The next franchise in the heralded EA Sports Big catalog is an over-the-top freestyle motocross romp. Read our hands-on impressions of Freekstyle to learn what to expect from the game.
In a short period of time, EA Sports Big has built a solid reputation as the extreme sports video game developer to beat. It all began with SSX, arguably the lone must-have game at the launch of the PlayStation 2, and continued on with NBA Street and Sled Storm. Now that versions of said games have been completed for all the intended platforms, EA Sports' crazy little brother has moved on to create what it hopes will become the definitive motocross game, Freekstyle. We had the chance to sit down with the game's developers to get the lowdown on this anticipated racer, and we found that Freekstyle will likely do the same thing for motocross games that the company's other efforts have done for their respective sports.
Unlike SSX and Sled Storm, Freekstyle includes a roster of eight real riders. Each character has four different bikes that can be unlocked, and their attribute ratings at any given time are the result of their abilities averaged with the selected bike's specifications. As you win races, you build up your rider's attribute points, and it's interesting to try different rider-bike combinations to see just how the overall performance ratings are affected. The announced riders include Brian Deegan from the famed Metal Mulisha, the young Clifford Adoptante, Italian women's motocross champion Stefy Bau, the veteran Mike Jones, one of the originators of freestyle motocross Mike Metzger, 2002 women's motocross champion Jessica Patterson, world and US champion Greg Albertyn, and the attractive former host of Bluetorch TV, Leeann Tweeden.
Developers are quickly discovering that in order to keep their games out of the dusty used-game bins, they need to include enough variety in the gameplay modes to keep players interested. Freekstyle looks as if it will fit the bill nicely. The circuit mode is the game's career mode, and in it, you'll compete against the rest of the riders in the game in attempts at unlocking new features and improving your rider's attributes. First you must race in three heats on all the tracks in the game with no regard for tricking. In order to move on, you must take third place in the first two heats and place first in the third and final heat to advance to the next track. In this initial circuit stage, you can pull off stunts to get points, but your priority is finish position. Once you complete all the tracks the first time through, you're jettisoned to a freestyle venue, where you must earn the high score by performing tricks. After taking first in the initial freestyle event, you must go back through all the tracks again, except you'll have to cross the finish line first and have the top trick score at the same time. When you complete the circuit for the second time, the ultimate freestyle course is unlocked.
The circuit mode is certainly the key to the game, as it unlocks many of its hidden features, but there's plenty more to do once you've completed it with each of the game's riders. The single race option comes in handy when you're trying to cut valuable seconds off your lap times using any of the unlocked bikes and riders. The freestyle option allows you to practice your tricking ability on any of the unlocked courses without a timer. But what most players will enjoy most are the robust multiplayer options for up to two players. You can race head-to-head, play tag on any of the unlocked freestyle areas, or play an incredibly addictive game called countdown. In countdown, both players start with a pool of 2 million points. As each rider lands tricks, his or her opponent's point total is lowered. The player who runs out of points first is the loser. For added incentive, you'll even be able to import your enhanced riders from the circuit mode into the multiplayer modes to find out just who is the best Freekstyle player on your block.
EA Sports Big has managed to use a common control scheme in the PlayStation 2 versions of its games due to the many shoulder buttons of the Dual Shock 2. But on the GameCube, this isn't the case, because its controller has only two adequate shoulder buttons. Games like NBA Street and SSX had some moves omitted for their GameCube incarnations, but Freekstyle will include the complete roster of tricks across both platforms. Pulling this off with the GameCube controller hasn't been easy, though, and EA Sports Big has maintained a dialogue with Nintendo concerning the situation. As a result, there will be five to 10 controller schemes to choose from, though the option to configure your own will not be included. Like previous games from the developer, four buttons will be assigned to tricks, and you will be able to control tweaks, boost, and acceleration and breaking. Much like in the Excitebike franchise, you'll be able to hold back when you launch off jumps for added air and orient your bike to the ground before landing to maintain momentum.
I Think I Can Fly!
Pulling off the game's more insane tricks is governed by what is being called the freekout meter. As you land tricks, the meter will gradually fill until it begins shaking--giving you the ability to "freak out." Once your meter alerts you that a freekout is possible, you have a set amount of time to perform one by pressing all four trick buttons at once. If you land a freekout, a little more time will be added to the freekout clock. In this way, you could conceivably pull off freekouts all around the track if the jumps were advantageously situated and you knew the track well. But aside from the game's over-the-top freekout maneuvers, there are 102 tricks total, with a base of 10 tricks available to all the riders and bikes in the game. This allows players to be able to fall back on learned skills when it's critical to catch up to the pack by timing jumps properly. Landing tricks is also tied into the boost, so sometimes it's better to land a series of simple tricks to build up the boost meter when you need to catch up to the pack. Each rider in the game has one specific trick that only he or she can pull off, and combos are supported as well. If you'd like to see how you're doing with trick variety, you can always access the trick book to see just how many different maneuvers you've landed. Performing certain numbers of tricks and combos will unlock new gear for your riders, so it's important that each lap around the track remains varied.
