Amped 3 Hands-On
Where anime, sketchbook art, and hand puppets collide: We go in-depth with 2K's multifaceted snowboarding game.
Like so many others, we were confused when we caught our first glimpse of Amped 3 at E3 2005. Of course, the brief bit shown back in May was a teaser in the truest sense--it offered only the briefest of glimpses of the game and focused more on a whacked-out art style that was interesting, if not confusing. It's been six months since that first look, and the picture of Amped 3's compelling take on snowboarding has finally become clear. We got a chance to check out the offices of Amped 3 developers Indie Built, talk to the folks behind the game, and get our greedy paws on the latest build just weeks before it's due to hit store shelves. What we saw was unlike any other snowboarding game on the market.
In a previous preview, we wrote a bit about the storyline of the game, but after seeing a good deal more of Amped 3, it's important to note how integral the story will be to the overall look and feel of the game. The story revolves around a cast of five board bums, of which your created player will be one. Each member of this tight-knit group of friends has their own personality that's brought to life to great effect, thanks to a humorous script and some fine voice acting from a mix of professional actors and Indie Built team members. There's Sebastian, the gentle giant who's all about finding zen up in the powder; J-Dawg, the cocky superstar with dreams of boarding greatness; the irrepressible Weinerboy, described by one Indie Built staffer as everyone's little brother (if everyone's little brother was named after an elongated foodstuff); and Hunter, the sexy and sassy "den mutha."
Interacting with each member of your circle of friends as you work your way through the storyline will give you an opportunity to get to know each of these characters and work on your boarding skills while you're at it. One early story mission has you learning how to hop on rails in an impromptu sausage link-themed snow park constructed by Weinerboy. Later, you'll hit the slopes with Sebastian as he gives you a tutorial full of pointers on things like jumps and landing tricks with style.
All the disparate art styles found in the E3 trailer--sock puppets and Hindu imagery, among other things--have a reason for inclusion in Amped 3. For the most part, each style is tied to each of the main characters in the game. As you work your way around the game's seven mountains and advance through the story missions found on each mountain, the story will unfold through cutscenes that are told in each character's signature style. Hunter's cutscenes, for example, are told in a cutting-edge anime style that suits her badass persona. The introduction of Weinerboy's snow park is told through stop-motion cutscenes involving cheesy 1950s action figures and ridiculous narration. Sebastian's aforementioned tutorial unfolds through the use of animated drawings that appear to come straight out of a seventh-grader's sketchbook--there are sword-wielding monsters, menacing six-armed Hindu gods, and dragons aplenty, all accompanied by Sebastian's breathy narration and glossary of wholly made-up words. Oh, and J-Dawg? Well, his white-boy rap cutscenes simply have to be seen to be believed.
But it's not just the characters that benefit from the Amped 3 team's dedication to making their game one of the most original-looking sports titles on the market. Mission introductions and other cut scenes also have a souped-up style that will keep you either guessing about what's coming next, or wondering what kind of substances the minds that came up with these things were on at the time. A point of trivia: Did you know that Utah was the scrapbooking capital of the world? We didn't either, until the Salt Lake City-based Indie Built team told us so. Whether or not that's actually true, it didn't stop the team from including an homage to this most wholesome of activities with the introduction of a character named Dandelion. Then there's a Russian quiz show comprised completely of hand puppets, a faux commercial for perfume known as "Mortality," nods to classic arcade and console games, pop-culture references galore, playful pokes at snowboarding culture, and much, much more.
New Look, New Controls
If only because it's so fascinating, we could spend a lot more time ruminating about the contrasting art styles found in the game, but that would be at the expense of getting to the good stuff: the actual gameplay. On the mountains, the open-ended nature of the missions will ensure that you're never at a loss for things to do. Missions are subdivided into a number of different categories. There are story missions that, keep the game's 13- to 15-hour plot moving, as well as traditional skills challenges, which are then subdivided into green, blue, and black difficulty. On any given section of a mountain, you'll have access to a number of these challenges and can progress through the game exactly how you wish. You can zip right through the story challenges if you want, or spend your time trying to rack up medals in the skills challenges. Only gold medal wins will qualify you to post your score to Xbox Live leaderboards for skills challenges, and if you're truly dedicated, you can try to earn all gold medals in the game and earn a special Xbox Live achievement for your gamer card.
In terms of Amped 3's controls, there's a good deal that's new this time around. The development team acknowledges that the previous two Amped games did a good job of presenting an authentic snowboarding experience but weren't exactly the most approachable games in terms of mechanics. The team has sought to rectify this with the controls in Amped 3. One of the immediate nods to a more approachable control style is autoattach rails. This was a deliberate choice on the part of the team because, as one producer told us, the challenge and fun of rail sliding should happen once you're up on the rail, not necessarily when you're simply trying to get on the rail itself. While longtime vets of the series might resent this move, we didn't mind so much--there is still plenty of challenge to be found once you're on the rail and trying to pull tricks or keep your balance.
