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Joystiq hands-on: EA Playground (Wii)

When announced, we were concerned that EA Playground would be another mini-game fiesta for the Wii. While it won't be a Rayman-like game with dozens of scenarios, it comes off like Wii Sports in a schoolyard.

After about a half-hour of hands-on time with the game, I have high expectations that nearly all of the playground-based sports will be entertaining. Some will even be excellent, although the family-friendly simplicity occasionally makes them boring.


Seven schoolyard games will be included with the October 23 release. A few are embellishments we've never seen in real life, but the Wiimote-only controls are generally strong. The single-player campaign lets gamers plod along against AI opponents, but the most fun will be with up to four gamers competing on a single Wii.

Dodgeball lets up to four players compete with three-on-three teams. Disappointingly, it won't let gamers fight against an AI team. But with two humans per side, the first person pegged with a ball assumes the AI-controlled third character.

Players use the D-pad to move around the screen, flicking the Remote to toss balls. Unfortunately, the game auto-aims, even curving the balls at opponents. A quick, sideways twist rolls the player to dodge, and an aptly-timed button-press blocks or catches.

While I wanted an aiming mechanic, Dodgeball was quick, frenetic fun with four players. The extra layers of catching or diving away from attacks gave the simple game enough depth.

Kicks is a hybrid soccer and volleyball game. Teams of two kick the ball up to three times per side, keeping it in the air, in an attempt to shoot at an opponent's goal across the court. The save-set-spike mechanic felt fun, and teammates can fire quick shots to beat a goalie who expects three hits.

Kicks characters move on their own, and the controls are about passing, shooting, and blocking. A well-timed, hard flick shoots the ball, a soft touch lobs it slower. Button presses designate a pass to a teammate or a save. The game relies on the pace and timing of these moves; push the buttons or swing at the wrong moment, and you'll miss.

I played a few long rallies in Kicks, and while each team took about five shots at the other goal, these long points always kept me interested. Kicks seemed to balance simple controls with just enough variety to keep them fresh.

Tetherball is for two players and mostly has opponents swinging the Wiimote to smack the ball. The timing felt unforgiving in a good way; if we didn't mis-hit, the game would never end. One other mechanic -- activated with a button -- lets players slug the ball in a higher arc, while the other player has to push a button to jump up and hit it back. Tetherball was fun, but after a long rally, I was content to move on. (We'll have to see if Tetherball -- or any of these -- can singularly hold gamers' interest for long periods.)

Wall Ball felt similar to Wii Tennis on a half-court, with two players taking turns trying to make the ball bounce twice or hit it off the wall and past an opponent. Wiimote timing aims the angle of shots, while lob-like swings translate into arcing motions. Powerups accelerate or otherwise affect the ball to add more depth. I enjoyed Wallball because of its quick, Wii Tennis-like feel.

Slot Car Racing was a chaotic mess, instead of a clear cause-and-effect relationship that makes a game fun. Players hold the trigger to race around tracks, and a quick roll of the Wiimote jumps the car to the adjacent slot. The tracks are full of powerups and obstacles. In my brief game, the controls felt too simple and the game too fast to enjoy what was happening.

Paper Racers felt too simple for experienced gamers while being too complicated for beginners. Up to four players pilot paper planes through straight-ahead tracks full of obstructions. The Wiimote, pointed like a dart, steers the planes. Powerups make things mildly interesting, but in my races, I grew quickly bored of the turn-free tracks.

Dart Shootout sounds like a one-on-one version of NERF Wars, but I didn't get a chance to play. EA's press materials use the words "shooting" and "ducking" to describe it, but I can't make any assessment.

A few aspects of EA Playground leave room to grow. Mii support isn't available "this year." And I think most of the simple control methods include just enough variety to keep games from being repetitious, but the real test will be hours of play.

EA Playground should appeal to casual and experienced players, but I think it'll be best suited to groups. A multi-challenge tournament option will even let gamers compete in several activities. Single-player gamers
should be more apprehensive, but they may also find favorite activities.