There's a fine line to walk when creating an extreme sports video game. If the game is too rigid of a simulation, it will appeal mostly to real participants of the sport but will turn off the average game player. If the arcade elements are too over-the-top, real athletes will be disappointed, while the average player will find more to like. The same holds true for snowboarding games, and last year's X-Games Snowboarding for the PlayStation 2 was a hit with real boarders but was too difficult and inaccessible to the average player. Konami went back to the drawing board after last year's game and tried to strike a better balance between simulation and arcade elements for ESPN Winter X-Games Snowboarding 2002, but technical shortcomings and a steep learning curve guarantee that this game will be enjoyed only by hard-core mountain dwellers.
As far as snowboarding games go, ESPN Winter X-Games Snowboarding 2002 has a veritable avalanche of gameplay options. The two primary gameplay modes are the X-Games mode and the snowboarder mode. The snowboarder mode imitates what it's like to be a real snowboarder who's trying to make it to the X-Games. You'll begin in a small town with a few resorts to choose from and slowly begin entering competitions and trying to build your reputation or charisma. As your charisma builds, you can take part in photo shoots; gain sponsors for boards, goggles, bindings, and more; and enter more demanding competitions until you reach the pinnacle of the sport--The X-Games. There are five different events to enter, including slope style, where you must accumulate as many trick points as possible; snowboarder X, where you take a run down the hill with several other competitors hoping to finish first; super pipe, which lets you attack a massive half-pipe; big air, which gives you a chance to pull off as burly a trick as possible; and the self-explanatory free ride. As you complete runs, gain new sponsors, and buy new equipment, your ratings gradually increase. At the outset, using your created character can be extremely frustrating. He or she won't be able to turn sharply, jump high, or go fast. You have to learn to play within the limitations of your character, and this can become frustrating at times. Making things all the more difficult, your boarder has a health meter for each run. If his health runs out, the run will abruptly end with a trip to the infirmary. You begin the snowboarder mode with 1,000 credits to buy gear, but the majority of your money will be spent on hospital bills. While the snowboarder mode is extraordinarily deep and realistic, most players will be frustrated by the relatively slow rate at which their rider gains attributes. After most runs, there will be an increase of only a few decimal points for each of the nine character attributes. You can enter the gym and boost your attributes by a full point or two, but working out also costs valuable cash.
The X-Games mode is much more accessible to the average player, thanks to a healthy selection of real professional snowboarders to choose from, including Peter Line, Travis Parker, Todd Richards, Rio Tahara, JP Walker, Barrett Christy, Shannon Dunn, and many more. As you might guess, the increased attributes of the professional riders makes playing the game much easier. In the X-Games mode, you may choose which events you want to compete in, and after a qualifying run, you can immediately jump into X-Games competition. For the average player, the X-Games mode will likely receive the majority of playtime, but that's not to say that it's easy. Last year's game received a lot of criticism for being too difficult, and Konami has addressed these concerns. The biggest change from last year's game is that it's much easier to keep your speed while going down the hill. Managing your heel and toe edges is no longer an exercise in frustration; plus, it makes it much easier to line up for kickers or rails. However, pulling tricks is an entirely different story.
The X button is used to ollie, the analog stick is used to turn and prewind tricks, the square and circle buttons perform grabs, and the triangle button performs grinds. Launching off kickers and grabbing the board is easy enough, but performing multiple flips and spins can be more difficult than it should be. Performing flips is challenging because it's nearly impossible to perform just one or two flips. Getting the timing down to make sure you don't overrotate is more of a challenge than it should be and results in many bailed tricks. The spin mechanism works all right unless you attempt to increase the combo modifier by performing multiple spins. To do this, you must hold both left shoulder buttons while tapping the left analog stick at the same time. Besides being painful to execute, it's hard to execute this move with any consistency. If you have friends to play with, ESPN Winter X-Games Snowboarding also includes a dual mode for up to two players. Every event included in the single-player modes can be played in the dual mode as well, and it adds even more longevity to an already deep game.
Keeping with the simulation theme that the remainder of the game pervades, the graphics in ESPN Winter X-Games Snowboarding are predominantly realistic. The game's 20 courses are based upon real locations such as the Alps, Scandinavia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Colorado, and Alaska, but it's not as if you'll notice on sight alone. The same rails, kickers, and obstacles populate each course, and other than the occasional network of suspended rails, there's very little to set one course apart from another. The rider models look quite good--all the pros closely resemble their real-world appearances, complete with facial animations and clothes that will realistically flap in the wind while they're cruising down the mountain. Crude particle effects are used to demonstrate snow being kicked up from the board's edges, and it can sometimes make the game slow down to a crawl. In the boardercross events, where there can be several riders onscreen at once, the game can be almost unplayable at times. Fogging is used in several courses to hide draw-in, and in the split-screen multiplayer mode, the draw-in is so bad that riders just 50 virtual feet in front of you simply disappear into a soup of fog. Trick animations are good--especially the signature moves that let you take one foot out of the bindings. Overall, the riders animate with a nice fluidity. While basic in its look, ESPN Winter X-Games Snowboarding looks good enough to compete with most other snowboarding games on the PlayStation 2. But its debilitating frame rates hamper the gameplay, and its basic look will appeal only to those who demand realism from their snowboarding games.
Audio is a big part of any extreme sports game, and Konami has done a good job of selecting pertinent bands for the soundtrack. In addition to modern groups such as 311, The Offspring, Money Mark, and Jurassic 5, Winter X-Games 2002 includes tracks by old-school punk groups such as The Damned and The Vandals. While it's hard to fault the track selection for the game, more tracks would be a welcomed addition, as there are few. The sound effects do the job with no frills--there's a healthy selection of sounds for the board sliding across a variety of surfaces, but little else in the way of ambient sound effects.
While Konami has toned down the simulation elements of Winter X-Games Snowboarding 2002 so that it will appeal to a broader audience, the challenging controls and plodding snowboarder mode will turn off all but the most ardent snowboarders. If you're looking for realism from your snowboarding games, ESPN Winter X-Games Snowboarding 2002 is worth a look. But where video games are concerned, Konami's latest snowboarding excursion proves that realism doesn't always translate into fun.