Wednesday, February 11, 2009

This Is Not Possible: Ski & Shoot Impressions

So I assumed Ski & Shoot would be absolutely, horrifically bad, and I could play for an hour and then write a really snarky set of impressions that would (hopefully) give you a few laughs. Certainly, a biathlon game should be ripe for ripping.

And I just can't. It's too good.

Now let me identify my bias before we proceed. First off, I think some of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Winter Olympics have been in team cross-country skiing races. The sheer magnitude of the effort is incredible. That's not the same as being a fan of the biathlon, but it certainly makes me more likely to appreciate a game like this.

So I'm not going to complain that this game is boring because it's a simulation of the biathlon. Of course that's what it is, and it's a pretty damn good one. It's not a half-ass effort in the slightest, and it's obvious that the developers have attempted to be faithful to the sport.

Here are the basics. The meat of the game appears to be the career mode, where you begin as a novice racer and work your way up through the ranks. It's got a standard skill system where you can initially allocate skill points, and then you receive additional training points after each event you complete. If you finish high enough in a competition, you also receive experience points. Accumulate enough XP and your character increases in level, which gives you points to increase your potential in each skill.

When the race begins, you ski by moving the Wiimote/nunchuck combination forward and backward (oppositionally, like real skiing). Pressing B+Z puts you into tuck mode for downhills. Tilting the controllers controls direction, and turning in this manner is extremely intuitive and well done.

Something I particularly appreciate is how difficult it is to ascend steep slopes. It looks exactly as it does on television--it's slow-going on a steep slope, and you really feel the effort. It's tough.

Plus, and this is a nice piece of design, every race is a tactical balance between speed and stamina. On the left, you see a stamina meter for the race, and on the race, you can see a meter that represents your optimal speed for that section of the course. Exceed this speed (which is very easy to do on uphills), and you start depleting the stamina meter. The lower your stamina, the shakier your shooting, and the more difficult it is to ski. It's a nice balance.

Another nice touch is that as you ski, you see the race line of the skiiers who have gone before you. I can't tell if I go slower when I'm out of the groove--I think I do, but I may just be imagining it.

Shooting is also well implemented. Stop breathing with the A button, and shoot with the B button. Wind makes it more difficult to steady your aim.

Sounds are excellent, with very solid crowd and announcer sounds.

It's all well designed, it's obviously a sincere effort, and I think the developers (49Games) have done an excellent job.

Oh, and it supports the balance board. Hell, yes. I tried it out after a few races, and it was quite a bit more difficult to control turning (for me), but it was also great to lean way forward and go into the tuck position.

Look, this game obviously isn't going to be for everyone, or even most people. The races last a long time, relatively (about seven minutes, at least at this point in my career), and the experience isn't artificially jacked up--there are no power-ups, no wacky Mario Kart chicanery, nothing of that.

It's just a biathlon simulation, and a very good one.

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