Shaun White Snowboarding Review
There was a time when snowboarding games were pretty big; the likes of 1080, SSX, and Amped became a trio of top-quality titles that appealed to the snow shredders in all of us. SSX was arguably the best launch game on the PS2, and even though snowboarding hasn’t quite maintained that popularity in the new generation, you still need one or two to satisfy the fans. Enter Shaun White Snowboarding, which takes a page from EA’s Skate title in terms of control and adopts some of that patented laid-back boardin’ spirit. Essentially, there’s a healthy dose of open-ended, Grand Theft Auto, do what you like when you like gameplay, which may or may not resonate with the player. It’s all going to depend on whether or not you enjoy some aimless action, which is designed specifically for those who just want to kick back and have some fun for a few hours. The game is really hit or miss throughout and without any sort of real competition (racing, half-pipe, etc.), the free-roaming style may end up boring some gamers. But you should read up and find out.
The graphics are decent, with some massive mountains and well-designed courses, and there’s a passable amount of detail in the environment. The character animations are good, and although clipping is a serious issue, we understand the inherent difficulty of depicting realistic snow, superimposed over human feet and snowboards. “Hey, my lower half disappeared!” Yeah, well, it kinda does in snow, even if it doesn’t really look like that. Thankfully, there’s a great deal of variety in the four areas available from the start (Park City, Japan, Europe, and Alaska), as you’ll find yourself grinding everything from downed trees to fence railings, and the scenery from high above is quite breathtaking. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself looking around at the top of a mountain just to get the sensation of insane height, and that’s a nod to the graphical accomplishment. There isn’t anything too amazing or jaw-dropping, and much of the presentation can only be considered “okay” by next-gen standards, but snowboarding fans won’t have much to complain about. The graphics are effective, and that’s that.
Unfortunately, Ubisoft decided not to focus too much on ambient sound effects, which drags this next category down a few notches. Thing is, we could’ve used a little more in the way of gameplay effects, even though letting you switch through numerous songs whenever you wish is a much appreciated addition. If you don’t like the soundtrack – which does feature a good deal of diversity – you obviously won’t like the sound as much, and the lacking effects will be brought to the forefront. The voice acting is all right, but there isn’t much of it and it can get grating if you let it continue for extended periods of time. You can skip a lot of the plot-advancing cut-scenes, though, so it doesn’t matter much. We had just hoped for a more immersive, enveloping set of sound effects, as it really shouldn’t sound exactly the same every time you crash. Since when does smacking a tree sound anything like landing hard on ice? And we have to admit, although we liked maybe half the soundtrack, some selections were downright bizarre and didn’t fit the atmosphere at all. It’s more of a personal preference, really, but we figured we’d mention it. All in all, the sound isn’t bad, but it lags in some areas and isn’t as prominent as we would’ve liked.
As we mentioned in the intro, Shaun White Snowboarding tries an all new tact in the realm of snowboarding. Technically, it’s still a sports game, but it may be the only one in existence that doesn’t focus on competition. For the most part, you’re expected to have a blast exploring each mountain and perfecting your technique, and that’s the focus. There are pick-ups to find on each mountain, and you’ll be required to collect a certain number of Euro pieces in order to advance the storyline, but in general, it’s all about outfitting your rider and seeking some major adrenaline. Some may find this approach to be somewhat directionless and therefore uninteresting, but again, it just depends on personal preference. For some, this game will become tedious and yawn-inducing within minutes, while others will have ceaseless fun for many, many hours. We fall somewhere in between, as we sort of ricocheted back and forth between smiling contentment and frowning frustration.
Much to our chagrin, Ubisoft opted to have the controls revolve around the analog and shoulder buttons. Now, this is another personal preference, but we’ve never been big fans of completely ignoring the easy-to-use face buttons for the sake of added “realism” via analog control. You do use the face buttons in this game, but only rarely, and for the most part, they don’t factor into the meat of the gameplay, which centers on the tricks. You hold down the R2 button and release to jump, and you perform aerial maneuvers and balance with the left analog stick. We had a problem with pushing forward on the analog to go downhill, because if you don't forget to release before a jump, you'll immediately attempt a forward flip. Furthermore, you can't change your attempt in mid-air; if you're trying a forward flip, you had better try to land it, because you can't pull it back and try something else. That was a major drawback. Now, you can “focus” with the Square button and even throw a snowball with the Circle button, but that’s about it for the face buttons. The good news is that the controls seem to work very well, with the exception of some jerky steering and a few camera issues that would pop up to negatively affect our entertainment. Besides, just like any good sports game, you will be rewarded for your multiple passes down each mountain: not only will you learn the terrain, but you will continue to pull off crazier and crazier stunts with each successive run.
And even though you won’t have major events, the hardcore fans will enjoy the outfitting aspect. You can purchase all sorts of new gear, from boards to goggles to snow pants, and you’re allowed to enter the shop at any time and spend your hard-earned cash on new equipment. This adds a great deal of longevity to the game, and really makes you want to land top-notch tricks over and over again; the bigger and higher you go, the more cash you can earn. As for progressing forward in the “main” quest, it’s just about gathering up those Euro tokens, and if you want to try out the extra side events, you’ll have to find the corresponding markers on each mountain. This is a downside in our opinion, because many times, you won’t get much of anything on one run down a mountain, and you may be forced to stop and look around for your goal. “Where’s that damn token?” It’s a question you’ll ask yourself one too many times, and it can put a serious damper on your fun; it really interrupts the flow of the game. On the other hand, it shouldn’t take too long, and you spend the majority of your time riding.
Perhaps that’s the game’s saving grace. You really do spend almost all of your time on the board, and because each area is so large, you can indulge in many intense runs that are never the same. You don’t have to stick to one particular path – just about every part of the mountain is available for exploration – and the handy-dandy map on the bottom right of your screen will point you in the direction of those aforementioned tokens. Some are necessary but most aren’t, and you can pretty much do whatever you like. At any time, you can open up the menu and change destinations, and if you’re at the bottom of the mountain and what another go at it, a helicopter or chair lift will oblige you. Basically, it always feels as if you just stepped out to go snowboarding in real life; you can do and go wherever you wish, and unless you try a specific challenge, you’re never once given a set of orders you must follow. It’s a unique approach and it really does work quite well, even if some people will find it less like a sports game and more like a “leisure” game. Kinda like Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball, only without sand and impossibly shaped women.
The bottom line is that Shaun White Snowboarding is whatever you make of it. If this open-ended style works for you, than you ought to have plenty of fun, especially if you can’t make it out to the slopes yourself. The controls aren’t always spot-on, the technicals are merely average, sometimes it can be tough to gather enough speed (not sure what that’s about), and locating those tokens can get immensely annoying. But at the same time, you can really get into an awesome groove, where you completely lose any interest in the extra stuff or even advancing the game forward…if all you wanna do is become a better boarder, and you have an affinity for buying a ton of accessories and equipment for your character, you’ll probably love this one. Wait until you get the option for Super Speed and launch yourself over an insane cliff up high in Alaska! In some ways, Shaun White disappointed us, but in other ways, it really surprised us. Consider what type of gamer you are before you buy, though.
1/14/2009 Ben Dutka