Snowboarding used to be all the rage in video games. Cool Boarders on the original PlayStation and 1080 on the N64 were both must own titles for their respective platforms, and later SSX proved that people couldn't get enough of insane jumps and ridiculous tricks. Then, along came Amped to show that a sim approach could work and the third game in the series made for a solid Xbox 360 launch title. Now a good few years into this console generation, with developers getting to grips with the power at their disposal, a snowboarding game should offer the very best kind of extreme sports entertainment. Ubisoft Montreal's Shaun White tries hard but in the end falls foul of a few rather unfortunate design decisions.
Although Shaun White's Snowboarding attempts to offer something in the way of a story, the game's really about you boarding down four massive mountains (Alaska, Park City Utah, Europe and Japan), taking part in events, collecting items for Shaun and playing with friends. Instead of giving you events in traditional video game fashion, this is more or less the GTA of the snowboarding genre, with each mountain free to explore, and events accessed by boarding up to them. With plenty of events to tackle, and coins to collect that unlock new moves, the set-up is great. Soon enough, though, things start to get rather frustrating.
Collecting items (in this case coins) isn't usually that much fun, so imagine how awkward it is in a game where you're strapped to a board while travelling at speed down a snowy mountain, with locations often at the end of an extremely tricky run. You can get off your board to wander about on foot, but your boarder can't do much, with small ledges and steep inclines putting an end to his adventuring. Collecting all the coins is essential as doing so unlocks new abilities (the first gives you the ability to barge through destructible barriers), but initially it's just not fun. Travelling around the mountain is great when you're going down, but try to head back up and it's either slow or impossible. Thankfully you can quick travel to a few chair lift and helicopter drop off points, but that still leaves you with some distance to travel to get each coin or event and there's a chance you'll fly by the location again (the in-game radar is only of limited use and the main map is one of the worst we've seen in a video game), forcing you to take another chair lift back up again.
Getting around becomes a chore very quickly and it's something that can only partially be solved if you make use of the marker system the developers have included. By placing a marker you can instantly warp back to that point at the press of a button, which is great, but that's only of real use to the coin collecting where you're going to have to replay runs over and over again, and you still have to get into the right position to place the marker in the first place. The opening few hours of Shaun White aren't great - you're literally thrown in and told to get on with it. Some people may enjoy this hands-off approach, but we'd have liked the basics to be walked through in greater depth.
The boarding itself is punishing too, with a control system that won't be for players hoping for a modern SSX. Movement is mapped to the left stick, crouch and jump on the right trigger (in the Xbox 360 version tested), modifiers on the left trigger and grabs on the right stick. The right stick also allows you to perform more severe turns by twisting the board. This is all fine, but putting these controls into practice and being able to go down the mountain without landing on your face is far trickier than it seems.
All movements in Shaun White are based on reality, so you can't start a spin and then try to reverse out of it - doing this causes your boarder to hit the ground in a rather uncomfortable position. Until you get your head around the fact that it's best to play safe rather than go all out for every trick, you'll find Shaun White to be incredibly frustrating. Competing in the various freestyle, air tricks, ground tricks, air time, speed and other events helps you get to grips with the controls, but for a long time you'll be finishing last and scraping through with bare minimum scores. Strangely, grinding rails is pretty easy, with your boarder able to land on pretty much anything as long as he's not completely off balance.
Of course, things aren't helped by the fairly average board you start with, with the better boards costing a lot of cash - something that isn't easy to come by when you're barely making the top three in events. Gaining enough speed to get big air is pretty tricky early on, with your boarder annoyingly slowing down far too quickly on level ground and slightly downward slopes. If you've been skiing or snowboarding you'll know that it takes a fair while to slow down unless you deliberately try to do so - which simply isn't the case in Shaun White. Other than the board there are various items of clothing to buy to kit your boarder out with, but it's not really character creation on par with the very best in the sports genre.
Playing alone is just half of the game, with Shaun White designed as a social experience for up to sixteen players online. The interface is very Burnout Paradise and GTA 4, with all actions carried out using the d-pad, meaning you're never taken out of the game world. With other players you can mess about on the slopes, take part in events (some of which are exclusively multiplayer), throw snowballs at each other, show off or show friends how to access parts of the mountain that they didn't know about. Online play works really well on the whole, although we did experience some lag when we managed to get more than eight players onto the mountain - not game destroying lag, but other boarders were warping slightly.
Built using the Assassin's Creed graphics engine, you'd expect Shaun White to look pretty nice, and it does, at least some of the time. There are some genuine 'WOW' moments to be had here, especially when starting a run from the top of one of the four massive mountains, but there are far too many graphical glitches and issues. The draw distance at times is breathtaking, but this often comes with a sluggish frame rate. Objects and shadows pop into view far too close to your boarder, there's a pretty terrible depth of field effect and your board will frequently pass straight through solid objects - we're fine with some snow over the board, but we're pretty sure a board wouldn't pass underneath solid ice.
What Ubisoft has nailed is the feeling of being at a ski resort. With the sheer size of the mountains, the working chair lifts, the other boarders on the slopes and the general design of the buildings dotted about, it's the best visual representation of the sport to date. It's just a shame that some technical issues get in the way. Something that came as quite a disappointment is the avalanches that take place high in the mountains. We expected quite a spectacle, but the graphical effects aren't nearly impressive enough and don't match the rumbling sound effect that gives a superb feeling of being chased down a mountain.
Something Ubisoft got mostly right is the soundtrack, which mixes modern and classic tracks to ensure you're bound to find something to enjoy, but it might be a little too mixed for some. Blue Oyster Cult's (Don't Fear) The Reaper and Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit stick out as high points, but there are also tracks from Kasabian, Faithless, The Ting Tings and RUN-DMC. We're not so sold on the likes of Corrosion of Conformity and Stabbing Westward, but there are in-game options to quickly change tracks and to choose from set playlists, so you don't have to simply cycle through everything.
It's clear that Ubisoft had some big ideas for Shaun White Snowboarding, but many of these have been hampered by an overly difficult control scheme, cumbersome navigation, a terrible map, too much collecting and a disappointing frame rate. The recreation of the four ski resorts is excellent, the online functionality is well thought out, and at times the views are magnificent, but the game just isn't as much fun as it should have been.