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We take to the slopes with Shaun White only to be swept up in a towering avalanche...
- Neat avalanche and crevasse inclusions.
- Decent soundtrack.
- The ability to drop mid-chair lift ride.
- Cumbersome jibbing mechanics.
- Lacklustre range of events.
- Too much idle travel across mountain tops.
A take it we all know how good Shaun White is, right? No? Okay, let's keep it short then: at only 22 he's achieved more in Snowboarding than pretty much any other snowboarder (and that's without including his skateboarding accolades). Truly a force to be reckoned with, Shaun is less a snowboarder and more a part of the mountain - an element to his sport, like Oxygen is to the earth's atmosphere. Suffice to say that Ubisoft fat cats' mouths must have been watering after signing the young athlete to a licensing agreement for a series of games.
When the French publisher first announced this agreement back in 2006 (with a game initially slated for release in 2007), it was a statement of intention. Ubisoft was telling the world that it had signed the only extreme sportsman who can rival Tony Hawk in terms of marketing potential and that it intended on taking a slice of the extreme sports gaming pie in the process. Why, then, has the Ubisoft Montreal development team behind this project done such a drab job of producing the first in what it must surely hope will be a long line of Shaun White games?
First up, let's deal with the controls: they certainly have potential, opting for a more freestyle format than we've become used to in the genre. Instead of grab tricks being grafted on to one of the face buttons with directional controls determining which grab is used, Ubisoft Montreal has instead used the right analogue stick for a more freeform option. This works well enough, although you're always pretty aware that down, right, or diagonally down and right (as examples) perform the same three tricks every time with very little skill or timing required on your part to make them happen.
Flips, Rodeos, and spins etc. can be instigated using the directional controls on the left analogue stick. This avoids the snowboarding game convention of putting rotations on the shoulder buttons, which is a breath of moderately fresh air. You'll also find that the game is pretty forgiving when it comes to landing these spins and flips (although the difficulty ramps up as you purchase faster boards), but nailing a trick rather than coming down sketchy will bring you considerably more points. Likewise, a mid-air landing meter is easier on the player when they've got the momentum of their spin and angle of rotation right. In other words, a more laid back style with effortless tricks and silky smooth landings is the key to high scores (which is good to see, particularly as White's style epitomises these skills on the slopes).
Grinding (or 'jibbing' as it's known in snowboarding circles) is fairly well integrated into the game. Various fallen branches and purpose built platforms dotted around the slopes (as well as sections of oil pipeline on the Alaskan mountain) provide ample opportunities for jibbing, while the right analogue stick can be used mid-jib to perform nose and tail presses or board spins. We found a couple of the mechanics at work to be a little grating though. For a start, the game doesn't quite lock to a grind as forgivingly as we'd like, while chaining grinds by jumping between obstacles feels a bit cumbersome as well.
Ubisoft Montreal has obviously tried to create a game that's more realistic than the likes of SSX Tricky, but the only way you can get away with this is by providing a much more intricate control system (a la EA's Skate). Shaun White Snowboarding's controls never quite reach this level of proficiency, requiring the gamer to seek out hyperreal trick opportunities to stave off boredom. However, because the jibbing always feels that bit more awkward than it should, trying to chain together these huge tricks can get frustrating at times.
The open worlds in Shaun White's detract from your enjoyment as much as they improve the gameplay. Various stair lifts as well as a helicopter can be used to get to certain points on each of the four mountains (Park City, Japan, Europe, and Alaska). You can ride the virtual chair lift all the way up as well (or alternatively skip the trip), while it's even possible to drop from the lift at any point along the way.
The sense that you're riding down one cohesive mountain is never lost, but these mountains tend to be fairly obviously channelled into a selection of routes. Nevertheless, it still feels fairly open and there are often opportunities to perform a skilful transition from one slope to another. Where the maps get annoying, however, is during the monotonous treks from one event to another. Even worse than this are the tedious coin collecting missions that Shaun sends you on for each mountain so that you can open up new skills and abilities (e.g. Focus, which allows your boarder to knock over other boarders and smash into icicle concealed secret caverns).
