Microsoft updates its snowboarding franchise with new gameplay and online play, but is it enough to become king of the hill?
Unlike skateboarding, which has a clear winner in the videogame world, there's no such dominating force in videogame snowboarding. This leadership vacuum has had the interesting result of giving several very different snowboarding games their time in the sun. To be sure, there are certainly major players in this realm; the three big series over the last half-decade have been EA Sports Big's SSX, which came out of nowhere to storm the PlayStation2 at launch, Nintendo's highly regarded 1080 series and with the arrival of this second instalment in the franchise we have the Amped series on the Xbox.
Developed in-house, Amped 2 is Microsoft's update to its 2001 Xbox launch title. This latest iteration is an ambitious title that brings with it the enticing prospect of online play via the company's Live service and the integration of the Xbox Sports Network for online organisation. EA's reluctance to embrace Live at this point means that Amped 2 is the first (and currently only) online snowboarding title on the Xbox. But before we get into that whole thing, let's have a look at how the game manages offline.
Extreme sports are particularly susceptible to control aping, so it was with some relief that I discovered that Microsoft has opted out of using a typical Tony Hawk-like setup. Rotation of your character in all three planes is guided by the left thumbstick in a manner that is consistent with your avatar's orientation. What I mean is if you press forward you'll flip forward, while if you press forward after doing a 180º, all of a sudden you're flipping in the other direction, relative to the camera. This can be very disorientating initially, especially once you throw rotation along other planes into the mix. Righting your character after a couple corkscrews can be more than a little cumbersome if you're not paying attention. Add to this the fact that you're quite severely penalized points-wise if you land skew and you've got a recipe for frustration. One neat feature is the pre-spin option, where pressing in the direction of your spin before you actually take off sees you spinning a touch faster than you normally would, especially helpful when you're trying to squeeze in that extra flip on a mammoth air.
Grabs are managed using the right thumbstick, though despite the analogue nature of the controller there are only four different grabs, accessed by pressing in the cardinal directions. Tweaking of these grabs is facilitated by the left trigger, which allows you to up your trick scoring a little, while the right trigger lets you perform some modified versions of the standard grabs. Ollies and grinds/lipslides are handled by button presses in a manner now familiar to anyone who's played an extreme sports title in the last five years. Rail work in particular is quite a pain, since the autocorrection at dismount is very inconsistent: one minute you're coming off just fine after a slide and the next you're left flailing in the wind, destined to wipe out.
Of course, unlike skateboarding, there are no kickflips in snowboarding thanks to the bindings, which makes the whole thing feel a little bit boring. To remedy this Microsoft has fired back with snowskating. Originated by professional snowboarder Andy Wolf, snowskating basically amounts to a skateboarding clone on a smaller, binding-less snowboard. If it sounds clumsy, it's because it is. Snowskating is just getting off the ground as a sport, so it's fitting that it's struggling to find its legs as a game, lacking all the finesse we've come to appreciate from videogame skateboarding games a la the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series. Only certain mountains have snowskating courses, but the clunky nature of this diversion means that this is actually a blessing in disguise.
High scorers will be pleased to see that in addition to the regular combos found in every extreme sport game out there, Amped 2 also rewards you for style. By rotating your tricks in a slower, more controlled fashion it's possible to rack up the points and look good while you're doing so. This adds a nice touch to the game so that maxing out of spins or flips isn't always the best way to go en route to that top ranking.
The nature of the snowboarding is such that the mountains themselves play a huge part in the experience and Amped 2 is no different. The game features some very nice terrain, though there is a certain sense of familiarity to the various jumps. Colour-coding of the take-off points lets you know just how much air you can expect to grab, but it's ultimately down to rote memorisation if you want to squeeze the most out of each course. There are more than a handful of real-life mountains on offer, each of which has different routes down the slope. Generally, these emphasise either aerial or rail manoeuvres, so you can take the one you feel most comfortable with.
The core of the gameplay experience is the career mode. Compared to the highly detailed character creation utilities found in recent sports games, Amped 2's system is rather pathetic. You can choose from a handful of male or a female snowboarders and clothe them as you wish (from the rather limited wardrobes), but facial or physical alterations beyond the predefined look are verboten. Once you have your avatar up and running (two minutes, max), it's off to the slopes. Each mountain offers various challenges, though there's not all that much variety. There are three high score challenges and three media challenges to meet, the latter requiring you to score points while in the viewfinder of a nearby cameraman. In addition, there are sponsor challenges, where you have to perform certain tricks exclusively, pro challenges, where you have to outscore a pro in a one-on-one snowboard-off, photoshoots, where you have to reach a certain score while following a strictly defined path, and legend challenges.
Outside of career mode, the most important feature is obviously online play via Live. There are two basic gametypes available to you: either Session or Free Ride. The former is the more competitive of the two, allowing you and up to seven opponents to compete to achieve a specific objective, be it scoring the most for a trick or run or performing the highest scoring trick on the most obstacles on the course. Free Ride removes most of the competitive aspects, leaving you and your new online pals to just cruise around any of the mountains you've unlocked while the system keeps track of overall top scores. It's all a lot of fun, provided that there are people online to enjoy it with you. The online experience is largely lag-free, though this is obviously largely dependant on your Internet service provider. If you're feeling even more industrious, you can head over to Microsoft's XSN Sports web site and create an event or even join a clan. On the whole, the experience is not the be-all-end-all of online gaming, but it's good enough to keep you playing for a while once you mastered the tricking system and uncovered your favourite routes down the slopes. No Internet access for your Xbox? No problem: Microsoft has included system link and split screen multiplayer options for those waiting for the right moment before they take the plunge into online play.
The production values for Amped 2 are about what you would expect from a first party game at this stage of the console's lifespan. Graphics are good, with nicely detailed textures. The snow especially looks very good, though it does all have the same powdery look to it. Characters are well animated with good designs. The nature of the spin controls mentioned earlier means that it's important that you be able to tell which way you're facing while tricking, and fortunately this is not much of a problem. There are occasional camera slip-ups when you wander from the beaten path, and there's some wonky collision detection from time to time, but by and large things are good visually. Aurally, things are par for the course. There's a massive, 300-strong track listing, comprised largely of unknown artists spanning a wide range of musical genres, and once you tire of that you can use your own ripped tunes as background music. All this is pretty much standard fare in games of this type right now, but it's nice to see that it's there and well done.
Ultimately, Amped 2 comes across as an above-average game, but nothing too special. You'll have fun playing it now and again, possibly even becoming motivated enough to earn that elusive number one ranking, but this is no genre defining experience. For now, it seems that snowboarding videogames remains without a bellwether and that's not necessarily a bad thing.