Winter Stars Review (Xbox 360)
This holiday season, tons of kids and adults alike received shiny new Kinects. The Kinect itself is truly an impressive piece of technology, but Kinect games to date aren’t haven't exactly been synonymous with quality. Unfortunately, despite some interesting ideas, Winter Stars doesn’t break that trend.
Winter Stars is published by Deep Silver, a subsidiary of Germany’s Koch Media that is also responsible for the popular zombie action game Dead Island. The game features 11 winter events, including skiing, curling, figure skating and biathlon. However, only four of these events are available at the outset of the game, and the rest must be unlocked by playing through the game’s career mode. Want to crack open the game and try snowmobiling? Too bad. You’ll have to play for hours in other events to unlock it. Winter Stars wants you to believe that it’s a fun party game, but out of the box, it’s severely limited.
Anyone who’s played Dance Central will be familiar with the menu style, which involves holding your hand over a menu item and swiping to select it. But the developers made the strange choice of usually having you swipe your hand to the right to select an item even though most menu items are far to the right side of your screen. As a result, navigation requires a lot more precision than it should.
The graphics in Winter Stars are a mixed bag. It’s clear the developers put a lot of care into parts of this game, and it’s nice to see a Kinect game with a realistic graphic style. The environments aren’t exactly breathtaking, but they are relatively detailed. The crowds feature many different models, and to be honest, they’re a step up from those found in EA’s football games. But the biggest graphical problem lies in the faces of your team members, which are poorly animated and only vaguely humanoid. If graphics are your top priority, just stick to the events where everyone’s wearing a helmet.
The core mode in Winter Stars is career mode, which lets you take charge of a team of winter athletes to compete in a series of events, building the team’s roster and reputation along the way. As you complete events, you will earn experience points that can be used to upgrade your skills or purchase new outfits. The first part of the career mode is the “Snowflake Cup,” in which you’ll compete in the only four events the game lets you play right away against three other teams.
I started off pretty well, with two gold medals and a silver in the first three events. But the fourth, downhill skiing, was a mess, and I took fourth place. This bumped me down to second place overall, so I wasn’t allowed to advance. Did I get to retry the skiing event? No. The game autosaved, and then I had to redo all four events, including the ones I had already won. The word “unforgivable” is thrown around far too much, but this isn’t just a poor design choice – it’s absolutely unforgivable to make a player repeat the last 20 minutes of gameplay because they made one mistake and crashed at the end of a downhill skiing race. Yes, you can use the experience points you earn during career mode to purchase a “wild card,” which gives you a second chance right away, but it feels unreasonably punitive to force players to “buy” second chances when a simple retry button would do.
In a game with such finicky controls, one tiny mistake can take you from first to last, and there is simply no reason to prevent players from pausing and hitting “retry.”
You know what else is unforgivable? Promising 11 events to a player, but only making four available until the player spends serious time in career mode. Yes, unlockables keep gamers coming back to a game, but turning core content into unlockables is really strange. Can you imagine if Kinect Sports 2 made you play (and win) at darts for an hour before you could try football? Plus, it is possible to just play a single event for fun, but you have to go through several menus to find that option.
A Kinect title is nothing if the motion controls don’t work. At best, the controls in Winter Stars work just fine. At worst, they’re a disaster.
On the positive end, the biathlon controls great – the skiing is simple and responsive, and the shooting, which you accomplish by doing a move that feels somewhat like the “sprinkler,” is surprisingly intuitive and responsive. But downhill skiing, which should be a standout in a winter sports game, is sluggish and unresponsive, which makes tight turns basically impossible and often leads to your character careening down the slope.
Paraskiiing is fun but suffers from a lack of clear course markings, leaving you puzzled as to how to get down the hill in the “correct” way. “Ski flying,” which you might know as as ski jumping, is awful. Amazingly, figure skating is one of the more interesting events to play. It combines rhythm and motion, forcing you not just to hold the correct pose, but also to begin and release it (roughly) in time with the music. It’s awkward, but the developers should at least earn some creativity points.
Strangely, this game is unplayable without a significant amount of space between you and the Kinect Sensor. Lots of games work just fine from 5-6 feet away, but not this one. The warning “Please step away from the sensor” will flash on your screen as soon as you get within 8 feet or so. To add to the frustration, many of the moves the game asks you to perform also trigger the warning, like the tricks during snowboard cross and one of the figure skating moves.
Terrible voice acting and overly dramatic music, but most of the sounds in-game are pretty unobtrusive.
Deep Silver deserves credit for attempting to tie together a collection of mini-games with a cohesive story, but the cutscenes that run throughout career mode are poorly animated and feature Disney Channel-style cheesiness and overacting.
The game includes interactive tutorials which function relatively well. In addition, a lot of the events share common motions. However, the game doesn’t really give any feedback when you do something wrong, so you’ll have to learn by trial and error.
With 11 events, a long career mode and a bunch of multiplayer options, Winter Stars has plenty of content. But all the content in the world doesn’t make a difference if nobody wants to keep playing.
The sheer depth and amount of content indicate that some real time and effort went into Winter Stars. Unfortunately, almost everything about this game is frustrating. Spotty controls, combined with a number of bizarre design decisions, makes for a very poor final product that just isn’t much fun to play.