It's hard to believe it has been four years since the last Olympic Games. It seems like only yesterday we were plonked on the couch, feet up, and remote in hand watching elite sportsmen and women lap the Athens athletics circuit on television like so many sugar-crazed hamsters. With the impending release of Beijing 2008, the official game to celebrate the games, we're hoping gamers have been just as regimental as peak atheletes in their training, as this title is about to test both your gaming and muscular mettle. We got our hands on a polished development build of the Xbox 360 version of the game, and took some time to get familiar with a handful of the 38 events across 10 sports, the title's unique controller scheme, and how you'll be able to show off your skills online.
The game is broken into seven distinct categories: track, field, aquatics, gymnastics, shooting, other, and combined. Under track you'll find the requisite 100m, 200m, and 400m sprints, as well as 800m and 1500m distance running, and 100m and 110m hurdle events. With the exception of the hurdles--which are broken down by gender--the other races can be performed either as a male or female athlete. Field plays home to high jump, pole vault, long jump, triple jump, shot put, discus, hammer throw, and javelin. The gymnastics line-up includes parallel bars, vault, rings, floor exercise, beam, and the always hair-raising to watch uneven bars. The shooting category is the smallest, and is made up of shotgun skeet, 10m air pistols, and 25m rapid fire pistol events--the latter of which is the sporting equivalent of a stationary drive-by as paper targets whip past the player as you try to aim for high points. The "other" category features classic Olympic events such as archery, weightlifting +105kg, team pursuit cycling, K1 kayak singles, 81-90kg Judo, and singles table tennis. The combined category will let gamers tackle the male athletics decathlon, female heptathlon, or their choice of five, 10, or 20 random events. You can also elect to pit yourself against all the sports featured in the game for the ultimate thumb workout.
Beijing 2008 uses some rather unorthodox controls, so once you've picked your sport and nation, your first point of call will be to check out the training mode. As you move between sports you'll notice some repetition in the way events are handled from a control standpoint, but given the sheer breadth of choice of sports available, you'll want to watch the tutorial at least once before you attempt having a go. Athletic sprint events use either a rapidly waggled left or right analog stick, or A and B alternating button press combo to build up speed. It can get a bit rough on the wrists and fingers, and we see the potential for a controller or two getting busted along the way given the speed at which you'll need to mash or waggle to be competitive against the game's AI.
Holding the left or right trigger down is used to build starting power, and you'll launch out of the blocks when you hit the red zone of the on-screen bar. We found false starts surprisingly common, and it's a system that can take some getting used to if you want to avoid being left behind when the gun fires. Once mastered though, it's a skill that will immediately improve your performance in events such as swimming, and translates to better performance as you build up speed for your approach in the long jump. A single press of the trigger within striking distance of the end of running races will see your avatar lunge chest first across the finish line.
High jump, parallel bars, and the gymnastic floor exercise events also share some common controls, using quick action button presses to build speed, dismount apparatus, or score points. Many sports offer players the choice of one of three difficulty levels in easy, medium, or hard, and are scored accordingly. Like Guitar Hero and other reflex-based games, the number of buttons you'll need to press scales by difficulty, and at the highest level you'll be pressing the corresponding button with the on-screen prompt in quick succession with little room for error. At the medium and hard level there's an almost rhythm game element to pressing in time with the routine's backing music, although there's only one gymnastic floor routine to complete. And because the button presses aren't randomly generated, even at the hardest difficulty you'll master it quickly.
Though direct comparison between two diametrically opposed sports isn't all that common, in the Beijing 2008 game 3m springboard diving and the hammer throw events share some distinct similarities--at least from a control point of view. Both require the player to keep an on-screen ball icon inside a coloured range bar to twirl either the hammer or the character's body in diving. The icon gathers momentum quickly, and you'll need to keep up by quickly scrolling the right thumbstick in circles.
Because this is a sports title and one that should bring out the competitor in everybody, multiplayer appears to have been given plenty of attention. In addition to offline two-player matches and system link, gamers will be able to go head-to-head over Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network and compete for high scores and fast times using the game's online leaderboards.
Beijing 2008 - The Official Video Game of the Olympic Games will hop, skip, and jump its way onto the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC in early July.