Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: November 16, 2008
Shaun White seems to be the type of athlete who would have his name associated with a video game, so when Shaun White Snowboarding was released across the three current-generation consoles this winter, the only surprise was that it we didn't see a title earlier. While the Wii version of SWS has the much-hyped Wii Balance Board support, this review is based on the PS3 version. Although I can't fault the visuals and the overall scope of the title, the gameplay left a lot to be desired, and I was definitely disappointed by the entire experience.
When you start the single-player game in SWS, you're asked to choose between the left or right track, with the right track providing a tutorial to help acclimate you to some of the controls. The tutorial is short, and while you can enable pop-up text boxes with tips, I didn't feel that I had a great grasp on the control scheme after the tutorial was over. Most games start you off pretty easily and gradually increase the difficulty level as you progress, but SWS opts to drop you on the side of a mountain and hope that you can figure things out along the way. This makes the early hours of the game incredibly frustrating, especially considering that your goals, aside from collecting coins, are pretty vague from the onset.
The control scheme seems pretty simple, but you quickly realize that there's a lot more going on than the tutorial had let on. You can hold down R2 to speed up your snowboarder, allowing you to pull off higher jumps from ramps and down the slope. When in mid-air, you can tilt the direction of your snowboarder with the left analog stick, going so far as to spin vertically and horizontally; you can also pull off various grabs with the right analog stick. There are quite a few moves here, and they're all sensitive to the direction in which you're currently facing or spinning, and it can be difficult to gauge how to pull off a move and which direction you need to be facing or tilting to do it properly. You always need to be able to land your jumps to finish off the combos, like in most extreme sports titles, and for the most part, SWS feels pretty forgiving when it comes to how you're angled. You'll almost always bounce back instantly from hitting a tree or landing sideways, which takes some of the realism out of the title, but at the same time eliminates certain frustrations.
You can grind along a variety of objects in SWS, pretty much anything on the slope that has a straight edge, whether that's a rail, tree, or the awning of a house. There are a few different paths that you can take, and you can pretty much slide along anything on the mountain, but you'll quickly realize that the game really only wants you to go down certain areas because other areas are full of ice or rocks. It's hard to feel like you're gaining any discernable speed either, and while the speed lines will kick in and you'll see a bit of a score bonus for going down the hill, you never really feel that you're going all that fast, which makes it difficult to gauge jumps. Jumping also felt odd to me; I'd often go over a steep incline, and it would feel like my boarder would instantly drop down, which didn't give me a good idea of how much time I had to pull off my tricks.
There's a strange disconnect in SWS, as if it wants to be a realistic snowboarding experience, but at the same time offers up too many arcade options (like crashing), thereby preventing the title from gaining any real identity of its own. The only thing I can compare it to would be if you were playing Skate with its realistic physics and sense of control, inside one of the sprawling and often caricatured environments of a Tony Hawk title. Nothing really meshed for me while I was playing, and it didn't take me long to lose most of my interest in the game.
It's also difficult to figure out what you need to do in SWS, aside from collecting coins, which in turn unlock some of the single-player challenges that should have been present in the game in the first place. There's a mini-map displayed on the bottom right-hand corner that gives you a general idea of where things are located, and it's a pretty good indicator, but prepare to be disappointed if you're playing the title while you're offline because you'll come across a lot of icons that are solely for multiplayer games. If you opt to play online, then there are a few different events to participate in that are pretty fun. If you're willing to search out your own fun and explore a bit, there's a surprising amount of stuff to see. I just wish that I didn't have to hunt around before it began to feel like I had something to do besides free-running it down the mountain and collecting coins.
Visually, the game is pretty impressive and uses the Assassin's Creed engine. You also can opt to run around sans snowboard, which lets you access ski lifts and other areas that might be difficult to reach with the board strapped to your feet. Switching between the two modes is as easy as pressing the Triangle button, and both control fairly well. The mountains have enough variety to make them all different and well worth taking a look at. The slops have different play styles among their tracks as well, and while they're not completely different, it's enough that you'll be able to tell the difference.
The soundtrack of SWS is composed from different artists and songs, most of which will be familiar to even casual music listeners. It's a decent enough soundtrack and is one of the more enjoyable sports-related ones I've heard recently. There's a lot of spoken dialogue in the game by Shaun White, plus a few additional characters who are voiced by other actors. It's decent enough, but you get the idea early on that White doesn't have very strong acting chops, so sometimes the lines come off a bit odd or out of place, and the delivery just doesn't work that well. There's not enough dialogue in the title to make this into a big issue, though, so it's a pretty minor complaint.
Although I was pretty impressed with the look and presentation of the fledgling sports title, Shaun White Snowboarding left me with a pretty empty experience mostly due to the sub-par gameplay. The game would've been better if it had focused more on goal-oriented activities within the single-player environment and added the ability to quickly warp from one marker to the next (without having to pull up a map and set your own marks). I can't find much fault with the game from a visual standpoint, aside from the animations lacking a good sense of speed, so the majority of my issues have to do with the gameplay aspects I mentioned earlier. I'd say that you should at least rent and check out Shaun White Snowboarding, but I'm not sure I could suggest paying full price for this one.
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