In 2008, Ubisoft first tried its hand at an extreme sports game with Shaun White Snowboarding. Featuring the famous Olympic gold medal winner, the title was released on all video game systems at the time and became a decent hit. What was surprising, though, was that the game was an even bigger hit on the Nintendo Wii, a feat rarely accomplished in the gaming world. Being a highlight at Nintendo's E3 conference that year certainly helped its chances, but it was the use of the Balance Board and how well it mimicked snowboard movements that really became the selling point for gamers, especially those looking for the next big snowboarding game after the disappointment of the last SSX offering. Now, one year after the original as released, comes the sequel, this time an exclusive for the Nintendo Wii. The question now is whether it's better to go with World Stage or just stick with the original.
The premise of World Stage is slightly similar to what was present in the first game. Shaun White and his crew have been invited to the world championships of snowboarding, but the problem is that he was the only one invited to the championships. While the rest of the crew can still go, they can't actually participate until they qualify for the championships themselves. Your job is to take the whole crew to the world championships and have them, along with Shaun, win it all.
Upon starting Career mode you'll notice a few similarities to the Career mode seen last year. Most notably, the event types — such as standard races, elimination, big air and trick runs — remain similar. As far as individual events are concerned, nothing seems to have been removed or added while the changes remain in track layout and location. You also have the same partner/rider and respect system as before, where your initial rider stats are boosted depending on who you have for a riding partner, though they will not be seen as your cameraman or camerawoman this time around.
The big difference to the Career mode is the progression system. Instead of going through individual areas to get through events, you now have events scheduled weekly that need to be conquered. Each completed event makes you rise in world rank and brings you steps closer to the next tier, where more events await. Rising through all four ranks will get you to the World Stage. As an added bonus, you can take control of Shaun in between rank progressions as he conquers a few specific World Stage events.
The Career mode also houses a few other sub-modes. Freeplay mode is exactly what it sounds like; players can play any of the unlocked stages from Career mode with any character combination they want, without any fear of it interfering with their career progression. What's interesting to note is that, even when you unlock every character in the game, you can never have Shaun White as your wingman despite the fact that he appears in the list. It's a bit of a tease to only have him as a rider and nothing else. Trick Machine is the other mode that lets you do a bit of customization to your trick arsenal. You can essentially replace any trick with one of your own creation, so if you wanted to have your guy perform his trick completely upside-down when holding both A and B buttons and flicking up from a jump, feel free to do so. You won't get any extra points for being extra creative, but at least you can feel that you have some say about how your character should ride.
In the end, the way the Career mode is structured makes it a lengthy experience — but for the wrong reasons. The weekly event system does a great job of mimicking how things would work in real life by forcing you to choose an event that you can beat in order to gain as many points as you can before the next week rolls around and gives you even more events to take care of. This works out fine if you simply want to beat the mode as quickly as possible, but if you're a completionist or want to improve a score in an event that you've already completed, you have to grind through the rest of the weeks before the calendar resets itself and gives you the opportunity to go through those weeks and events again. While this doesn't seem so bad in the beginner difficulty level, it becomes rather annoying as you go higher in the ranks since more weeks are added to each level, making the wait grow longer and longer. The numerous events in the game are definitely appreciated, but the Career method in the original game proved to be a much better choice over the way things are handled now.
Multiplayer is more tightly integrated this year, but it still hasn't reached the pinnacle of where it could be. This time around, the co-op campaign, good for up to four players, is tightly integrated into the single-player campaign. While it is not necessary to play the co-op mode to get everything in Career mode, it makes the experience much more lively and, in some cases like team-based score battles, much easier to deal with. Versus mode is still here, but you can compete for individual events or for difficulty level cups instead. The Versus Hot Seat mode is also available for those who don't want simultaneous competition, though it is better suited for players who want a crack at the game with the Wii Balance Board but can't. All of the multiplayer modes are fun, but there's no online play involved. While there aren't too many Wii games that do online play anyway, the fact that there's an online ranking system for almost all of the events makes the lack of online mode that much more painful to bear.
The controls are the big selling point here because of the unique peripherals that the system has, and your experience with the game can differ greatly depending on what you have on hand. There are two different control methods that the game employs. The first is a Wii Remote-only setup, where you hold it like a remote control. Twisting the remote in either direction gets the rider to move the same way, while flicking it down then up forces the rider to jump. Tilting the remote backward while on the ground causes the rider to slow down, while holding the A button causes the rider to speed up instead. While in the air, flicking the remote in concert with the A and B buttons performs different air and grab tricks. It's quite easy to get the game to do what you want with this control scheme, and while novices can get a bit accomplished with some random movements, skilled players will be able to work some magic with the remote alone.
The other control method involves both the Wii Remote and Balance Board. The button functionality of the previous control scheme is still the same here, with the A button making the rider tuck in and, along with the B button, do tricks. However, the rest of the functionality is transferred to the Balance Board, so doing things like barrel rolls will involve pressing buttons while shifting your body in the desired directions to get the job done. It comes close to how one imagines riding a real snowboard would be, making the game much more simulation-like and much harder in the process. While it certainly isn't any easier, getting tricks done correctly is more rewarding thanks to the difficulty involved, guaranteeing that this control method will get as much playtime as it did on the previous title. One interesting thing to note is that while the box claims support for the Wii MotionPlus accessory, it only does so for the Trick Machine portion. Neither the Wii Remote-only setup nor the Wii Remote and Balance Board combination support the new device otherwise. While the game functions perfectly fine without it, it would be fascinating to see what can be done if it was supported in the other game modes.
The graphics carry over the same style of the original title. Each character exhibits a cartoonish look that is great but doesn't thoroughly expose the weaknesses of the system. Animations for tricks and bails look great, and the facial animations seen after races and during cut scenes are nice and expressive. The environments match the style well by putting more emphasis on maintaining a balance between detail and object population. The crowds may not look good, but the ramps, rails and trees lining the path make up for that oversight. The frame rate holds up well at a solid 30 fps, and the blur effect seen when tucking down on the board heightens the sense of speed felt as you rush by everything to get to your destination. For those equipped, the game runs at 480p on a 16:9 screen and doesn't feel out of place when viewed here, as opposed to a standard 4:3 set.
As far as sound is concerned, there's not much one can do anymore to really raise the bar for extreme sports games. The effects are still as solid as before while the voices, all reprising their roles from last year's version, do an excellent job of acting without overacting. They don't grate on your ears, but they don't sound like they're phoning in things either, and this includes Shaun White himself. As for the music, once again the team has done a good job of mixing in some classic rock with some modern rock into a blend that feels right to snowboard to. Unfortunately, the songs tend to repeat far too often, making you reach for another music source if you're playing the game for long stretches of time.
Ultimately, gamers who have already played the original Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip will experience a sense of déjà vu when playing Shaun White Snowboarding: World Stage. After all, the controls, graphics and most of the sounds remain the same and, at first glance, the changes made to the game seem minimal. Give it some more play time, though, and you'll notice that most of those changes are improvements and make World Stage the better game to own. Snowboarding fans, both of the arcade and simulation variety, would do well to pick up this title. Here's hoping, though, that a possible third game in the series will expand upon what the game can do instead of just giving us more of the same.
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