If ever there were a gaming brand that established itself as a force to be reckoned with in a short period of time, it's EA Sports Big. Electronic Arts' extreme sports publishing arm burst on to the scene with the now-classic snowboarding game SSX and continued the momentum with solid games with a similar style, such as NBA Street and Sled Storm. With Freekstyle, it has taken its usual antics to the dirt for some over-the-top freestyle motocross action that offers plenty of high-speed thrills and some serious challenge. Featuring equal parts of racing and tricking, Freekstyle proves that the apple never falls far from the tree, but it also shows that straying too far from what works can sometimes backfire.
The foundation of Freekstyle is undeniably forged from the SSX formula. The first time through the game's single-player circuit mode is all about racing, but you'll have to do more than crank on the throttle to take the checkered flag. Just like in SSX, by inputting different combinations of the shoulder buttons, you make your biker perform tricks. However, to get maximum air, you also must pull back on the analog stick as you take flight. Pressing several shoulder buttons at once while pulling back on the analog stick and stretching your thumb to hit turbo at the same time takes some dexterity, but you'll eventually learn to grasp the controls. Also like in SSX, as you land tricks, a turbo meter gradually builds, and you can use the extra speed at your whim. At the same time, a "freekout" meter also builds with each landed trick. Once this meter hits its maximum, you can perform your rider's signature freekout trick, complete with a Matrix-style presentation that freezes the action and sends the camera panning around your rider. Once a freekout has been landed, you'll have a scant few seconds to perform another one. Advanced players who know the tracks especially well will be able to keep the string of freekouts going indefinitely.
There are eight real-world riders in the game, including stars of the sport such as Brian Deegan from the Metal Mulisha, Greg Albertyn, and Mike Metzger. The former host of Bluetorch TV, Leann Tweeden, has been included due to her ties to the sport, in addition to several lesser-known riders. Each rider is rated in a number of categories and has four different bikes that can be unlocked for use. As you complete the circuit mode, you'll be able to increase whatever attributes you choose to tailor your rider's abilities to your particular playing style.
There are just six tracks in the circuit mode, and as crazy as they are, a few more would have been welcomed. Still, the tracks are about as wacky as possible, and you'll be racing through insane environments, like a huge hedge maze or a network of rocket launch pads. There's even one course that has huge boulders rolling across it. But the course designs themselves are sometimes self-defeating. The game encourages you to find new paths and shortcuts, yet some invisible barriers will prevent you from exploring some areas that seem like they should be accessible. This will cause you to hesitate when considering whether or not to head off track, which makes finding all the shortcuts a somewhat annoying endeavor. The game also encourages you to catch huge air, yet at far too many points in the tracks, there are girders or other objects hanging in midair that will cause your rider to crash if he or she comes into contact with them. This contradictory design runs throughout the entire game--it would have been better if Freekstyle's tracks were consistent one way or the other.
Several key elements found in the SSX games have been removed from Freekstyle, making the game much more simple to play overall. While riders will taunt each other before and during races, the rival and friend system from SSX Tricky is nowhere to be found. Despite the aggressive nature of the sport and the over-the-top aesthetics of the game, there's also no ability to knock other riders off their bikes (not even by ramming into them) or otherwise engage in combat. There are also fewer tricks in Freekstyle, compared with the number in SSX, though the tricks that are there are quite imaginative. Still, spins and flips have also been removed from the trick book, which cuts considerably into the number of maneuvers available.
If you've spent some time playing SSX, you'll be able to jump right into Freekstyle and play well. But playing well and succeeding at the game are two entirely different things. The enemy AI is brutal, and the difficulty curve is too severe in the early going. Making matters worse, there are no difficulty settings to adjust the challenge. You'll be able to breeze through the first track, but after that, you'll have to memorize every last dirt clot to move on. Considering there can be almost a dozen cleverly hidden portions of track to find, and considering you'll have to use all of them to finish in the top three, playing the game can quickly become an exercise in frustration. Making the game all the more difficult, you must land on the downslope of jumps to keep your speed. But judging the distance that each trick will take you can take quite a while to master, and in the early going, you'll be casing your bike on a regular basis and getting left in the dust. Even when you do manage to catch on, if you make one small mistake, you'll quickly go from first place to last, thanks to the overly emphatic rubber band AI that allows computer riders to catch up far too easily.
Thankfully, the two-player multiplayer modes are quite robust, the most addictive of which is the countdown mode. Here, two players race head-to-head--each with a point total that is rapidly dwindling. As you land tricks, the point total is deducted from your opponent's score, and the first player to have his or her points hit zero is the loser. While the mode may seem simple on the surface, it requires all the skills in the game to succeed and is an excellent gauge of your skill. In addition to head-to-head racing on any of the unlocked tracks, the multiplayer options are rounded out on the game's three freestyle environments. Much like in the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series, you can play games of tag on any of the three freestyle courses, where landing a trick paints the obstacle that the trick was performed on in your color. The object is to paint as much of the course in your hue as possible. In all, the multiplayer modes in Freekstyle are excellent and provide a nice diversion from the overly difficult circuit mode.
Freekstyle's graphics are running on an entirely new engine, and it shows. The slowdown that plagued SSX Tricky is now gone, and after just a few moments of seeing the game in action, it's easy to reach the conclusion that it's perhaps the fastest racing game on the console. This is especially impressive when you realize that you can see the gargantuan tracks in their entirety at times. The art for the game is also quite refreshing, and it's the result of the developers bringing in talent from the motion picture industry. One course takes place in Las Vegas, complete with an enormous neon woman with a flaming hoop that can be jumped through where her pelvis should be. Real-time cinemas are played before races and feature plenty of trash talking and impressive facial animations for the bikers. But the trick animations really steal the show. Real-life riders may never be able to pull off some of Freekstyle's outrageous tricks, but the animations are so convincing that it certainly appears to be possible.
For good measure, transparencies, particle effects for dirt being kicked up, and real-time shadows are all put to use to make the environments look better, and overall, Freekstyle's graphics manage to keep pace with the SSX series on most counts and eclipse it in others. The textures are probably the game's lone graphical flaw. They tend to shimmer a bit and give the game a grainy, flickering look at times. But in all, Freekstyle is the best-looking motocross game to ever grace a console, and its impressive sense of speed will keep you coming back for more.
Sound has always been one of the strong suits of EA Sports Big products, and Freekstyle is no exception. While there are no licensed tracks in the game, this is remedied by dynamic music that changes on the fly to reflect the action taking place onscreen. The Los Angeles producers, The Humble Brothers, have supplied the soundtrack for the game--it features a variety of hip-hop-flavored beats and wrenching bar chords. While voice actors were pulled in to represent some of the lesser-known riders in the game, several others took the time to lend their real voices for that authentic touch. There are literally dozens of taunts and other vocal snippets for each rider, and they are triggered upon each pass. The sound effects are right on par with the rest of the sound elements. While it's hard to do anything particularly groundbreaking with the telltale whine of dirt bikes, ambient environmental sounds have been added for that extra bit of immersion.
Sporting an excellent sense of speed and tight controls, Freekstyle is undeniably fun. But its awkward learning curve and sinister AI will test the mettle of even the most ardent players. For those who buy Freekstyle, its daunting challenge will certainly increase its staying power, but those looking for quick-hit fun from a rental will find the surprisingly addictive multiplayer modes to be their best bet. While it's not the motocross equivalent of SSX, EA Sports Big's first excursion on dirt is worth a look for those who enjoy a stiff challenge.