Written by: Rik

Date posted: February 21, 2010

The Luge is akin to lying down on an oiled tea-tray and having someone push you down an extremely icy hill.

Much as I enjoy a Summer Challenge, at this time of the year it just doesn’t seem particularly seasonal. No, what you really need at the moment is a different kind of challenge – one more appropriate for these bleak and chilly winter months. That’s it! That’s what we need, by jove! A Winter Challenge! But hang on a minute: what would such a challenge involve? A variety of winter sporting events, you say…with the opportunity to practice or enter into a tournament against human or computer opponents? Marvellous, marvellous!

Ahem. A slightly less unhinged analysis would be that this game comes from the makers of the similarly-titled summer athletics game we covered a little while ago. In actual fact, this one came out first, a revelation which technically bleeds the opening paragraph of what little humorous value it had – although in mitigation they are extremely similar games and unless you held unreasonably high expectations of our levels of interest in the minutiae of ancient games’ release dates you’d realise that it was an oversight rather than a continuation of our unfortunate habit of covering games in a series out of sequence.

Like Summer Challenge, Winter Challenge offers you the less-than-generous total of eight events to participate in. You can either train (ie practice) individual events or enter into a tournament where you have to do them all. And that’s pretty much the sum total of the game’s content, so there seems little else to do but cover what each of them involves in turn. Oh, okay, so you really want to know what else the game has to offer? Well, in summary: there’s a title screen, a menu screen and an options screen, and if you select a tournament then there’s also a short animated sequence of the opening (doves and balloons released into a packed stadium) and closing (ditto, but at night, and with fireworks instead of doves and balloons) ceremonies.

One positive feature of the cross-country event is this pleasant animation of some overhead ski-lifts.

Anyway, there are only eight events to choose from, a number which looks even smaller when you consider that no fewer than five of them involve skiing. And as all pasty, outdoors-fearing computer nerds will tell you, skiing is the single most boring pastime in the history of the world. Well, hearing about other peoples’ skiing holidays certainly is. And watching Ski Sunday definitely used to be. Going skiing might be fun, but I’m not going to take the chance in case I come back and bore everyone I know to death by telling them how much I enjoyed it.

If real skiing is anything like playing this game, though, I doubt I’m missing out on much. The first event, Downhill, manages to generate a limited amount of excitement as it does allow you to build up a bit of speed and even master one or two jumps. However, any lingering thrills soon dissipate when you end up either crashing or missing a gate, and though this could easily be down to personal ineptitude, I’d have to say that technical limitations of the graphics engine make navigating the course and spotting the gates you have to hit trickier than it might be. Such afflictions also apply to the extremely-similar Giant Slalom, which is like Downhill but slower and with more turning involved.

If you find yourself crashing a lot during those events, you’ll soon find yourself praying for something as exciting to happen during Cross-Country skiing, which is a largely joyless and uneventful slog around a lap of flat, featureless snow. Remarkably, I seemed to have the most success with this one, which was quite an achievement to say that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I’d read somewhere that you had to alternate between a slow, rhythmical tapping and a more frantic hammering of the keyboard, so I simply tapped when I was bored and hammered when I got angry. It seemed to work fine.

Sadly, such methods proved less successful in the Biathlon, a tortuous affair which makes Cross-Country seem like a fun-packed joyride and simultaneously stirs you with admiration for real-life biathletes who must encounter the same feelings of pain and desolation so accurately simulated in this game magnified by a factor of several thousand. It’s like the Cross-Country event, except every so often you have to stop to take a few shots at some targets (by controlling a wobbly cursor) and if you miss, you get a whacking great time penalty. It’s especially amusing when you grind through the best part of the race making no mistakes only to fire wildly as the last set of targets and end up in last place.

Failing to land properly provides some amusing ‘breaking several limbs’ animations.

The final ski-based event is the Ski Jump, which may be short-lived but also happens to be several times more fun than anything else we’ve mentioned thus far. A push of a button sends your in-game representation down the slope, whereupon you face a brief battle to keep him as straight as possible, before pressing another button to leap at exactly the right time and go soaring through the air. From there, it’s a matter of keeping your skis straight and pulling off a decent landing. All of this may be over in a matter of seconds, but at least it’ll have you slapping your fingers on the keyboard for another go, thereby keeping to the general principles of the genre.

Three non-skiing events complete the set, two of which – the Luge and Bobsleigh – are virtually identical. While both are essentially fine, they seem to be missing the element of danger you might imagine they’d contain, as high-speed, spine-twisting crashes seem to be extremely rare. As if to compensate, it’s relatively easy to wipe-out on the last of the featured selection, the Speed Skating, which appears to be a relatively straightforward button-masher until your skater unexpectedly veers off into the wall on the final lap.

And that’s pretty much it. We criticised Summer Challenge for its brevity, and the same applies here. While the amount of time that it takes to complete a tournament is possibly extended by the Cross-Country and Biathlon events, it’s still over and done with in well under an hour. Of course, you’re supposed to spend additional time in the training mode making sure you’re good enough at each event to win medals, but sadly the general quality of those on offer act as a strong disincentive to do so. It also seems as if the developers missed a trick in not extending some of the shorter events in tournament mode – the ski-jump, for example, is good fun, but you only get one attempt during the tournament. My knowledge of the real Winter Olympics is sketchy at best, but I’m sure you get more than one go before the medals are doled out.

Denied biathlon glory once again by my flimsy aim…

As with Summer Challenge, the feeling of participating in something that represents a significant milestone in the sporting calendar is also absent. You never feel as if you’re competing against other athletes, with AI opponents represented by a list of times or scores. Even the medal presentations are disappointing, with the same anthem (a near facsimile of the Blackadder theme) playing each time rather than, as you might expect, the national anthem of the winning athlete. And while we’re moaning about the sound, we might also point out that much of the game is conducted with only the whirring of your PC’s cooling fan for company, with only spot effects present during most events.

Winter Challenge, then, is fundamentally the same as Summer Challenge, except with different sports which involve the cold and snow. Unfortunately, though, they’re just not as varied, or as much fun, which pretty much means that, as a game, it’s not quite as good as its sunnier sequel.