One of the first big hits for the PlayStation 2 was SSX, an extreme snowboarding game that marked the debut of the EA Sports Big brand. There's nothing like a great game with a great formula to launch a successful, new franchise. While the Big label now decorates five different products, the GameCube has about half of them--SSX Tricky, NBA Street, and now the motocross racing game Freekstyle. First released several months ago for the PlayStation 2, Freekstyle for the GameCube offers the same fast-paced, high-flying racing action that the PS2 version does, retaining the original version's intense level of difficulty and its two-player modes.
Freekstyle isn't the only motocross game for Nintendo's system. MX Superfly from a few months ago actually does a much more authentic job than Freekstyle of simulating the sport, as it requires you to preload your suspension for catching extra air, among other things. Freekstyle is much more straightforward, and it's not so much a motocross racing game than it is a racing game that happens to look like motocross. Forget about your suspension, don't worry about your brakes, and don't even think about letting off the throttle--Freekstyle is all about going as fast as possible at all times.
Though Freekstyle has several different modes of play available, you'll probably have to spend some time with the single-player circuit mode before you get much enjoyment out of any of the others. That's because you'll unlock new tracks and new bikers over of the course of the circuit mode, in which you'll choose a biker to take through the game's six different racing venues (there are also three freestyle courses). In each one, you'll race against five other bikers and you'll have to race each track at least three times--more if you lose. In the finals in each venue, you need to finish in first to move on. It takes five to seven minutes to complete a full three-lap run around a track, which sounds like a pretty long time, and it is--but only because these are some seriously big tracks, and certainly not because Freekstyle is slow. It's pretty over-the-top, actually. While the game's eight bikers are based on real-world personalities, you wouldn't know it from their stylized in-game personas. Though they're ranked in a number of different categories, ranging from speed to landing, you'll probably just go for whoever happens to appeal to you as a character. You can also unlock several improved bikes for each rider, as well as a couple of alternate outfits.
What keeps the game from being simplistic is the four-button trick system it has inherited from SSX. As you take to the air by going up and over an incline, the first thing you can do is either pull back on the analog stick to catch more air or push forward to drive your bike to the ground if you're trying not to overshoot. Whenever you're airborne, you can press any combination of the four appropriate controller buttons to perform one of dozens of different great-looking tricks, some of which are available only to particular riders or particular rider-bike combinations. Pressing the Z button tweaks these tricks for even more-impressive results, though pulling off more than one trick in a single jump results in better scores than just tweaking a single trick. You can also hold a trick longer for extra points, and as in all games like this, pulling the same trick over and over in the same run yields diminishing returns for your score.
It bears mentioning that the controls on the GameCube are harder to get accustomed to than on the PlayStation 2. The stock Sony gamepad's four shoulder buttons are perfect for Freekstyle, but the GameCube's two soft shoulder buttons and two face buttons can be tougher to get a grip on. You'll get used to this setup eventually, carpal tunnel syndrome be damned. After all, tricking isn't just for show--pulling off tricks fills up your boost meter, and as long as you've got some stored up, you can boost at will to quickly accelerate or exceed your maximum speed limit for a short while. Freekstyle is an incredibly fast-paced game. Even when you're not boosting, you'll still be driving at astounding speeds.
You'll also slowly fill up your "freekout" meter as you perform tricks. Once it's full, you can execute your driver's signature "super sick trick" for a temporary boost of "freeky speed," which involves hurtling forward and literally leaving trails of fire in your wake while the screen gets all distorted. You can maintain freeky speed by performing more tricks before the effect runs out, so there's some strategy in triggering the effect at just the right place in each track so you can keep it going for as long as possible. There's also some strategy in not crashing. As if the threat of falling behind the rest of the pack weren't enough, you'll lose stock from your boost and freekout meters whenever you bail. Crashing bad.
