US: 26 Feb 2009
It’s no secret that modern extreme sports gaming owes a huge debt to the Tony Hawk franchise. By adding the right amount of fantastic elements to skating while also introducing a control scheme that allowed players to feel like pros with a minimal amount of practice, Tony Hawk pioneered a style that would be copied for years to come. It is also the case, however, that this style, and the Hawk franchise in particular is wearing extremely thin, a product of both overexposure and too modest updates between releases in later years.
SSX has always been snowboarding’s take on the Tony Hawk series, bringing an over-the-top vision of an extreme sport to both its fans and to the general gaming populace. Any time an activity that is possible in real life is the central theme of a game, the choice of where on the spectrum between pure arcade experience and hardcore sim both the mechanics and presentation lie must be made. Skate, for example, has clearly been marketed as a more realistic alternative to Tony Hawk, representing an effort to be refreshing largely by virtue of being different. Similarly, prior to its third installment, Amped represented a far more realistic interpretation of snowboarding than did SSX. But with Amped 3, the series took a turn for the bizarre, particularly with respect to it’s cartoony, schizophrenic presentation.
Stoked attempts, then, to offer a snowboarding experience that is chiefly about the straightforward mechanics of snowboarding. Certainly, the player’s overall goal is to gain sponsorships and become famous, but the game is arguably more about the freedom inherent in speeding down a mountain and the timing necessary to get the most out of one’s tricks than anything else. It’s well worth its budget price for fans of the genre, and with a bit more polish, could easily have been one of the strongest extreme sports titles of this console generation.
Budget pricing itself is an interesting issue, particularly given how fast game prices fall both in the primary and secondary markets. Decreased prices certainly make a good deal of sense for collections of previously released material, arcade ports, or remakes. But for the first appearance of an original intellectual property to consoles, even from an independent developer, it’s possible to view such pricing as an admission of lesser quality. For the most part, that is not the case with Stoked, but it would be unfortunate if the lower price decreased expectations to the point where players didn’t give it a chance.
While there aren’t a great deal of bells and whistles with respect to character creation and extraordinarily polished character animations, Stoked does nail the look and feel of wandering around a mountaintop. The environments themselves are very enjoyable to look at and clearly represent the most accomplished aspect of the game as a whole. The controls take a lesson from the intuitive, flexible style introduced by Skate and as such work quite well.
However, the overall flow of Stoked, even in this genre where an actual narrative isn’t always welcome, seems a little off. In considering the first SSX, the final course had a great deal of impact given the amount of freedom it gave the player following the relative structure of the rest of the game. After several courses requiring the use of set paths and shortcuts, particular locations where the player needed to perform tricks, and the goals of gaining particular medals, the “Untracked” course was a very refreshing way to end, allowing the player to carve their own path down the mountain. Although largely enjoyable, one of the main problems with Stoked is that it places this freeform, exploratory mode up front.
Although it’s conceivable that this is an accurate representation of the path from snowboarding for fun to the decision to attempt to turn pro, it will likely turn off some gamers. “Sandbox” games like Grand Theft Auto work both for players that enjoy structure and those that don’t, simply because there are plenty of activities available and even if the goals made explicit by the narrative are of no interest. But for a free form game to function as a virtual playground, there have to be toys in it, and Stoked may simply not have enough. The experience can actually be disorienting until you turn pro, and people actually start paying attention to you. By contrast, Stoked’s multiplayer works well. Clearly inspired by Burnout Paradise, it offers players the opportunity to simply hang out together on the mountain, doing whatever they see fit.
Stoked may be straightforward, but it’s successes largely outweigh it’s missteps. Although its opening section is oddly paced, and its overall level of polish is uneven, it remains enjoyable by virtue of solid mechanics and its choice to present snowboarding through a largely realistic lens. It’s possible that in its positioning as a budget title, it is being handicapped from being considered on the same playing field as triple-A extreme sports titles but to underestimate it in this way would be to do it a sincere disservice.