UEP Systems is no stranger to snowboarding games. The studio created the Cool Boarders franchise and developed several versions on the PlayStation as well as the first Cool Boarders for the PlayStation 2 in Japan, Code Alien. Activision has commissioned UEP to develop the snowboarding version of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, and it's dusting off the Code Alien engine to deliver Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder for the PlayStation 2. Many snowboarding games have tried to duplicate the Tony Hawk formula, but the nature of the sport has made it difficult to mimic the combo-based gameplay that makes Activision's other extreme sports series such a winner. While most have ultimately decided to take another route altogether, Shaun Palmer's is trying to make the system work.
The game is divided into a variety of different play modes. Like its skateboarding cousin's career mode, though, Shaun Palmer's career mode is where most of you will roll up the hours of gameplay. Each of the game's eight stages features ten varied mission objectives. Some objectives are points-based, while others ask you to find hidden areas, knock over specific objects, or bust tricks on predetermined obstacles. As you complete objectives, you are awarded with new authentic sponsors that will give you improved gear that increases your rider's attributes. Because most of the courses are set on downhill paths, warp points, designated by snowmobiles and hill groomers, are located throughout the courses. Simply riding into a warp point will return you to a previous point in the mountain.
In addition to the career mode, there are a variety of multiplayer modes in which you can challenge a friend: trick attack, trick boost, horse, and the game's unique push mode. The trick attack mode is a contest to see who can accumulate the most points in one trip down the mountain. Trick boost rewards your rider with increased attributes as you land tricks. The more you rip, the greater the chance you have of really pulling off some sick maneuvers. For those who really like to rub their superior riding skills in their friends' faces, the horse mode asks riders to compete trick-for-trick. The push mode is probably the most addictive of the multiplayer modes. As you land each trick, your competitor's window grows smaller until his window is reduced to nothing. While there's no park editor included, you can create your own rider by choosing from dozens of body parts and clothing ensembles.
A snowboarding game would be pointless without tricks, and Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder includes more than 75 different moves in its pre-alpha state. For the Tony Hawk combo formula to work in any extreme sports game, there have to be plenty of obstacles in close proximity to one another. To accommodate this gameplay system, UEP has peppered the courses with obstacles to grind and "hits" to launch off of. It makes the game lose some of its authenticity, but the trade-off is well worth it. Even if some obstacles are situated in an awkward manner, it's still possible to link tricks together by using manuals and butters on the flat ground.
Shaun Palmer's control is nearly identical to the scheme found in Activision's Tony Hawk games. The X button makes you jump, the square button is for flip tricks, the circle button is for grabs, and the triangle button makes your rider lock onto obstacles to grind or boardslide. Perhaps most worth noting is the addition of the recover button. Pressing the recover button when you're about to eat it results in your rider orienting to the ground, landing the trick, and riding away. It can seem like a cheap way out for less-skilled riders, but it helps in the initial learning stages when timing tricks is an issue. The controls in the pre-alpha version of Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder are easy to pick up for Tony Hawk vets, and the carving motion and physics of the game are already quite realistic. The lone gameplay quirk is that rail balance is extremely touchy at this stage of the game's development, but it should be optimized before the game's release.
There are 10 accurately modeled real-world riders included in the game. In addition to the game's namesake, Ross Powers, Shaun White, Drew Nielsen, Leslee Olson, Jimmy Holopoff, Ingemar Backman, Markus Herme, Tommy Czeschin, and female champion Tara Dakides are already confirmed. There will be eight different courses in the final version of the game, and the few that were playable in the latest burn from Activision looked predominantly the same. Palmer's local mountain, Donner Ski Ranch in South Lake Tahoe, is confirmed as are Kirkwood, Heavenly, Aspen, Squaw Valley, Snowbird, Mount Hood, and Gotcha Glacier. There are several branches to each course, and you may barrel through houses and jump out the windows on the other side, discover secret areas by riding off the trail, and spook the mountain's wildlife. Instead of the surreal fantasy settings of EA Sports Big's SSX, the courses in Shaun Palmer's are more firmly grounded in reality. The courses we were shown were littered with traditional objects like cabins, slider rails, huge gaps, and half-pipes. There were no 360-degree loops or corkscrews to be found. Due to the age of the engine, the graphics are somewhat less impressive than those found in other PlayStation 2 snowboarding games. Snow effects are less crisp than those found in SSX, and rider animation still seems a bit jerky at times. Frame rates aren't a problem, however. Even in the split-screen multiplayer mode the engine zips along at a healthy rate.
Shaun Palmer was allowed to choose his own bands for the soundtrack, so the inclusion of grind-core groups like Static X, Orange 9mm, and Alien Ant Farm is expected. Activision claims that it has already signed 10 different bands to provide the aural experience and that we should expect tracks that no self-respecting snowboarder will fail to appreciate.
While not overly impressive from a visual perspective, Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder for the PlayStation 2 already plays well thanks to its addictive combo-based trick system. Those who found the airborne antics of SSX lacking in the twitch department would do well to check out Activision's first snowboarding game for the PlayStation 2. We've been promised an updated build within the next few weeks, so expect much more coverage of this game leading up to its October release date.