Name: Shaun White Snowboarding
Genre: Sports - Snowboarding
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2 (Reviewed on 360)
When making a snowboarding game, one of the first decisions a developer needs to make is whether the game will be a simulation or an arcade-style, over-the-top fantasy. To date, most snowboarding experiences have fallen into the second category. Games like 1080 Avalanche, Amped 3 and SSX Tricky have all relied on improbable tracks, impossible grinds, and massive jumps that would shatter any real snowboarder’s legs. Last year’s skateboarding simulator, Skate, completely changed the way we look at skateboarding games, and Ubisoft looked to duplicate its realism and success with its new snowboarding offering, Shaun White Snowboarding. While it’s not nearly as realistic as Skate, it does present a somewhat more convincing experience than its competition. With its incomprehensible controls, overly-forgiving trick system, embarrassing story, and tedious challenges, Shaun White Snowboarding is like two games in one! Sadly, neither of those games are very good.
Anyone familiar with the Amped series will be instantly familiar with the basic controls for SWSB. Steering and speed are controlled with the left stick, the right trigger jumps, and the left stick (in conjunction with the triggers) controls your grab tricks. Face buttons are mapped to less frequently used functions, like starting challenges, getting on and off your board, taunts, and throwing snowballs for some reason. This all sounds fine and dandy until you actually play the game. Pushing forward on the left stick is supposed to make your boarder crouch, allowing you to go faster, but the game always feels slower than you want it to, and crouching rarely helps. Holding down the right trigger is supposed to build up your jump, so that you leap higher when you finally release it, but in actuality, all it does is slow you down abruptly. Similarly to the mechanic found in SSX games, pulling off spins while in the air requires you to “pre-load” your rotation. This amounts to holding a direction on the right stick while you load your jump, and it would be a fine way to accomplish this if it only worked. About 40% of the, your boarder will ignore this pre-load and instead fly through the air with nary a spin, and even when it does work, it’s impossible to tell how effective it will be. Many times, you’ll pre-load quite a bit, but still manage to get only a slow, lazy 180. This is just one of many examples of the game’s lack of responsiveness and confusing, sloppy, counterintuitive controls.
These control issues pop up pretty much everywhere, but seem to be the worst when trying to tackle a half-pipe. Building up and maintaining speed in a pipe is extremely difficult and confusing, and most gamers won’t figure out the mechanics until their sixth or seventh run. Often, when in these pipes, you’ll find yourself spun around, facing the wrong way. Trying to correct yourself when this happens is infuriating, as the left/right controls seem to switch themselves around. In reality, left and right will always turn your character to their left or right, not the screen’s, so at least there’s an explanation, even though the causes serious confusion and frustration in many situations. Less forgivable, however, is the game’s tendency to completely ignore your left and right commands during the rare occasions that you’re actually going fast. Lining yourself up or certain ramps and rails becomes literally impossible when the game refuses to turn when told to do so. Control issues like these are absolutely rampant in the game, and will have many would-be snowboarders throwing down their controllers in disgust.
In what I can only assume is an attempt to balance the difficulty of landing aerial tricks, Shaun White Snowboarding throws together several familiar mechanics in a mess of confusing, nearly unmanageable controls. When a boarder gets enough air, he will not only need to make sure his body is aligned correctly for the landing, but also line up an arbitrary balance meter, similar to the one found while grinding. The meter only registers left and right, and must be controlled with the left stick; the same stick that’s used to control your direction and orientation when landing. This counter-intuitive scheme makes sticking landings perfectly (in the narrow green band of the meter, as opposed to the yellow areas, which represent a “sketchy” landing) a total crapshoot. Even worse is the fact that the meter often shows up at the very end of your jump, giving you no time to adjust it or even notice it before it’s too late. Early in the game, you can’t get the kind of huge air you are able to later on, so this happens quite often in the first few hours of play.