Track design good. The tracks in Freekstyle are beyond reality, and they're much closer to something you'd expect from the Wipeout series than from a motocross game. These include standard outdoorsy settings but also some very industrial locales, though all of them are basically in keeping with the hard-boiled sensibility of the sport. In all the tracks, there are plenty of wild jumps and freefalls to catch air off, flaming hoops and plate-glass windows to blast your way through, and alternate routes and shortcuts to be explored. Still, each track does have a distinctly different feel to it, with some emphasizing fast straightaways and treacherous leaps, and others promoting massive air and tons of tricks.
The tracks seem totally open-ended, but in truth, they're not. Sometimes they punish you for getting a bit too creative by running you smack into an invisible barrier, a harsh lesson that will make you want to stick to the beaten path for the most part. A bigger problem is that you'll have seen the six main tracks pretty early on. They're all great, but you'll wish there were more. The biggest concern with the single-player mode of Freekstyle, though, is its artificially high difficulty level. The rubber-band AI here is blatant. No matter how foully or how remarkably you're racing, you'll find that all five of your opponents will always be nearby. At first, you'll be thrilled about pulling wins out of situations that seem pretty hopeless. But as you improve, you'll be frustrated by situations in which you've managed to keep freeky speed going for about half a minute, but all of a sudden the guy in second place blows right past you. There's no radar and you can't see behind you, so there's just no way to really tell how far ahead of the pack you are. Good rule of thumb: You're never far ahead. You'll realize soon enough that really only the last lap in each event seems to matter, and even still, the computer will often rob you of your victory. You'll seemingly win as often by chance as by skill, and you know what? That's dumb.
It's also worth noting that, despite whatever pretensions of edginess it might have, Freekstyle is as nonviolent as racing games get. Sure, occasionally you'll hear riders talk a little trash before a race, but while out on the course, you can't knock over a rival biker no matter how hard you try. It's simply impossible, and you don't even have the ability to shove a close competitor like you could in the SSX games. Considering Freekstyle's cast includes tough-looking guys like Mike Metzger and Brian Deegan, the lack of any physical contact during the races seems somewhat disappointing.
Freekstyle's other modes of play do circumvent some of the game's circuit-mode shortcomings. There's a free ride mode if you just want to get your bearing on a track. There's also a single race option and a freestyle option, both of which support one or two players and a few different variations. The single race option is an easy way of getting straight onto your favorite track. Alone, you can also play it in the "freekstyle" setting, which requires you to earn a certain number of points rather than finish first in order to win. Or better yet, for two players there's the countdown mode, in which constantly pulling off tricks is the only thing that keeps your score from quickly dropping to nothing. The first player to run out of points is eliminated. Meanwhile, the freestyle mode challenges you or you and a friend to rack up the greatest number of points in a three-minute run. Two multiplayer variations are also available: In tag, you have to run into as many colored blocks as possible in order to win. In king of pane, the goal is to smash more glass than the other guy. These multiplayer variants can actually be a lot of fun.
Freekstyle looks great, from the expressive character animations and stunning variety of tricks to the imaginative, expansive track designs. The game relies pretty heavily on earth tones, but that's only to be expected, and you'll at least appreciate the subtle variations in the colors on the tracks--you'll soon learn to steer clear of the darkly colored mud, which slows you down. The game moves at a fast, smooth 60 frames per second, though admittedly it looks pretty much identical to the PlayStation 2 version released earlier this year. The loading times are a lot faster on the GameCube, though. Freekstyle also sounds great, from the throaty tones of the various motorbikes and the smack talk of their various drivers to the game's soundtrack. You might not have heard the bands that did these tracks on the radio, but Freekstyle's musical score does an excellent job of getting you into the feel of the game and keeping you on the edge of your seat while you play. The only real issue with the sound is the announcer, who does a pretty good job but repeats his lines way too often.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a faster racing game for your GameCube than Freekstyle. Only Acclaim's Extreme-G 3 exceeds the raw speed and intensity offered by Freekstyle's particular brand of racing action, and that game sports ultrasonic motorbikes--no fair. At any rate, Freekstyle's combination of impressive track design, a deep trick system, and a good range of multiplayer options (albeit only for two players) makes for a game that should satisfy most any racing fan. You'll easily forget about the game's occasional shortcomings whenever it sends you hurtling what seems like hundreds of feet into the air.