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by Microsoft

Screenshot-07-01.jpg (4067 bytes)The snowboarding genre is a venerable old one. In many ways, it was snowboarding that really started the extreme sports movements. Games like Coolboarders and 1080 got the ball rolling, and that ball eventually rolled into the likes of Tony Hawk and Dave Mirra. While all the other extreme sports got fairly realistic coverage on the console, snowboarding games took a different route. The genre has been dominated by the fantasy strain of snowboarding, and that aspect of the genre pretty much belongs to SSX Tricky (although Dark Summit is not bad at all).

jason04-01-01.jpg (4630 bytes)But there has always been a niche for the more realistic snowboarding game. X Games Pro Boarder on the PS1 was a great attempt, and its successor for the PS2 was also really pretty. But these two games, as the titles imply, kept snowboarding isolated to competition. However, competition is only one aspect of the sport. Trickin’ Snowboarder by Capcom tried to bring more reality and shed the constraints of the competition by framing the game as a story in which you were trying to become a professional snowboarder by impressing sponsors and photographers. But the game was ultimately pretty silly and fairly small.

spray03-01-01.jpg (5003 bytes)And now, just as SSX fanaticism has many gamers expecting insane air, nutty tricks, and all-out wacky characters in their snowboarding game, we get Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding. I for one am excited. It’s not a question of what’s wrong with SSX – nothing, really. But SSX doesn’t give me the rush of "really" snowboarding. Amped is, by far, the best version of the sport we’ve seen on a console system if, and that’s a big if, you are a certain kind of snowboarding enthusiast.

Screenshot-10-01.jpg (5650 bytes)Amped is all about recreating a snowboarding lifestyle. Amped is a whole season of free lift tickets and jet setting to all the best mountains in the world. Mountains and runs are modelled on real resorts. The clothing comes from real companies. Likewise, the boards, boots, bindings, and everything else in the game is true to its real-life counterpart. Sponsorships include the predictable, like Burton, Ride, and K2, to lesser known snowboarding companies, like One Ball Jay and Lib Tech. These guys have done their homework. The soundtrack is composed of some 150 tracks from indy punk, ska, reggae, surf, emo, hip-hop and techno bands. The game just oozes street cred.

Screenshot-01-01.jpg (5734 bytes)The gameplay is structured in a completely logical, although fairly innovative, way. You choose your character and equipment, then load a mountain. There are three real mountains offered: Snow Summit, California; Brighton, Utah; Stratton, Vermont. These hills are rendered with great attention to detail and done very well. You can also choose from some fantasy locations, such as Swiss Alps-like Altibahn and the dream terrain park of the Gunny’s Gulch. The company line is that there are 120 different runs to explore, which is true, but some of the runs overlap others. This just adds to the realism of the game – you can go anywhere on the mountain, so you eventually get to know the runs on each hill and can choose a path accordingly. Maybe you want to catch the cornice and then cut across to the half pipe? Maybe a quick jaunt through the trees and then over to gulley?

Screenshot-06-01.jpg (6285 bytes)The freedom of movement is largely why Amped is so successful at recreating the snowboarding experience. Once you load a mountain you can choose from the available runs, which can be as many as six or so. There is a significant, though by no means annoying, load time as the mountain loads, but starting and restarting runs, even if you switch to different runs on the same mountain, is really quick and painless. When you start each mountain there are only a couple of runs available. The goal is to earn freestyle and media points. You earn freestyle points by doing tricks off any jump or obstacle. You earn media points by doing a trick in front of one of the many photographers positioned at strategic locations on the mountain. As you complete these goals you get valuable skill points (which you can assign to stats like balance, jump, switch, etc.) or open up new equipment, new media moments for your scrapbook, and new runs or levels.

Screenshot-02-01.jpg (6300 bytes)Lest you get bored with impressing photographers, Amped includes explore, sponsor and pro challenges. If you explore the mountain you’ll find snowmen to knock over. Get enough of them and you gain a ranking. Sponsor challenges ask you to impress a particular company rep. Each rep likes different kinds of tricks, so you must tailor your run to his or her liking. Pro challenges require you to follow the local pro down a run, completing tricks of equal or greater value, hitting the same jumps and obstacles as him. The variety is completely adequate, especially since simply riding around is a good amount of fun.

