With the snowy slopes of some of the best snowboarding mountains in the world beneath you, where will you go? What will you do? That's the tantalizing question posed to players of Ubisoft's upcoming Shaun White Snowboarding. The game is coming to the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and the Nintendo Wii (among other platforms). We recently spent some time with 360 version of the game to see how it's coming along ahead of its November 16 release.
The preview build we played only had four available areas to check out--though we can only talk about three of them: Europe, Park City, and Alaska. Of that trio, Alaska impressed us the most; a wild and unfettered snowboarding experience awaits players here. It's one that's sometimes considerably different from the slightly tamer slopes of Park City and Europe. Consider first the sheer scope of the Alaskan playable area. As you're dropped from the helicopter that serves as your transportation to the top of the mountain, you first take in the expansive Alaskan mountain range that spreads out before you and realize that it's going to take a while before you reach the bottom of the hill.
The other impressive aspect of the Alaskan wilderness is how dramatically the landscape changes as you make your way down the mountain. At the top, it's all stark white landscapes and huge crevasses that threaten to swallow you up with one wrong move. When leaping these huge crevasses, the camera will pull back a good deal, giving you a better sense of scope of the mountain (and your relative insignificance when compared to it). This high up in the mountains, every move you make has potential consequences, namely in the form of an avalanche. If you cause too much of a stir (indicated by a small onscreen meter), you'll set off an avalanche of cascading ice and snow, chasing your boarder as you make your way down the hill. Naturally, you'll want to avoid the oncoming crush, but this being a video game, you'll earn more reputation points by sticking close to the tumbling icy edge of the avalanche.
Eventually, you'll leave behind the austere snowy crags and hit the tree line, which is where the Alaskan mountain takes on a different feel. You'll be dodging trees, finding more things to jump over or trick off of (including pipelines that are in keeping with the oil-rich state), and be seeing more of your fellow snowboarders around. One of our favorite things to do to non-player-character boarders was to whip snowballs at them. You can either throw them quickly and hope to hit your target or hold down the "throw" button while a meter fills up. Once filled, you'll hit your target as long as he or she is in range. Though we only played the game offline, we assume this targeting system will work the same against your friends online.
In the lower elevations, with more trees and objects spread around, you'll find even more chances to bust out your hottest tricks. The trick system in Shaun White Snowboarding is straightforward, with a combination of the analog sticks and the triggers. Your most important controls will be the left stick and the jump button (R2 on the PS3; right trigger on the Xbox 360). You'll use the left stick to carve in the snow and control your boarder in the air or when jibbing. Once you launch off a ledge, however, momentum plays a big part in how your tricks go. Obviously, you can spin left or right or do a frontflip or backflip off a jump, and in our experience, the angle of approach makes a big difference in how successful you are with a trick. Your best bet is to get a head-on approach because it's sometimes tough to get a great leap off a jump if you come at it from a strange angle.
It's worth mentioning, too, that Shaun White Snowboarding is not the fastest snowboarding game we've played. Naturally, when you're carving through deep powder, you'd expect things to be a bit sluggish, but in our experience, the game's pace really only comes alive when being chased by one of the aforementioned avalanches. Other times, you might feel yourself unconsciously hoping for a little more oomph on the slopes. Better equipment (which you buy using money you earn on the slopes) might help your pace on the mountain, but don't expect to be zooming around early on or getting a ton of air on jumps for that matter.
While challenges are spread throughout the mountains in Shaun White Snowboarding, they don't seem as ubiquitous as, say, Amped 3, which seemed to be jam-packed with things to do. Whether this is a function of the limited preview build we played or merely indicative of the more wide-open approach Ubisoft is taking with SWS isn't clear. That said, the challenges run the gamut from straight-ahead race challenges (playable against online opponents only, it seems) to standard tricking and jibbing challenges, where you do as many tricks or rail slides as you can to rack up the biggest point total before time runs out. Other challenges include slalom time trials and at least one collection event we saw that challenged us to collect as many electric guitars as we could in a certain amount of time. Each mountain also has coins that can be collected to gain special focus powers for your boarder.
With easy-to-learn controls, decent physics, and an open-ended, go-anywhere vibe, Shaun White Snowboarding looks to be a fun debut for the series. The make-or-break element of the game might just be the online gameplay, which will certainly give the game its longevity. We hope to see more of online play in the near future, so stay tuned.