Considering that every major sporting event comes with a licensed videogame companion these days, it's hardly surprising to note that the looming summer Olympics in China have spawned an official Beijing 2008 title to help squeeze yet more profit from the bloated sporting cash cow. What is perhaps a little surprising however, is that Beijing 2008 isn't liberally emblazoned with a million and one ominous Electronic Arts logos.
Yet, while Japanese gaming giant SEGA is holding onto the publishing reins and Eurocom (Athens 2004, Batman Begins) returns to the Olympic fray to push content from the developmental end, Beijing 2008 offers itself up as a hugely ambitious but wildly erratic mishmash of sporting near misses that manages to delight and frustrate in (un)equal amounts.
The long and the short of Beijing 2008 centres on the game's massive roster of Olympic events, which include a host of sporting additions taken from stalwart disciplines such as track and field, gymnastics and aquatics, through to more obscure events including kayaking, judo, archery, team cycling and skeet shooting.
However, although the initial rush of variety is a tantalising plus point for Beijing 2008, the game's main fault lies with Eurocom's unfortunate propensity to overreach by not delivering on sizeable promise with convincingly intuitive execution.
That promise resides in the knowledge that 38 events across 10 sporting categories lies ahead for budding Olympians; a veritable wealth of gaming interaction that brings with it the golden dream of winning medals, smashing records, and even nurturing your chosen national squad of athletes to surging Olympic glory.
The true disappointment intertwined throughout Beijing 2008's promise, which is also bolstered by some notably pretty athletic models and authentic motion capture animation, is that while some of its events are worthy successes, the majority fall flat due to poor controls, a lack of attuned accuracy and an overwhelming sense of being disassociated from the on-screen action.
For example, drawing its inspiration from button-mashing arcade classic International Track & Field, the short-distance track events are brief and thrilling, requiring that the player only gain a good start via a trigger-controlled power meter before hammering on two face buttons or waggling a thumbstick for all they're worth in order to maintain full fluid speed. Similarly, the track hurdle events post an equal level of excitement by factoring an unforgiving timed trigger leap into the frantic control system -- which is extremely rewarding when carried off cleanly during a winning performance.
Aquatic race events are also fairly satisfying thanks to employing similar simple control mechanics that involve a triggered start and then the rapid rotation of the thumbsticks in opposite directions to maintain a healthy rate of knots - along with timed button presses for wall turns. In short, the race events with simple controls emerge as Beijing 2008's clear winners.
But every event has to have an athlete trailing in last, and Beijing 2008 is lumbered with far too many for its own good. Specifically, longer track events (800m, 1500m) are unfulfilling slogs that require steady button pressing or stick waggling to keep the runner's heart rate at its optimum before waggling like a lunatic during the final 100 metres and barging supposedly world-class competitors out of the way as if they were made of balsa wood. Similarly, lumpy aquatic dive events require the player to select a dive difficulty and execution speed and then rotate the thumbsticks in different directions to match the movement and speed of rolling on-screen cursors that poorly depict the diver's mid-air somersaults and twists.
Other notable events that fail to impress on the same level as, say, the latest X-Files movie, include Judo, which is so utterly broken that its carefully timed combo moves are all-but impossible to perform, and gymnastic events such as the uneven bars, rings and parallel bars are sullied by woolly, button-prompt and thumbstick inaccuracies that seriously damage the discipline's overall elements. Similarly, the water-based physics and bewilderingly unresponsive controls of kayaking are an absolute embarrassment, and skeet shooting is an exercise in pointlessness that demands a level of speed and accuracy from the player that is simply not returned by the game itself.
The upshot of Beijing 2008's loosely implemented events is that the player often expends far too much energy and concentration (and will to live) on struggling to follow fiddly and unreliable controls rather than on the actual sense of competing and the otherwise impressive visuals that are offered up when the game looks to keep things simple.
In an effort to increase Beijing 2008's longevity and appeal, Eurocom has included an immersive gameplay mode that allows the player to guide their chosen nation of athletes to ultimate Olympic glory via performance-based point allocation earned through proper event qualification days and finals days that decide the medal winners for each event. Challenge based, the qualification days task the player to perform to a good enough standard to earn a place in the finals of a select amount of events - with failure to do so immediately, and annoyingly, ejecting the player from the game.
However, as with most things in Beijing 2008, what starts out as a decent stream of event-based challenges soon fractures and collapses beneath the weight of expectation. Specifically, qualification days inexplicably give way to medal-deciding finals days way before all 38 events have been covered, which leaves the player's gathering sense of achievement thrown to the dogs when noting that finals days are a mixture of random events and only a smattering of those actually qualified for.
And, adding insult to injury, should the player perform well enough to secure the adoration of a much-coveted medal, the cut-scene award ceremonies amount to the cream on the laughable cake as the tearful athletes don't even have medals slung around their necks while the national anthem of the winner rings out in the background.
Aesthetically, Beijing 2008 is thoroughly decent in a visual sense; the cut-scenes of its athletes warming up their muscles and flexing their bodies are certainly impressive, as are the stadium exteriors and interiors, and the actual sporting actions performed across almost all of the game's events. Unfortunately, the serviceable visual prowess isn't matched by the game's sound, which offers strangely subdued crowd ambience that could only be gauged as accurate if based on the sport's waning popularity in the United Kingdom.
While Beijing 2008 attempts to expand beyond conventional single-player borders with a three-challenge multiplayer aspect and the online posting of individual Olympic records for each discipline, it's highly unlikely that Xbox Live servers will be sagging from the sheer weight of virtual athletes eager to test their sporting mettle against others. That's a nice way of saying not many people are going to turn away from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and/or Halo 3 in order to invest significant amounts of valuable game time mindlessly hammering on convoluted and ineffectual button, trigger and thumbstick control combinations.
Ultimately, Beijing 2008's sporadic hits are swamped by its all-too frequent misses, which only serves to highlight just how potentially good the overall game could have been had SEGA and Eurocom opted for interactive simplicity across the board. Instead, the game tries (and fails) to introduce ever-more complex and demanding control concoctions that drive the player further and further away from feeling as though he/she is investing the energy necessary to earn the right to stand atop the winner's podium. In terms of gold medal performance, Beijing 2008 simply doesn't qualify.