Amped 3 had a neat snowmobile that you could call on at any point to get you to various destinations, which alleviated the tedium of getting their on foot. Shaun White's could really have benefitted from this because, while it's possible to relocate to various chair lift ports and a couple of helicopter drop-off points from each mountain's map, you're often still left quite a long distance from the event or coin that you need to get to. As a result, you'll spend far too long figuring out how to get to a certain point and then traipsing across steep inclines to get there.
You, A Board, And A Mountain
Park City, Europe, and Japan follow the same basic map setup. Towards the top you'll find huge jumps where the real air opportunities are at, glaciers that you'll fall between if you're not too careful, and even avalanches that can be caused if you ride to aggressively through certain sections (opening up a decent mini-game where you have to outrun the dense wall of snow that's descending on you). Further down these slopes things get a bit more civilised with purpose built jumps and jibbing blocks galore, as well as the odd bobsleigh run to ride down or half-pipe to get acquainted with.
Without a doubt, the strong points of these maps are the off-piste mountain peak runs. You really do feel like it's just you and a wild mountain that seeks to tear you apart at any given opportunity. For this reason, the Alaskan map is without a doubt the most exciting of the four. The mountain itself is pure nature, minus the oil drilling equipment that's been left lying about, and is perfect for events such as King of the Hill (a multiplayer mode that starts at the top of each mountain where the amount of time it takes to get to the bottom is detracted from your tricking score along the way).
In general though, the events are fairly standard. There are competitions where you're scored for jibbing, others where you're scored for air tricks, and some Freestyle events that score you for both types of tricks. Perhaps the least entertaining events are the races, which are very mildly livened up by the ability to throw snowballs at opponents, while slalom and item collecting runs are fairly bog standard. It's good to see the odd one trick event from big air ramps and half-pipe events are also pretty tricky to master. Additionally, one event type scores you purely on the amount of airtime you can stack up on a run, which stops things from getting too repetitive.
In the game's multiplayer it's possible to enter lobbies of up to 16 players on a given mountain. You can then freely ride across the slopes until someone invites you to a game (or vice-versa). Any of the events from the single-player are available in the multiplayer and a couple, such as King of the Hill and Rat Race, are only available when you 'Ride With Friends'. Apart from a couple of niggles including some pretty laggy animations of other boarders and event invites that take too long to time-out (sending you to empty contests in the process), it's a pretty good multiplayer offering that makes the open world setting slightly more appreciable. We particularly liked the fact that your performance in online events is saved into the single-player game.
Visually, Shaun White's does what it has to but rarely much more (which is actually a pretty good summary of the whole game). While the texture of the snow does make you feel like you're carving up the white stuff pretty neatly, we couldn't help but feel that the environments sink into shallow mediocrity by next-gen standards. Ubisoft Montreal has missed a few opportunities here, such as adding some decent particle effects to throw off misty clouds of snow whenever you make a sharp turn, or even decorating your boarder with lumps of the stuff whenever they stack-it into the powder.
On the other hand, the soundtrack is fairly well chosen for its subject matter. Alongside the usual rock/punk music are some instantly recognisable contemporary tracks (thanks mostly for their use in TV ads, e.g. MGMT's 'Time to Pretend'), while a few well picked classic grooves are headlined by Gill Scott-Heron's 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' and Loverboy's 'Working for the Weekend'. Other than that, the occasional usage of voice-overs includes a Japanese boarder at the beginning of the game who, after being mocked for his height, then greets you by saying "Harrow". It's nice to see Ubisoft taking the issue of racial sensitivity so seriously. Shaun White, on the other hand, sounds like pretty much every snowboarder we've ever spoken to (i.e. stoned).