Just think – in an alternative reality Winter Stars could be a game based on the stars we see on TV over the festive period. Gene Wilder as the original Willy Wonka, Sean Connery in one of the old James Bond films and Home Alone’s Macaulay Culkin. Maybe also The Queen, if you can count her majesty as a celebrity. I suppose she is, in a strange way.
In this reality though Winter Stars is a collection of 11 winter sporting events. Developers 49Games have made a few winter sports packages in the past, but this is the first that has been made with the Kinect in mind. The menus are stylish and easy to navigate and a plot, complete with cut-scenes, holds it all together. At the start of the incredibly long lasting career mode your team of athletes stands at just three but as the story progresses more sports stars join your team, and thus new events become available. A lot of the new faces defect from another manager who forces his stars to resort to unfair play while another comes from a sponsorship deal from an energy drink company. The voice-acting isn’t up to much but the presence of a story does help drawn you into the proceedings.
When playing for the first time you’re asked if you want to activate family mode. Family mode simplifies the controls, right to the point where you don’t even have to worry about manoeuvring while snowboarding or skiing. Instead, all that’s requested is that you copy the poses at the bottom of the screen when prompted. In events like paraskiing and the biathlon (which involves a target range) you aren’t given your first pose to copy until about thirty seconds in which makes you feel more like a spectator than a player. In other events though, such as figure skating, family mode makes the game a lot easier and enjoyable to play.
The entire game can’t be played in family mode – when trying a challenge you’re handed back full control. Snowboarding and skiing work brilliantly with the Kinect and paraskiing (skiing with a parachute strapped to your back) is good fun, even though tricks in this event are performed automatically.
Curling is slightly laborious – to speed up your opponent’s turn you have to hold your arm out to one side. Cue one tired arm. Fortunately curling doesn’t become available in the career mode until around four hours in, so it’s not like it’s forced upon you right from the start. Bobsleigh is certainly fast but it doesn’t boil down to much – running on the spot to get a good start then gently moving left and right to stick to the racing line.
The career mode is set on a branching path so you can pick and choose what events to partake. The difficulty curve is well judged – challenges start out easy but then get progressively tougher. Winning events awards XP that can be used to buy new equipment and upgrade skills, with extra XP awarded for things like not shoving rivals out of the way and for getting off the starting grids smoothly.
There’s also an online mode, complete with leaderboards, and a local multiplayer mode.
Coming from a small developer, Winter Stars is a pleasingly polished package. Visually it is easy going on the eyes, with some charming snowscapes, and with a career mode that’ll take weeks to finish a little bit of love for it will go a long way.
You do though need to take the rough with the smooth and considering half the events are on the dull side there is a lot of rough to contend with.