X05: Amped 3 Hands-On

After months of speculation, the truth behind the sock puppets is finally revealed.

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AMSTERDAM--What do you get when you cross traditional in-game cutscenes with sock puppets, stop-motion animation featuring cheesy 1950s toy figurines, and Japanese "anime" cartoons? Why Amped 3, the upcoming Xbox 360 snowboarding sequel, of course. Or rather, Amped 3's supremely strange cutscenes from the game's story mode. These eclectic styles--which were on display at E3 2005 in the game's unusual, if not particularly understandable, video trailer--have a bit of context now, thanks to our hands-on time with the game.

This diverse mishmash of animation styles really lends some edge to the traditionally staid Amped series. In fact, in the past, Amped has been the more austere of the two major console snowboarding series. Still, this is a snowboarding game first and foremost, and not everything found in Amped 3 is as outlandish as the cutscenes. The basic layout of the game still seems solid. The game has responsive controls and a nice feel when you're out on the snow. But the new game's control scheme also has a twist: Tricks have moved from the right analog stick to the face buttons. In this respect, the game feels much easier from the start than its forebears. Basic tricks and grabs are a cinch to pull off just by holding down a button; therefore, the casual gamer or first-time Amped player will feel comfortable with the controls right out of the box.

According to the game's producers, this is exactly the point; they cited the classic Dreamcast launch game Soul Calibur as a direct influence for this design choice. In Soul Calibur, you always felt as though you knew what you were doing, even if you were just repeatedly hammering on the same button. In other words, the game rewarded you from the outset, instead of punishing you with a crippling defeat straight off. In Amped 3, the idea is to aid players who might have been put off by the old control scheme. At the same time, the development team has tried to give the new game a big push in terms of depth. For instance, Amped 3 offers a much larger number of tricks you can perform--an additional 120-plus new tricks have been included for you to pull off this time around.

You'll need that depth and control when making your way through Amped 3's story mode. Here's the gist of it: You start off cruising on a huge snowboarding heaven that is home to you and your closest buddies--four fellow snow fiends who love to tear up the mountain as much as you do. As the story progresses, you'll find yourself accused (wrongfully, of course) of stealing money, and your buddies will have disappeared. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, will be to board your way through the game to prove your innocence and eventually locate your missing friends. That's right, snowboarding as an effective legal defense. Only in video games, right?

One of the more impressive features of Amped 3 is the hugely open-ended nature of the game. This is true for both the mountain you'll ride on and for the access you'll have to said mountain. By accessing the in-game menu, you can check out a comprehensive 3D map of the entire eminence, updated to show you the locations of specific challenges as the game progresses. You can even zoom in to specific trails on the map to scope out the obstacles and course layout before tackling a specific trail. Once you've found your next spot, you have several ways of getting there--by moving directly to that location on the map or by taking the more-scenic (and more-interactive) route, either by boarding your way there or by busting out a snowmobile and trekking your way across the mountain. The snowmobile is more than just a mode of transport--you can actually pull off tricks while in the saddle--and should spice things up if you're a bit bored of simply schussing down the slopes.

Amped 3's challenges will be plentiful and frequent; the game will feature more than 250 challenges to take part in. We experienced a handful of these tests in our time with the game, including the "samurai slalom," which sounds more deadly than it actually was, since we completed it by boarding our way through some tightly placed slalom flags in an allotted period of time. Our personal favorite was the "sled trauma challenge"--a mode that placed our created boarder on a rickety toboggan and then shoved him off the mountain, where the goal was to kick your own behind in as dramatic a way as possible by launching your player off the sled and into whatever stationary objects got in the way. The nastier your collision, and the more rolls you took down the mountain, the more self-inflicted damage you incurred. Only by racking up the highest hospital bill possible could you hope to move on to the next challenge. Crazy, and maybe a little bit wrong, but a lot of fun.

You'll be able to show off your challenge results via your Xbox Live profile in Amped 3, which is well in keeping with the game's obsessive statistics tracking. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like there will be much more going on online for Amped 3, according to the game's producers. The developers have spent the majority of the time focused on making the single-player game as strong as possible, and it appears that a full slate of online options is the cost that had to be paid. It's too bad, if only because one of the things that helped Amped 2 was its underrated online component.

In a game full of customization options, one of the more interesting of these--beyond the flexible and flamboyant character creation tool--is the build mode. This feature lets you customize any portion of the snow park to your liking. By unlocking specific items in the game, you can then place these unlocked items--such as ramps, dumpsters, sofas, and even helicopters and buses--anywhere you please on the course. Essentially, this feature lets you create as cluttered or as open and free-flowing a mountain as you want, and the feature will even help you "cheat" your way through challenges, if you wish. If you need to nail a really long grind on a rail, for example, just buy a few S-rails, set them up in precisely the spot you choose, and go to town--no need to hunt all over the mountain for your ideal setup.

Amped 3 also offers character customization in the form of standard appearance choices--body size and shape, clothing options, and so on, as well as an interesting new option called "awesomeness." Just like on the real mountain, awesomeness is earned by impressing folks on the slopes with your, well, awesomeness. Earn enough of their awe by pulling off impressive tricks, and you'll unlock these special awesomeness effects--themed "auras" that will surround your player as you make your way down the mountain for everyone to gawk at. You can even choose your character's speech style--"cheeky" if you're feeling like a wise guy and "chill" if you're the laid-back type.

Now, on to the sock puppets. We'd been waiting for an explanation for the sock puppets for a while--ever since E3, to be exact. It turns out the main characters in the game's story mode all have their own themes, which you will view in cutscene form when talking with them. Your snow bunny buddy Hunter, for example, has cutscenes that are told in anime form, while the supremely strange Weiner Boy features the aforementioned toy-themed stop-motion movies. We like the art style in Amped 3, if only because it's in keeping with the loopy nature of the game, and it's bolstered by some already solid visuals--including nice boarder models and some impressive depth-of-field tricks in the mountain backgrounds.

Amped 3 is still on schedule for a launch-window release on the Xbox 360. How the game's edgy style will fare, especially considering that its main rival--the new SSX game--will also feature a radically overhauled presentation, will be one of the more interesting stories of the 360's launch. We'll have more updates on Amped 3 as soon as we can get them--sock puppets and all.

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