One of the most interesting features of the game is the ability to get off your board to reach new locations. This is something that every snowboarding game should implement from now on, because it eliminates the frustration of passing an objective and having to go back to the top and hope you get it on the next run. This is also alleviated by the ability to set a marker and instantly warp to it later, allowing you to quickly retry a certain area of the mountain. Unfortunately, these are the only aspects of the game’s design that work. There’s a map, accessible through the pause screen, that shows a layout of whichever of the game’s four mountains you happen to be on, but it’s pretty much useless. A mini-map appears in the lower right of the screen, but with its massive icons and total lack of any other detail, it’s not much help either. It can even be a detriment; challenges that are still locked will show up, distracting you from eligible ones, and the damn thing takes up almost a fifth of the screen. As advertised, Shaun White Snowboarding offers open-world mountains that allow you to choose your own path. There is a great sense of freedom to the game, especially when you’re first dropped at the summit with miles of fresh powder in front of you. After a few runs, however, you’ll wish the game offered a bit more guidance. The game’s tutorial screens flash by too fast to be read, and most of the tricks you can pull off are never explained. Without reading the manual, there’s no way to know how to pull off a “Butter” (snowboarding’s answer to the manual) or even know that it’s in the game. A full tutorial mode would have gone a long way towards making the game more accessible and understandable.
When you’re not idly boarding down the mountains, your main objectives come in the form of Challenges. These range from Freestyle runs, where all of your tricks count, to “Jibfests”, where only grinds count toward your score, to Death Race, which is pretty self-explanatory. These Challenges are found all over the mountains, and come in four difficulties; easy, medium, hard, and crazy hard, marked with green circles, blue squares, black diamonds and double black diamonds, respectively. The variety of Challenges is excellent, but balancing is a serious issue, especially in the races. In many challenges, you compete against other boarders, but your ranking among them never really matters. After each Challenge, your performance is rated on a 1-4 star system, which is your actual score. This means you can win a race, but still not complete the challenge, or finish last, but move on to the next challenge. Even worse is the way that Death Race is handled. No matter how big a lead you get on your opponents, makeup AI will slingshot them ahead of you to make sure the race is close. In addition, snowball throwing is allowed in Death Race, and once an enemy locks on to you, there is nothing you can do to avoid getting smacked in the mush with a frozen projectile and knocked out of first place. These two major fumbles make it so that luck is way more important than skill in racing, essentially ruining the experience completely.
There are some impressive graphical achievements to be found in Shaun White Snowboarding, but overall, it’s a visually uneven and forgettable experience. From the top of a mountain, the game world looks great; every tree and building is visible and the draw distance seems unlimited. Once you start heading down the mountain, however, issues begin to pop up. Due to the problematic physics (which doesn’t make sense, since it’s running on the excellent Assassin’s Creed engine), character animations often look bizarre and unnatural. Riders generally look pretty good standing still, though, and the amount of unlockable clothing and accessories make it possible to customize their look with ease. Most of the textures found on the mountains themselves look good. Realistic snow trails appear behind your rider and just the right amount of spray flies up when you carve hard to the let or right. There are a few textures, however, that look like they belong in a late PS1 game, specifically any area with ice. This graphical inconsistency is compounded by frame rate stutters and some serious pop-in problems that simply shouldn’t exist in a snowboarding game.
When Shaun White was first announced at E3, one of the main components that they touted was the multiplayer options. While the idea of flying down the mountain with a group of friends may be intriguing, the reality of the situation is actually quite grim. In the few games I was able to actually connect to, lag was a constant problem, disconnects were rampant, and glitches proved annoying and, eventually, game-breaking. At one point, I sent my own racer into a ravine, disqualifying myself from the competition. I watched as one of my opponents did the same exact thing, DQing himself as well. When the third racer flew into the ravine, he quickly respawned and proceeded to do it yet again. This time, he respawned and simply stood there, not moving at all. The reason he wasn't moving? Because for some reason, I suddenly had control of him! The game disconnected shortly after this, but for about a minute, I had control of another online player's avatar. In all my years of multiplayer gaming, this may be the most egregious glitch I've ever encountered.
Shaun White seems like a nice enough guy. He’s certainly a talented athlete, and a pretty sharp businessman to boot, but slapping your name on a game that not only disappoints and frustrates gamers, but also makes you look like a complete tool through its ludicrous, cheesy, almost offensively stereotypical cut-scenes can’t be a step in the right direction for “the Flying Tomato.” The game is playable, but very few players will find it worth bothering with. Too unrealistic to be a sim, too boring to be an arcade-style game, SWSB seems to be a title with a serious identity problem. For example, one of the game’s main challenges is to unlock new special abilities, like super-jump and super-speed burst, but once you’ve unlocked them, you can only use them while idly boarding; you can’t use them in challenges. Snowboarding games come down to two things; controls and design, and, sadly, SWSB fails to stick the landing on either. You’re way better off spending the $15 for a used copy of Amped 3.