There was a time when publishers were seen as the trendsetters in this industry. When Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto it tapped into the consciousness of the gaming public, triggering a flood of ‘me-too’ copycat titles and crafting an entire genre in the process. However, in the light of the runaway success of the Wii it has become clear that while some publishers are keen to break boundaries and push the envelope, most are perfectly content with towing the line and producing content that is perfectly in keeping with the image of the machine.
EA is one such publisher. Famed for its sports titles and year updates, the company has taken a completely different turn thanks to Nintendo’s massively successful console. There was a time when the idea of EA releasing ‘kiddie friendly’ titles would have been scoffed at, but in the past few months we’ve seen the likes of Boogie and MySims hit the store shelves – titles squarely aimed at younger gamers. The trend looks set to continue with the recently released EA Playground, which is 100% compatible with the Wii’s ‘family gaming’ image and attempts to bring the thrill of school playtime to the home console.
Set in a colourful and eye-catching school, EA Playground revolves around several mini games, all of which make use of the Wiimote in some way. The visuals are unlikely to turn any heads from a technical standpoint but you can’t deny the whole package possesses a certain charm that is often missing from modern videogames. Character models are packed with expression and animate particularly well, and it’s a fair bet that the target audience will find the whole thing extremely appealing.
The range of games available is a curious mixture. There are several events here that owe a clear debt to Nintendo’s Wii Sports (the ball-based games, for example) but others are a little more unique – one features a paper aeroplane that you have to throw and then guide by delicately balancing the Wiimote.
Predictably it’s the games which allow you to face a human opponent that prove to be the most fun, but all of the events in EA Playground are hindered somewhat by the simplistic controls. The game refuses to make use of the Nunchuk, relying solely on the Wiimote for interaction. This is obviously an attempt to make the game as approachable as possible, not only in complexity, but accessibility – those additional Nunchuks cost money, after all – but it unfortunately undermines many of the events. Wall-ball, for example, is reduced to nothing more than swinging your Wiimote when the ball approaches your character - not very demanding or exciting.
There’s more to do here than just play games, though. In true playground fashion there’s a definite hierarchy to observe, and you’re given the chance to work your way up the ranks by earning marbles (the all-important playground currency) which can be exchanged for stickers that unlock more advanced powers. This is a really neat touch which adds an extra dimension of playability to the game – not only can you compete for high scores but there’s a satisfying sense of progression as you slowly fill your sticker annual.
EA has clearly tried to make this game appeal as much as possible to as wide a spectrum of age groups, and unfortunately this is where the game comes undone to a certain extent. Events like Slot Car Racing are so simplistic that only the youngest and most inexperienced gamer is going to gain any enjoyment from them; conversely, the dodge ball and tetherball events require a little more co-ordination and unsurprisingly it’s these games that offer the most attractive propositions for more mature participants.
In a way it’s a positive thing – it means that for once, the entire family can enjoy one piece of software. The only problem is that EA Playground is in direct contention with the superlative Wii Sports for screen time, and although it offers a slightly different experience, it simply can’t hold a candle to Nintendo’s wonderful collection of addictive games.
EA certainly has the makings of another money-spinning franchise here. EA Playground certainly offers something new and worthwhile, but in its current guise suffers from a few minor setbacks that stop it being truly essential. However, it’s ideal family entertainment and is well worth considering if you have younger gamers keen to find fulfilment on the Wii.