When it came time to develop the trick system for Amped 3, the team had fighting games in mind, particularly the button combos that make up the core gameplay elements of the genre. The button-based trick system in Amped 3 means you'll have access to a host of stunts executed by combinations of buttons, including four-button combos for the truly advanced set. You'll also have plenty of tricks to unlock as you make your way through the game, and a handy screen that will give you a rundown of all your current tricks in case you forget some of the button combinations. The aim, according to the team, was to have the player feel as though they know what they're doing from the get-go. After the player has spent some time becoming familiar with the basics, the move to more advanced territory will be a more natural transition. In practice, the approach seemed to work for us--we went from eating snow during our first run in the game's opening to turning more advanced "style" tricks with ease just a few minutes later (after some helpful lessons from Sebastian, of course). In addition, Amped 3 looks to always reward you, not only with fun unlockables such as music tracks and new clothing and gear, but also useful tricks right out of the gate--it won't be long, for example, before you unlock the super-spin ability and are racking up combo points.
Just as in the last game, style tweaks are a big part of the fun in Amped 3. By gently holding the analog stick halfway between neutral and maximum, you can slow down the rotation of your spin or flip; time it just right and you'll get a big style bonus in addition to the points for pulling off the trick itself. Style tricks look great, and better yet, play great; getting the timing on a jump and then perfectly nailing the landing feels just as satisfying as it should.
One particularly cool side effect of mastering tricks in the game is "awesomeness," a special lighting effect that emanates from your character's model as he or she really gets in the zone. By exuding awesomeness--and there are several awesomeness effects to unlock for your character--you can impress your fellow riders with the ultimate goal of "owning" the mountain by grabbing the attention of as many other snow bunnies as possible.
Boards, Sleds, and Snowmobiles, Oh My!
Though at its core Amped 3 is a snowboarding game, there's a lot more to do here that doesn't involve an elongated piece of fiberglass. The game will also give you a chance to hop aboard a snowmobile, a variety of sleds, or even a hang glider to take on the mountain from an entirely different viewpoint. While you can pull off tricks aboard the snowmobile, you'll primarily use this mode of transport for quickly moving from one section of Amped 3's massive mountain areas to another. Hang-glider missions are the perfect opportunity to take a peek at the game's massive draw distances (which take nice advantage of the graphical power of the Xbox 360) and also to take part in one of our favorite minigames: crash mode. The goal here is to rack up the biggest medical bill possible by launching yourself off your snowmobile, sled, or glider at just the right opportunity. As your player careens down the mountainside, the game's Havok physics engine kicks in and the rag-doll player model records specific areas of his or her body taking a beating on the way down.
One other cool aspect of the game was the park builder, which lets you redesign specific sections of any park found in the game with any number of objects you can unlock in the game--things like simple rails and jumps, to more advanced obstacles such as plane wings, sewer pipes, and buses. The initial idea was just to give players a fun way to spice up areas they might have grown bored with, but as Indie Built producers told us, some emergent gameplay features have shown up as a result of this feature. It turns out smart play-testers have been using the park architect to build the obstacle courses for passing particularly difficult skills challenges. As a result, the best Amped 3 scores posted online will likely be from players who aren't just great virtual snowboarders, but great park designers as well.
A big part of Amped 3's gameplay will be in its authenticity, and to that end, the team has gone to great lengths to reflect as much of the real world of snowboarding in its game as possible. This comes through in the metric ton of licensed apparel and gear that will make its way into the game: brands such as K2, Dragon, Special Blend, Vans, Burton, Method, and so on; a number of real-life snowboarding pros such as Gigi Ruef, Marc Frank Montoya, and Mikey Leblanc, who will be playable in the game; and, of course, authentic mountain environments based on real-life slopes such as Valle Nevado, Snowbird, and Northstar.
We've already praised the draw distances in Amped 3, but the entire graphical package seems worthy of the "next-generation" description. Player models are lively and animated, and unlike in other games, where created player models don't necessarily live up to the predesigned characters in the game, your created characters in Amped 3 will be as attractive (or unattractive) as you want them to be--and all will be utterly unique. The environments are huge to boot, and there's always plenty of action onscreen, as other boarders whiz by you as you make your way down the slopes.
From a sound standpoint, Amped 3 has a soundtrack that runs a similar varied gamut of its art style--everything from hip-hop to lounge music and southern rock to elevator tunes finds its way into the game, and you'll be unlocking new music as you go through the game. This being an Xbox 360 game, you'll be able to load up your favorite Amped 3 playlist on your MP3 player, plug it in to your 360, and use your tunes in the game. The voice acting throughout is effective and funny, but not too slick as to appear soulless.
Amped 3 is certainly taking some chances with its wild and diverse mish-mash of styles, and only time will tell if the development team's goal of creating an authentic snowboarding experience will merge well with the off-the-wall art style found in the game. What we can say for sure is this: Amped 3 is unlike any other snowboarding game we've ever played. Stay tuned for a full review of the game when it hits store shelves in mid-November.
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