First skis, then boards, and now snowmobiles: There's something about slippery surfaces - and the very real possibility of bodily harm - that gets extreme-sports fans juiced up. Of course, few have the machismo to risk life and limb and actually hit the slopes, which probably explains the rising popularity of snow-related video games: all the fun without the pain. That's an ideal description for Sled Storm, an arcade racer that has stellar gameplay, smart track designs and a challenge level that will keep gamers addicted.
This snowmobile-based game features two types of tracks. Eight are "natural" mountain tracks, each filled with shortcuts and jumps, while six are more conventional racing tracks with sharp angles and plenty of ramps to catch air. In addition to one-player practice and championship modes, there's multiplayer racing for up to four and a time trial mode. The game offers six snowmobilers with different racing profiles, plus hidden characters to unlock.
What makes Sled Storm so fun is that it's filled with gameplay that'll make racers say, "That's such a great idea! How come no one's thought of that before?" To beat the game, you must finish first. What makes this task fun is the amazing number of shortcuts on each track. Not only do you get bonus points for finding certain shortcuts first, but you must use them to have a chance of placing first. Furthermore, since many shortcuts require tough jumps, some racing skill is involved. At this point, it's already an enjoyable challenge to find and use shortcuts to win.
But to steal a line from an infomercial: But wait, there's more! Not only must you finish first, you must also generate enough money to upgrade your snowmobile - a task that deepens the gameplay immensely. To get money, you must find shortcuts, as well as run over objects such as tree saplings, snowmen, and the occasional forest critter (morbid, but well worth it) for a bonus. However, to really earn money, you must perform impressive-looking tricks off jumps. The easy-to-learn tricks can be combined in many different ways, resulting in additional bonus points. In total, you must perform an intriguing balancing act to beat each track: Finish first while "wasting" enough time to try big-point tricks.
Thanks to the many shortcuts and bonuses - and a very challenging AI - the tracks hardly get tiresome. Furthermore, the speed, control, and graphics seem to strike an excellent rapport with the gameplay design. The game runs at a crisp frame rate throughout the track, with never any slowdown (even in split-screen mode). For the most part, pop-up is kept out of view. The control feels very fluid, and it seems programmers made sure to eliminate points on a track where gamers could get stuck or glitch up - a malady of poorer games in this genre. Even more important, improvements made to snowmobiles actually have beneficial effects that you can feel in the control. The graphics overall look solid, and some lighting effects are rather impressive - notably in later stages when night racing becomes available (another challenge gamers must adapt to).
As for its audio, Sled Storm gets good marks for getting real-life "extreme-sports-worthy" artists - such as Rob Zombie and Econoline Crush - to populate its soundtrack. Their musical offerings blend in well with the game's intense racing mentality, while the sound effects and racer trash-talk seem adequate enough.
If this review sounds more like an infomercial to you skeptical gamers, it's because this writer tried long and hard to find flaws - and they were few and far between. The challenge might be a little high, since you get only three lives to complete a championship. Fortunately, there's a nifty option to turn off automatic catch-up by computer racers, which evens the odds a bit. Some of the forest textures looked flat on some tracks, and it would've been nice to have an option to play your own music CD during a race - but frankly, these complaints hardly affect the bottom line: For any gamer looking for a uniquely fresh adrenaline rush, Sled Storm makes for one very worthy purchase.