Winter Games 2023 could be a fun couch co-op experience, but it’s let down by major technical issues
- Developer: Wild River Games
- Publisher: Merge Games
- Release date: 28th October 2022
- Genre: Sports
- Platforms: PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC
- Reviewed on: Xbox Series S
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
Winter Games 2023 Review
As someone who is not only a gamer but a huge winter sports fan, I could not have been more excited to have finally got my hands on Winter Sports 2023, a modern console game dedicated to ten different winter sports! There have been skiing games before, but they’ve lacked the gripping moments found in timed events, where every tenth of a second counts, riding on the edge as fast as you can go in racetrack events like those of the FIS Alpine Skiing World Tour, or Skeleton, Bobsled or Biathlon.
Alpine ski racing is a hugely popular sport with world-famous stars. The Kitzbuhel men’s downhill events, hosted by a small village in the Alps, draws in sixty thousand roaring fans, including the likes of Arnold Schwarzenneger and F1 driver-turned-pundit, David Coulthard. It has long been a source of frustration for me that many minority sports have received modern console games, whilst competitive skiing hasn’t had so much as a second glance in the gaming world.
I was hopeful that Winter Games 2023 was going to cover that dearth of games, even adding more on top, as it has ten events to play. There’s a total of ten varied events to play, including a mixture of snow events and ice-based events like bobsleighing and curling. It’s a shame other real-world events such as Giant Slalom, Cross Country, and the Nordic Combined events weren’t included, as they all feature in the winter Olympics and the World FIS Tour. Of the ten included, some were excellent, some ok, and unfortunately others were downright awful. However, they all suffered from poor graphics and dodgy physics.
Graphically, it would be kind to say this looks like a last-generation game, as it’s more in line with the previous generation. The lighting is bland, with very few shadows over the undulations meaning most events look like they are set at midday with the light directly above. Be that as it may, despite a lack of visual fidelity, detail, and accuracy, the artwork is at least bright, colourful and interesting. However, the best scenes visually are the two bobsled runs. Set at night, they look great as the camera zooms over the course to the contestants, and as the run progresses there is a massive sense of speed as you get faster and faster down the track.
However, this is countered by events that have huge performance issues on the Xbox Series S and X. The abysmal frame rate feels like it rarely reaches anywhere near the minimum acceptable level of 30 fps, let alone 60, which makes the events much harder to play. At times it is incredibly difficult to spot where you are supposed to go through the stuttering screen and over-applied motion blur. The events that suffer the most with this performance downgrade are Downhill and Super G, which border on being almost unplayable.
We’re used to games of this nature relying on QTEs and simplified controls, but Winter Games 2023 has over-simplified these controls to the point of boredom. Games like Track and Field, if you remember that far back, or the surprisingly fun 2012 Olympics game, often felt like a feat of stamina and skill as you hammered the inputs as fast as you could or perfected split-second button presses and analogue stick placement, but Winter Games 2023 lacks any sense of achievement in mastering its events.
In terms of a single-player experience, Winter Games 2023 is lacking. A number of different events are lumped into a cup, such as the Alpine Cup which comprises Ski Cross, Super G, Snowboard Cross and Downhill and culminates in a Pro Cup that encapsulates all of the events. It will take a moderate amount of time to complete all of these cups, but it feels more like a chore than an accomplishment. With only ten events, and each of them being just a singular experience with no variations in tracks, there really isn’t very much in the way of content for single players, despite the number of cups to take part in.
When you choose your event, you then choose your nationality and then difficulty. The only change in difficulty is that the times get faster, and the aids to help you in some events are taken away. For example, playing the hardest difficulty on a bobsled run will take away the best racing line, and hints that you are about to crash. In the downhill event, though, removing the terrible “assists” (think auto-brake in racing games) allows you to go significantly faster, and you can easily demolish your opposition.
The AI differs wildly from event to event, too. Whilst I can barely get a win on easy in the short-track event, I can smash the opposition by a whopping 40 seconds in a downhill race on the most challenging setting. The exception is the Short Track and Ski Cross events, as I felt they had the right amount of aggression and determination to win and were very competitive to race against.
The problem I had with the game as a single-player experience was that a lot of the events required nothing more than memorising the QTEs, and it felt as though I didn’t need any modicum of skill to win. The worst offending events were the Short Track and the Ski/Snowboard Cross events, as they were filled with more QTEs than anything else.
My favourite events were the ones that engaged me the most, as they require you to actually think a little about tactics, line and speed. Curling was the standout as not only did it work the best, it was very tactical. Downhill and Super G, like the real sport, requires the player to not only think about line and speed but to know the course as well; leaning the right way through a set of gates to be ready for the set or two further down the hill. To get the best times you can’t go through a gate and then turn, as with too much speed you will miss it. Ironically, the events that needed the most timing and skill were the ones that performed the worst, making a hard job even harder.
The bobsled events could have been the best if it wasn’t for the very weird physics. When going close to 80mph around sharp bends, you would expect the weight of the sled to be thrown against the outer wall, but amazingly, there were times when I could have my sled tipping inwards, hugging the inside of a banked corner without tipping, even at great speeds. What was great about these events though was the pure jaw-dropping sense of speed on the latter half of the course and trying to nail the perfect line amidst the transitions between left and right turns. If the physics had matched the reaction times and how the game worked it would have been a spectacular event to play. As it is, I still hold my breath and widen my eyes for the last thirty seconds of each run and they are such a rush to nail.
Sadly, the audio of the game isn’t very good. The menu music is very cheesy, the sound of skiing very scratchy, and the announcer saying “all the competitors did their best” is a bit pathetic really. There’s a very limited amount of pre-recorded commentary, which means it becomes repetitive very quickly. It is so disappointing that rather than record the real sound of a swish of passing skis, they have gone for what sounds like a poorly manufactured and annoying effect. These details matter, especially when that is a huge part of the game.
Despite the woes of the single-player aspect of the game, Winter Games 2023 does have one very good redeeming feature in its four-player couch co-op modes. As a ski fan, I can’t think of anything more fun than grabbing some mates after a day on the slopes, crashing out at home and racing with each other as you can here in Winter Games 2023. The singular events like Downhill are run via a split screen, whereas the four-player events have you race next to each other at the same time on the same bit of track. As there is literally no other game on the market with events like four-player Ski Cross and Biathlon the game actually shines and proves its worth, but sadly the poor performance and lack of content mean it’s not likely to stay in your party-game playlist for long.
The omission of any online aspect is particularly glaring in this case. What could have added a little extra spice to the gameplay would have been online multiplayer and leaderboards, but without this component it’s yet another missed opportunity for what could have been a very popular game.
Winter Sports 2023 is a very rough game with too many QTEs and a very low skill ceiling, and for the most part, it doesn’t perform very well, sound great or have detailed graphics. There are brief glimpses of what the game could be if it created more moments of real excitement or achievement, and when these moments arrived the game truly did shine, but they were few and far between. Sitting down with friends in couch co-op adds brief moments of enjoyment, but even then, the basic controls and dull gameplay mean it’s not likely to hold interest for long. With a little work to address the performance and make the game more playable across all events, the review score would rise slightly, but no amount of smoothness can make up for the lack of content and disappointing gameplay.
As a huge winter sports fan, I appreciate that I’m getting to play these events. I’ve waited years to do so, but it’s really only the die-hard fans of these sports that will enjoy this game the way it currently is, and even then, your hard-earned money is better spent elsewhere.