Ski Doo: Snowmobile Challenge Review
In the past, snowmobile games haven’t fared well. They’re typically critical and sales failures, which is why we went into our review of Ski-Doo: Snowmobile Challenge with more than a few reservations; as much as we try to maintain a blank slate for all analysis, it’s impossible to completely ignore history. But despite the abysmal loading times, we were pleasantly surprised by our time with this budget-priced PlayStation 3 game. If it had hit store shelves with the standard $60 price tag, it wouldn’t be worth the consumer’s time unless they were a bona fide Ski-Doo nut. However, at half the cost, this title isn’t a terrible choice, especially if you’ve been desperately seeking a decent snowmobile game for the past several years. It has its fair share of flaws and it doesn’t quite cross the boundary into “good,” but it’s a fair effort and one we can appreciate to a certain extent. The straightforward entertainment remains fairly high throughout and while there’s a definite lag in the trick mechanic, this production is mostly solid from top to bottom.
The graphics aren’t exactly a highlight, but they can’t really be considered a detriment, either. It falls a little short in the overall detail department, but there aren’t a host of hitches and glitches and there’s a particular smoothness that accompanies most any sleekly designed racetrack. The environment is a small bonus even though you’ll see the same tree about a million times in an hour, and the 20 different snowmobiles available in the game add a definite dash of flair. The animations while riding are fluid (although the bizarre semi-rag doll effects when crashing seem too silly), and the frame rate doesn’t stutter even at high speeds. You’ll even notice other bikes cutting tracks in the snow; a small and even inconsequential feature, but even simple cosmetic enhancements such as this can enhance the experience. We just think a little more attention could’ve been paid to the backdrops on display, and we certainly could’ve used more bystanders in some of the Air Masters events. Other than that, though, there isn’t much to complain about considering the game’s price.
The sound is an odd blend of music that is oftentimes too in-your-face and generic, bland effects that are usually drowned out by the aggressive soundtrack. Of course, you can alter the audio settings if you wish, but even then, the balance seems to be off; we’ve complained before of games failing to bring the soundtrack into the limelight, but this is taking it a step too far. We needed more engine noise and sharper impact effects when we smacked into an obstacle. Developers sometimes take the cookie-cutter approach to implementing sound effects, and that unfortunate trait is on painful display in Ski-Doo: Snowmobile Challenge. Thankfully, the decent selection of fitting alternative rock music makes up for this lagging, and you should be able to fiddle with the settings until you’re satisfied. One of these days, though, a studio is going to make a racing game that correctly and professionally blends both the effects and music together into one seamless production. It has been done before, but for whatever reason, it’s exceedingly rare. Still, provided you can look past this drawback, the sound won’t grate too heavily.
The gameplay is about as straightforward as it comes these days. As it’s a racing game, you will have your typical assortment of upgrades – both mechanical and cosmetic – and you will also unlock a variety of items and equipment by winning races. You can familiarize yourself with the controls by trying the Training and Single Race Modes but the meat and potatoes of the game is, unsurprisingly, the Career Mode. It’s not as in-depth as we would’ve liked but at least you have some decent control over your character and bike. There are multiple events ranging from straight-up races against seven other opponents to stunt-oriented big-air shows that require you to hit the point target before time runs out. The key is to overcome the somewhat loose controls and forgive the AI that could very easily fit into the last generation. If you can make a few exceptions, you can have a lot of fun within a short span of time, and that’s exactly what we should expect from a budget title. Of course, it’s our job to examine those shortcomings; it’d be kinda unfair to ignore them just because the end result is decent. It’d be a lot faster to review games if we could, though!
The speed for the game is good, but it might actually be a touch too fast. On the other hand, we have no experience tearing around a snow track at 70 miles per hour so perhaps it really does feel that fast, but for some reason, we have a feeling that Coldwood exaggerated a bit. Furthermore, the brake is a little too sensitive as we often found it was better to simply let off on the accelerator and try to ignore the brake. It digs in a fair amount and apparently, your opponents don’t have to deal with this problem (or they’re experts, which is more likely), so it takes some getting used to. The other seemingly extra sensitive aspect of the gameplay is the stunts: if you’re familiar with other off-road racing games where stunts are performed in midair, you’re well aware of the fact that you crash if you’re still in mid-stunt when you land. Well, some games are a little more lenient than others, and Ski-Doo falls on the strict side. It’s not horrible but it does discourage the player from attempting tricks in close races, which translates to another problem concerning the Adrenaline.
The more stunts you land successfully, the more your Adrenaline meter builds. Once it’s maxed, you can give yourself a speed boost by pressing the Square button. But if you’re not doing tricks (or if you keep crashing during the attempts), your Adrenaline never builds and consequently, you never get that speed boost. It’s like a domino effect that starts with the aforementioned jump/stunt/crash sensitivity. Lastly, we have to address the lag that occurs when performing a stunt. All you have to do is press and hold either the L1 or R1 button and then move the left analog in a certain direction, but for whatever reason, the rider would take a second or two before executing the appropriate action. This got intensely annoying because you’d want to string together a few tricks on a particularly big jump, but with such an annoying delay gap in between, it proved quite difficult to complete that second or third stunt. But now that we’ve got the negatives out of the way, we can focus on the fun stuff. For the most part, you really will have a blast zinging around the myriad of courses this game has to offer.
You can purchase upgrades for your bike that will enhance one or more of your four statistics (that translate to Speed, Acceleration, etc. on the track). You can attempt to tackle opposing riders when on the course, and jostling with other racers can prove to be quite stimulating and even addictive. You almost want to sit in the midst of a pack to see what you can do…such a weird urge, but we got it. Then there’s the smoothness and fluidity of the action on the whole; there aren’t any frame rate issues, pre-loading a jump with the X button to soar higher works well, and you are asked to memorize the tracks and the right time to fly. See, it’s not always a good idea to get as much air as possible, depending on the track layout. You will progress at a fairly good clip, unlocking new events all around the world, and with a variety of events in a bunch of different locales, you won’t get bored easily. We played for several hours without once looking at the clock, and that’s the sign of a well-constructed game that snags our interest and enthusiasm. The only part we didn’t like? The upgrades you purchase with your hard-earned money can’t be switched from ride to ride.
This means we’d often buy several upgrades for a bike only to unlock a new and better bike after winning the next race, and we’d have wasted that money for nothing. This was almost as annoying as the stunt delay problem. But we just dealt with it and continued on, participating in the events and becoming more proficient on the course. In the end, we weren’t too enamored with Ski-Doo: Snowmobile Challenge, but after some of the atrocious snowmobile games we’ve played in the past, we have to admit to being satisfied. There’s a little looseness, a curious lag for stunts, a lack of detail, a sound balancing issue, and we missed out on some depth we normally see in Career Modes, but the whole package remains entertaining. The smoothness, animation fluidity, accessibility, setup, and fun factor are all more than acceptable and despite those ridiculously long load times, we still wanted to play. And that, as far as we’re concerned, is a good sign.
5/28/2009 Ben Dutka