At first glance, EA Playground likely won't bear much similarity to any playground you've encountered. Vibrant green grass covers the ground, children with massive heads frolic on pristine play structures, and there's nary a scraped knee in sight. Thus, you encounter EA's vision of an idealized playground, one in which everything is controlled with button presses and wiggle waggles. The games available herein cover a wide range, from Dodgeball and Tetherball to Slot Car and Paper Airplane Racing. Some are generic, while some actually manage to capture a kind of fun that is indeed reminiscent of the game's namesake. These few standout games, along with the breadth of the other activities, make EA Playground a game worth a recess.
The game starts with that liberator of pent-up energies, that klaxon of freedom: the recess bell. You are loosed on a small playground area populated by frolicking children. There, you can challenge a few select children to a competition in the game of their choice. Each offers an initial challenge and three subsequent dares. Victory will earn you the currency to purchase power-ups, the right to challenge tougher competitors, and the freedom to access the three other playground areas. This currency (marbles) can be exchanged for power-up stickers offered by the playground don--The Sticker King. These stickers go in your sticker book alongside the golden stickers you earn the first time you best a new opponent. Collect 'em all, beat all the dares, and face off with the Sticker King for playground supremacy. Now how 'bout them games!
Dodgeball, the game EA sees fit to promote most heavily, isn't the strongest game in Playground but still manages to be fairly amusing. You can scurry around, roll dodge, throw, and catch. Hits can be scored strategically by throwing when an opponent is about to throw or has just thrown the ball, though an unlockable powered-up shot or random toss can score just as often. Computer opponents are merely passable and don't make for engaging foes. The real fun here is the heated multiplayer matches that can seesaw back and forth for quite some time, making victory all the sweeter.
Wall Ball pits you against an opponent as you take turns smacking a ball off a wall with your open palm. Any fun this game might have offered is compromised by the fact that you don't control your character's position; the only things you control are when and how high you smack the ball. The only thing you control is when and how high you smack the ball. There is a fun game in which you do this, but it's called Tetherball. Even power-ups scattered on the wall can't liven up this bland game, which is neither fun nor particularly challenging.
Kicks is a soccer-volleyball hybrid that pits teams of two against each other as they try to volley and kick the ball over the tennis-height net and into their opponent's goal. Footwork is out of your control, but you won't miss it because you'll be busy timing your passes, shots, defensive jumps, and diving saves. The power-up stickers unlock the full complement of power shots and defensive gambits, which really flesh out this game into something substantive and enjoyable. This is one of the best games in here.
Tetherball is the game's other gem. Try to wrap the ball-on-a-rope around the pole clockwise while your opponent tries to do the opposite. Your moves consist of a few different types of smacks that can change the height of the ball, speed it up, or just simply prevent it from passing. Constantly swinging your arm is alternately wearying and invigorating; a miss can deflate, while a well-timed strike--especially your second or third in a row--will elate beyond reasonable measure. When played against the tougher kids or a human opponent, Tetherball feels almost primal in its intensity. It's not much of a stretch to imagine the ball as your competitor's head as you both try to outsmack each other for the win. This game is totally raw and totally fun.
The other three main games are less directly competitive in nature and clearly aimed at a different demographic than the aforementioned four. Slot Car Racing challenges you to zip around the track grabbing power-ups, avoiding slowdowns, and shifting lanes as necessary. Computer opponents are almost nonexistent until the very end, and when it does finally decide to compete, it feels a bit cheap. The decision to keep the cars in slots is an intentional dumbing down of the car racing possibilities, and its limited appeal will likely hold only for younger players. Dart Shootout is an on-rails suction dart shooting game in which you blast away at targets, minion-level children, and eventually the boss kid who can actually take more than one powered-up dart. It's mildly amusing but intensely unoriginal.
Paper Racers is probably the best of these three, though it still falls short of compelling. Imagining the Wii Remote is your paper plane, you maneuver around obstacles, grab items, and boost when necessary as you are propelled ceaselessly toward the end of the narrow course. There is no delicate balancing act of lift versus velocity because your plane is always moving. There is also no real penalty for plowing through trees or rocks and such, only slight disorientation and loss of time. These last three games offer only superficial thrills and, therefore, feel as if they were included specifically with younger children-- who might not enjoy a tough Tetherball match--in mind. Given that, they offer competent filler and an accessible alternative to the more competitive games.
There's a bit more in the way of amusing filler to be found around the four playground areas. Bags of marbles are hidden in plain sight all around the grounds, providing a fun seeking game for young kids and providing the means to buy more power-up stickers. Bug Hunt is a tougher seeking game, challenging kids to run about, swiping up butterflies with the Wii Remote before time runs out. Basketball-bouncing tests and free throw stations round out this auxiliary collection of mini challenges.
From the competitive ball games and the more individual challenges of Paper Racers or Dart Shootout to the exploratory fun of discovering marbles and hunting bugs, EA has put together a collection of games that can reasonably appeal to a diverse age range. As you roam around from challenge to challenge, a swing of the Wii Remote will make your character high-five his or her opponent. This goes a long way toward creating a playful tone, and it's clear EA has really tried to establish the Playground as a place of fun and possibility. While it can't compete with a real playground, EA's version is a decent rainy day alternative.