Slick on Presentation, Near-Empty on Substance
Ubisoft wants to appeal to the Mountain Dew-infused part of your brain – should it actually exist. That one part of your head that still retains ’90s-themed, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sayings like “cowabunga” and classifies events in two distinct, woefully under-articulate categories: extreme and non-extreme. Image personification – centering on coolness – is activity number one, and life maxims don’t get much deeper than “grip it and rip it, dude.”
Shaun White Snowboarding – built around the medal-winning persona named in the title – is Ubisoft’s attempt at capturing the snowboarding crown from well-known series like SSX and Amped. Starting a new series is always a potential risk, but sometimes when you take a great chance you reap the best rewards. Unfortunately, with Shaun White this is not the case. Ubisoft has gone so far in the direction of slick presentation and personality inflation that the actual point of the game – fun snowboarding – gets lost in the over-hyped mix.
After building your initial character, complete with customized board and other accessories, you soon find yourself listening to an exchange between Shaun White and a stereotypical sports announcer. White proceeds to elaborate (no joke here) on his “sexiness” and explain why snowboarding is the best activity on Earth. At the tail end of this unnecessary introduction, you’re already barreling down the mountain. There’s no virtual instruction deity in the sky divvying out tutorial advice – it’s just you and the slopes that make up Park City, Utah. Occasionally a text box pops up on-screen telling you that you can hold a particular analog stick to perform a grind and to experiment with holding some buttons to do an awesome trick.
Normally, tutorials are bemoaned by critics, but when you’ve got something like snowboarding – which in its typical gaming form requires careful button presses paired with proper controller memorization – it’s a necessary design ill. The fact that Shaun White almost completely ignores tutorials (the occasional text box or quick chat with Shaun is all you get) is not only surprising, but feels negligent – without a proper period of chaperon-led instruction, you’re left to twist in the virtual cold, experimenting until you get a general idea of how the game functions.
Shaun White derives much of its control philosophy from EA’s Skate. Similar to that title, the dual analog sticks are the most important part of the controller equation. You use the left stick to perform spins and grinds and the right stick is reserved for various board grabs. The two can be paired, allowing you to pull off slightly more complicated moves. For example, you can twirl the left stick to spin through the air while pushing the right stick to the left, allowing you to grab the board at the same time. This system – while seemingly simple – doesn’t offer as much depth as one would assume; you’ll more than likely find yourself doing repeats because you don’t seem to have many other options at your disposal.
A few minutes into your initial ride through Park City, you’ll run into Shaun White and the rest of his snowboarding buddies. Shaun explains that Park City and the games three other mountains – Europe, Alaska, and Japan – are all open world. You can board from top to bottom, while utilizing ski lifts and chopper rides should you need to move around quicker. Along the way, you can compete in a variety of events, but the main goal is his quest, which revolves around collecting tokens.
Yes, this is a boarding game that is more about a N64-esque gaming convention than actual competition. Each mountain has 12 tokens in total that you search for. Upon collecting enough tokens from each mountain, Shaun rewards you with new focus powers, letting you do things like smash through barriers and get more air. The central problem with this token collecting concept is that it feels like a throwback to Banjo-Kazooie, but instead of Jiggies, you’re collecting currency-themed objects (such as Euros and Yens). You’re not rewarded with more real content – all this does is unlock abilities that you should have had in the first place. Making you search around virtual slopes for hours to reward you with the ability to smash through a barrier that then contains another token turns the process into one of tedium.
“Search” is the right word for this token collect-a-thon. Shaun White utilizes an onscreen radar that lays out where tokens are (as well as events), but it’s never exact, instead functioning as more of an approximation. Due to the vague nature of your radar, you’ll constantly fly past tokens, forcing you to take off your board and trek back up a section of the mountain. The more detailed map screen can help you find events on a particular mountain, but highlighting an event and pressing a button does nothing – you’re forced to board to every event. To cut down on travel time, you can look for the nearest ski lift or helicopter drop off, but this monotonous bit of back-and-forth could have been eliminated with a simple fast travel option.
Shaun White does deliver a variety of events – ranging from half pipe competitions to freestyle excursions – with each one having the bonus of being multiplayer compatible. Once you hit an event icon, you have the option of inviting anyone on your friends list to join you. However, there’s no general matchmaking option; if you want to hit the slopes with some random people, you’re out of luck.There is diversity from a number standpoint – ten event types are available from the get-go – yet most of them revolve around racking up the most points within a set time limit.In Freestyle, you go from mountaintop to bottom, trying to get the highest score; in Collect, you grab as many items as you can before time runs out (again, trying to get the highest score); and in Air Time, you try to get the most air you can, while keeping on an eye on the clock. It’s all about high scores and rewarding you with cash to buy more stuff to accessorize your character.
Most of these events can be characterized by their sense of loneliness. If you don’t have friends to join you online, chances are you’ll be doing them solo, with a high score being your only motivation. Actual downhill races against bots are hard to find. Aside from Death Race – a mode where you can take on A.I. controlled boarders – most modes either have you going solo or competing against computer times and scores. It seems odd that a board game would be so light on actual boarder-to-boarder races, especially since the brief ones you do get to compete in are genuinely fun. Also, many of the modes have you going down a track with borders that are sometimes hard to pick out. Often, you may find yourself off the track and not have a way to get back on, so you have to wait from the counter to tick down and restart the event.
What saves Shaun White from being a total fiasco is its presentation and boarding fundamentals. Creative touches – like a load screen that functions as a half-pipe practice area and a mountain that contains an icy bobsled run – show that some great ideas are present. Thanks to the Assassin’s Creed engine, mountains not only look impressive, exhibiting nice detail and an impressive draw distance, but they are truly epic to board down. Not only does it take several minutes to get from the top to the bottom, but the way your boarder reacts to different surfaces – for instance, ice gives you a speed boost, whereas powder slows you down, offering less restricted control – give the game a simulation-like aspect that feels appropriate.
Here were are, eight years since the original SSX, and Shaun White Snowboarding has trouble trumping a PS2 launch title. It’s not a matter of the exhibitive aspects of Shaun White – it has no problem dealing out a decent presentation – it’s the execution. Nearly every potential plus is a minus: the open world is artificial; the supposedly intuitive control scheme is actually counterintuitive; and the event types range from lackluster to merely okay.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.2 Graphics
The Assassin’s Creed engine has been put to good effect: there’s an impressive amount of detail and great draw distance. There is the occasional clipping issue (you can fall through the snow and ski lifts will pass right through you) and the engine seems to have trouble rendering shadows accurately. 2.3 Control
Obviously drawing inspiration from Skate, the stick-only controls go from “that worked pretty well” to “ugh, what the heck just happened?” Pulling off simple moves – like 360s and board grabs – is no problem, but trying to do anything sophisticated is a mess. 3.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The character voices range from annoying to serviceable. Your mileage from the licensed soundtrack will vary, but most of the songs are cliché hits from well-known artists and don’t really fit the feel of the game. 2.3 Play Value
Collecting tokens gets monotonous fast. There’s fun to be had exploring the parks, but once that wears thin you’re left with a bunch of “get the high score” modes and not much else. 2.9 Overall Rating – Average
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.