Why are Olympic video games so crappy?

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 17 2006 11:57 AM

Olympic Video Games

Why are they so crappy?

Screenshot from Torino 2006

Sports video games have evolved to the point where they're almost as good as the sports themselves. So, why can't designers get the Olympics right? Unlike other sports games, which assume a lifelong knowledge of a league and its players, Olympic video games are quickies, designed to cash in on a brief infatuation. But just like the Olympic Games themselves, the Olympic Games games are easily forgotten.

Sure enough, like all Olympic video games, 2K Sports' Torino 2006 really sucks. It only took about seven hours of playing it on my Xbox to figure this out. Basically, the genre hasn't improved since 1983's Track & Field. At least that game had its wacky charms. You could really get booking by pressing on those two run buttons, and there was a secret code in the javelin event that allowed you to bring an enormous bird down from the sky. Torino 2006, on the other hand, feels pat, dutiful, and unimaginative.

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The game claims to contain 15 different events, though that's a bit of a stretch. Three of them are speed-skating races of different lengths. There are also four ski runs. Some of those are harder than others, but they're still the same basic deal. Bobsled and luge, just as in real life, don't differ much, and Nordic Combined doesn't really count either, since there are separate cross-country skiing and ski-jumping events.

The one thing Torino 2006 does effectively is give you the sensation of speed. A luge run really picks up the ice-flying pace as it goes on, and the scenery will blur effectively if you can manage to get through the downhill skiing without falling. But graphically, the game is mediocre at best. The athletes all seem to have jointless limbs that are twice as long as they should be. This is particularly annoying during the obligatory medals ceremonies, where they jump up and down like tracksuit-clad ectomorphs as no Olympic athlete ever would.

All this would be forgiven if the functionality were better. But in many events, there's not much for you to do. (Then again, it is hard to create entertaining digital replicas of sports in which the main skill involved is not falling or crashing.) For the ski jump, you press A to start, use a thumbstick to balance, press A again to take off, balance again, and press A to stick the landing. Crazy. In the luge, you steer, and that's about all. In the cross-country events, you have to control your speed as indicated by a ludicrous circle at the bottom of the screen. You're not looking at video-game madness if your only goal is to maintain enough stamina to be able to sprint at the end.

My wife Regina and I, after about an hour of practice, decided to spice things up a bit by contesting a nine-event Olympiad. She chose to be Austria and I picked Canada. Those are supposed to be good winter-sports countries, right? I got off to an incredible start, capturing a ski-jump gold, while she crashed and burned. Then came two skiing events in a row, and I got disqualified from both of them. So did she. (The races get moving so fast that it's hard to make it down half the course without missing six gates. In the Super-G, it's usually only about 20 seconds before you go hurtling into the boards.)

Regina rallied during the speed-skating event, which I simply could not figure out. With speed skating, you're supposed to keep up some sort of "rhythm" using the A and the B buttons, but no matter how well you do, or think you do, the ludicrous commentators (who for some reason Regina didn't want to disable) will inform you that you're way off. And even if they say you're doing excellent, you still finish fifth. That seems to be the problem with a lot of these events. There's little correlation between how you perform the tasks and how you finish. The computer-generated "competition" varies a lot in its skillfulness. If you mess up royally, you finish last. If you ace it, you might finish second-to-last.

So, we tried it again, "customizing" our competition to include only events that we knew we could finish. The medals began to rack up, but I got tired. It didn't take much to get Regina to quit, either.

Let me offer some advice to the designers of the 2008 Olympic game: Add some Grand Theft Auto functionality to the proceedings. For instance, a swimmer could go berserk and kill a lot of people without consequences. This might seem insensitive at first, but it could also create a lot of political intrigue. It would also be the first Olympic video-game innovation in 25 years.

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