There are nine riding environments included in the game--six for racing and three for the freestyle events. EA Sports Big has made a conscious decision to stay away from the drab environments found in most motocross games and has instead taken an "anything goes" approach to track design. Basic course obstacles such as whoops, triple jumps, and washboards have been included, though they're merely setups for the game's elaborate ramps, tubes, and other extreme obstacles. But that's not to say that the tracks aren't grounded in some sort of reality. Things that people love about supercross tracks--like tight turns--have been included. But instead of taking those turns at 5mph, you'll be taking them at 90mph. One freestyle course from EA's old Supercross franchise has been revamped and included, but that's the only remaining element of the series. The courses contain multiple branching paths with road signs that designate each path's difficulty. Some paths have plenty of straight sections, while others have many more turns, but there are more jumps in the winding paths to balance out the difficulty. Some of the more difficult paths will be marked with a sign depicting a skull and crossbones, and they'll multiply your combo points significantly if navigated properly.
The courses are absolutely gargantuan, yet they load so fast in the GameCube version of the game that the game's testers were having problems reading the gameplay tips on the loading screen. Despite their abstract nature, the environments remain incredibly varied. One track takes place in Las Vegas--you begin the race out in the desert, and eventually you'll be flying through casinos, pulling off tricks while watching neon signs zip by. Another course takes place in a yard of rocket ships that are about to blast off. You must ride underneath the rockets while hoping that they do not ignite while you're beneath them. A third track takes place in a hedge maze, complete with a huge crab molded from shrubbery that you must fly over. All the tracks include dynamic objects that change on the fly. Timing your jumps so that you land on ramps that may have just opened can often mean the difference between winning and losing.
Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
Freekstyle's overall visual style is very unique, and it's the result of EA Sports Big bringing in talent from the motion-picture industry. John Bell, the art director for the feature-length CG film Antz, took the helm for Freekstyle, and the result is an art design that could best be described as surreal. Even the more traditional areas are adorned with strange-looking structures that would be right at home in a sci-fi flick. One particular section has an enormous woman created with neon lights, and there's a flaming hoop you can jump through situated near her lap. Another section of one track asks you to jump up to a series of tubelike structures with transparent bottoms that allow you to see the entire track below.
The technology used to power the game comes from EA Sports' offices in Redwood Shores, California, and it performs quite well. Many complained about frame rate issues in SSX, but those problems are a thing of the past in Freekstyle. No matter how many riders are onscreen, how much mud is being kicked up, or how much of the track is being shown at once, the game always plays fluidly--even in its relatively early stage of development. The two-player split-screen mode does have a few hiccups occasionally, but there's still plenty of time to optimize the graphics engine to take care of it. The smooth frame rates are made all the more impressive when you realize that there is absolutely no fogging or draw-in, despite enormous portions of track being onscreen at once, along with plenty of particle effects, lighting, and all the other graphical niceties.
Anytime you're creating a game where the actions being performed onscreen aren't based on reality, you're going to have to make sure that the animation is airtight. Now that Hollywood animators are finally learning tools like Maya, EA Sports Big has enlisted the services of an animator who worked on Shrek to bring the riders of freekstyle to life. Tricks that could conceivably never be pulled off in real life look incredibly plausible thanks to the attention that has been paid to detail in the animation. The physics of the bike interacting with the rider are just right, and it's a testament to the advantages of hand animation as opposed to motion-capturing. As a testament to the strength of the game's animation, after viewing the game in motion, Mike Metzger stated that Freekstyle makes freestyle motocross look boring.
The texturing and special effects in the GameCube version of Freekstyle are so impressive that we had to check the TV for component cables. But the console was connected to the TV via stock A/V cables. EA Sports Big stated that the way the GameCube processes the code makes for a better-looking game than the PlayStation 2 version, with a crisper display overall and better textures. But no matter which version you play, there's no denying that Freekstyle trumps the developer's previous efforts from a visual perspective. The immersion levels are high because there's so much movement at any given time on each track, and all the tracks they seem truly alive. The effects for fire and other environmental elements are quite convincing, and overall, Freekstyle supplies an interesting and technically impressive visual experience.
Past games bearing the EA Sport Big brand have been heralded for their dynamic music, and Freekstyle will be no different. The developers made a conscious decision to not include licensed tracks, because they feel that the world has been so intricately developed from scratch that including recognizable songs might ruin the experience. Instead, the game features original tracks from Los Angeles remix artists The Humble Brothers that change on the fly depending on the action onscreen. The game includes a multitude of voice samples for taunts and other peripheral sounds, and half of the game's cast stopped by the EA compound in Northern California to lend their voice talents to the game. The sound effects are also dynamic, and when you're pulling off one of the game's freekout tricks, the sound will cut out completely. The bikes have a telltale whine that will increase in pitch when their tires lose touch with the ground, and overall, the sound quality is quite good.
Many may be quick to label Freekstyle as SSX on dirt, but EA Sports Big has gone the extra mile to make sure that it breaks enough ground to seem original while incorporating enough familiar gameplay elements to make sure the game's roots are apparent. The no-compromises approach to the game's tricks and graphics makes it one of the most far-out racing experiences on the immediate horizon and ensures that the game will appeal to more than just dirt devils. With fast-paced action, blazing visuals, and impressive sound, Freekstyle is the motocross game to watch out for this year. The PlayStation 2 version of Freekstyle is currently scheduled for release next week, and the GameCube version will follow in July or August. We'll have more on both versions of the game in the near future.
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