Screenshot-09-01.jpg (6514 bytes)The graphics on Amped are beautiful. Never before has snow looked so snow-like. The views from the tops of the mountains are breathtaking, and lighting effects are amazing. The character rendering leaves something to be desired (when are we ever going to see wind effects on clothing?), but is perfectly adequate for the game. The mountains truly feel big. The big gulley on Altibahn feels perfect, and there are several very impressive bits of terrain throughout the game. On the first run through, and occasionally afterward, you’ll find yourself impressed with the quality of the environmental graphics. Tricks and rider movement is excellent, and it is easy to distinguish between different tricks.

Screenshot-03-01.jpg (6695 bytes)Controls are pretty straightforward, although Amped opts out of adopting a THPS style of control. You perform tricks by pressing the A, B, X, and Y buttons, and the right and left triggers control your lean and tweak. The A button controls your jump, and like many other snowboarding games you jump upon release of the button. The controls are the first of Amped’s shortcomings. It’s not that the control scheme itself is flawed – having the triggers adjust balance and orientation during jumps is a great idea – but the sensitivity of the controls is unforgiving. You must time jumps and spins just right in order to pull them off, and there is very little room for error.

Screenshot-11-01.jpg (7997 bytes)Having a deep and complex control scheme is one thing, and I don’t mind games requiring work from gamers to master them, but Amped is a bit extreme with it. What makes it more frustrating is that the game is so deep. It will take many, many hours to "beat". Although the premise and gameplay are pretty straightforward, the distribution of skills, the fact that equipment affects skill ratings, and the desire to become the top ranked snowboarder in the nation will keep you coming back. And as you come back, you’ll be continually frustrated that the game is so dang unforgiving. You can get to where you are good at it most of the time, but perfecting a technique is difficult.

Screenshot-12-01.jpg (8776 bytes)Also frustrating are the few odd physics errors in the game. Overall, Amped tries very hard to achieve realism. It seems as though the developers, in order to give you complete freedom of trick-performing, made it so the bottom of your board will latch onto rails. So sometimes if you fall into a rail, your board will become stuck to it as if held by a magnet and you will spin around it a couple of times. Sometimes these accidents are really funny, but as they happen fairly regularly, the humor wears off.

Screenshot-04-01.jpg (9025 bytes)The only major oversight in Amped is the lack of a real multiplayer mode. Although there is a multiplayer mode, it is not a splitscreen game. You take turns making runs down the mountain and you can select a variety of game types and mods. These games are fun, but without the splitscreen it just doesn’t feel the same.

jason01-01-01.jpg (5937 bytes)Neither of these problems make Amped unplayable – far from it. But they do impinge on an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable gaming experience, and they work to narrow the appeal of an already niche title. In large part, it is the incredible control of THPS that gives that franchise its mass appeal. Without that same quality of control, Amped cannot hope to break out of its niche as a realistic freestyle snowboarding game.

main-menu-2-01.jpg (7255 bytes)But for those of us patient to deal with it, Amped offers a great game. One thing that has been neglected in praise of the game is the convenience of playing it. The menus are easy to navigate and load times are strategically placed and minimized. The soundtrack screen is a work of art. Songs on the unweildly soundtrack are separated according to genres, and you can turn on or off each genre as you desire. You can have the soundtrack play straight through or randomly. You can also add your own playlists to the soundtrack, offering an infinite number of audio possibilities. Load up your huge playlist and you can leave Amped on all day, listening to it when you’re not playing it. The songs play all the way through, even when starting, ending, or switching runs, and you can skip to the next song using the white button. These sound options are genius, although it should be said that finding a list of the dozens of bands on the soundtrack is nearly impossible.

jason02-01-01.jpg (4785 bytes)Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding is a must for any fan of realistic snowboarding. It packs weeks of entertainment onto a little disc, and offers a whole lot of good fun. The great graphics and excellent mountain designs make Amped a beautiful game, and the soundtrack options make it sound good, too. While it has its foibles and flaws, Amped is a hell of a lot of fun.

Shawn Rider   (01/31/2002)


Ups: Great level design; soundtrack options; unique snowboarding premise; must play for snowboarders.

Downs: Ultra sensitive controls; bizarre collision/physics glitches; multiplayer.

Platform: Xbox