoline which is far more complicated than it’s worth, requiring both timing and relatively complex button combinations to succeed. The best events tend to be those that have seen analogues appear in other games; archery works to an extent because we are already aware of the mechanics from other titles. The need to compensate for wind speed and direction adds a thin layer of thought to the discipline, although not enough to make it a riveting must-play.
Scattered amongst the standard events are bonus challenges that feel tired at best or, occasionally, strangely incongruous. One archery spin-off sees your static target replaced with moving marks, each reducing in size with every successful hit. It’s not the height of entertainment but that kind of event helps to break up the monotony that can set in with extended play. On the other hand, other challenges task you with sabotaging a dive by using a water cannon or shooting paparazzi style photos of a pole vault – both riffing on the same point-and-shoot mechanic. They feel like half-hearted attempts at diversifying the game play but don’t elicit any more enjoyment than a brief feeling of confusion. Completion of events unlocks further trials, XP to buy skills and better equipment. Rival competitors initially have unfair advantages in comparison to your team so new skills and equipment are vital purchases. For a game about skill and rightful winners it seems off-message to say that a specific type of footwear or ‘quicker recovery’ skill is necessary to win. It’s another factor that makes Summer Stars seem almost rebellious, thumbing its nose at the rigid discipline enforced by the Olympic brand.
Any owners lucky enough to own a Kinect or Playstation Move will find that the support for these controllers extends little more beyond ‘move
Graphically Summer Stars 2012 is a bit of a non-event. In another design choice that moves the game away from the Olympics, Summer Stars features worldwide locations instead of a single city. So you’ll be aiming arrows in Japan, sprinting in Illinois and... diving in a tropical water park in the heart of London? Even the locations are a weird mishmash of places – aside from the beaming sunshine of the Thames-side water park there’s also a fencing setup next to Tower Bridge. Or, rather, Tower Bridge if it were made out of cardboard. The backdrops vary in quality, ranging from flat, Legoland-esque renditions of London landmarks to a generic but better looking stadium in America. The athletes do not fare much better but at least their animations – especially during slow motion replays – do look convincing enough. Meanwhile, two hideous looking mascots look like Disney rejects but still look better than the Olympic blobs. Occasional bugs cause unintentional hilarity – one fencing match saw my player’s foil extend beyond the top corner of my screen making any attempts at parrying useless.
If there was a word that sums up Summer Stars it has to be ‘mediocre’ – a spin-off cash-in that never rises above derivative. It’s hard to get this type of sports game right. You either have to drown them in recognisable characters like Mario and Sonic, substituting personality for real fun, or go for content and accurate realism such as branded games like FIFA or Tiger Woods . Summer Stars tries to inject personality but triumphantly fails in that pursuit, while the events it features are a motley bunch – mountain biking is an eyebrow raising entry that could be a lot of fun but turns out to be the same descent down the same course each time, like an extreme sports Groundhog Day. Meanwhile, more traditional events like the sprints, throws and jumps are as much fun to play as they are to watch. The eighteen events promised on the box also disappoints, especially when the 100m, 200m and 400m sprints count as three individual activities. Those that look to include more in the way of nuance – mountain biking or fencing – soon reveal themselves to be equally as simple thanks to their unchanging nature and dull presentation.
The number of events available for the Career mode is impressive but you’ll quickly run out of patience with the game long before attempting the World Cup. Summer Stars is a compilation of sports minigames that doesn’t really know where to place itself – its attempts at humour sit awkwardly against the precision needed to win gold. Meanwhile the straightforward graphics and dry menu system only serve to highlight the esoteric challenges and convoluted control schemes. The whole game feels more like a product, a quick cash-in rushed out to take advantage of Olympic fever with the bare minimum of activities and a committee-designed sense of humour. Once you’ve tried out the different activities it’s highly unlikely you’ll want to return for more. With a summer of sport (and sports games) on the way, this game actually reminds you that there are other athletic titles to buy or – heaven forbid – actually try. I hated Sports Day at school but I’d rather break my neck trying to pole vault or puff my way through a 400m sprint than play Summer Stars for more than a few minutes and that’s saying a lot.
Going for gold or falling at the first hurdle?