Extreme sports seem to be becoming more and more a part of everyday life recently, and a contributing factor to their success has definitely been ESPN’s X-games. Showcasing “extreme” sports such as skateboarding, snowboarding, street luge, rock climbing, and many others, the X-games have become a launching point for many up and coming sports. It is only natural that this extreme action comes to the home consoles, and Konami and ESPN have joined up to create ESPN Winter X-Games Snowboarding 2002 (quite a title). Hereafter I will refer to this game as ESPN Snowboarding. Does ESPN Snowboarding provide the same excitement as its real life counterpart? Perhaps not, but it does not fall completely short.
ESPN Snowboarding possesses graphics that are of average quality for modern generation PS2 titles. This is not to say that they are bad, they are just not exceptional. The courses are quite large and have excellent view distance. I feel, however, that the developers sacrificed detail for distance. The detail of the levels leaves something to be desired and I would like to see more background action and animations. Obstacles are decently textured but at times the textures are a bit on the low-res side. The snow, an important part in any snowboarding game, is done quite well. It responds quickly and properly as the player boards over the surface. It is possible to see the width of the boarder’s trail change as you carve turns, and snow sprays satisfyingly when you screech to a stop.
Character models are well done and upon level start there is exceptional detail in the close-ups of the snowboarders. I was able to recognize athletes that I had just seen win Olympic gold medals before I even saw their names. I think that’s a pretty good testament to the level of detail. Player outfits look great and there are a large variety of boards, bindings and clothing to pick from. Animations are quite smooth but not very varied; I would have like to have seen a more diverse collection of animations for when my player fell, or perhaps better tricking animation. Once again, the animation is not bad, it just lacks a little bit of variety. Collision detection is handled well and I rarely, if ever, caught any glitches. The camera does an excellent job of tracking your boarder’s movement and I was always able to properly determine my orientation relative to the ground. My only complaint is that the camera pans somewhat underneath the player on big air; this makes it very difficult to figure out if there is enough room to perform that extra flip. After a while I became more accustomed to timing and the camera ceased to bother me.
Beyond the main graphics I have always felt that the production of a game can help make it or break it. ESPN Snowboarding has some of the best laid out menus and in-game superimposed graphics that I have seen in a while. They hold very true to the real life X-Games graphical style and really help make the game a more realistic simulation of the games. Movies are spattered liberally thoughout the game and provide a nice reward upon goal completion. Overall, ESPN Snowboarding is a well-produced game, but not really genre redefining.
Music has always been an integral part of the extreme sports movement. So accordingly, ESPN Snowboarding features a slamming soundtrack composed of a collection of rock, punk and rap songs. Bands such as the Offspring and Jurassic 5 are prominently featured and add greatly to the games’ image and environment. Sound effects are well recorded and sampled. Like the graphics, the sound is not excellent but is well done. The announcer commentary is a game standout, simply outstanding. The voice tone is perfect and possesses many witty sayings. Commentary is determined by both the current character and the stunt obstacles that are up and coming. I liked that there is a little background info presented by the commentator before each run. Although it gets repetitive, it adds realism to the game and meshes perfectly with the X-Games motif.
I have a hard time playing any extreme sports title and not comparing it to Tony Hawk. Although this is not entirely fair, Tony Hawk set the benchmark to follow in terms of control scheme and responsiveness. ESPN Snowboarding’s control scheme is slightly convoluted and very difficult to learn. The game puts tremendous emphasis on timing and therefore possesses a very steep learning curve. Combining analog stick movements and exact button timing, it is very difficult to pull off the crazy tricks possible in other extreme sports games. I do feel though that this is partly intentional as ESPN Snowboarding places more emphasis on simulation rather then human impossibility. Over rotation is a common problem and it is difficult to stop your character from spinning or flipping exactly where you want them too.
Beyond control there is much to the gameplay of ESPN Snowboarding. There is a large assortment of tricks, although not as large as many other games. Each character has the chance to pull of special moves and the game offers the innovative concept of move chaining. Chaining allows moves to be strung together in a Tony Hawk combo style. I think that this is a great addition to the snowboarding genre and allows for huge point totals. There are several different X-Games events including Slopestyle, Big Air, Halfpipe, and Time Attack. Big Air and Halfpipe modes challenge the player to go for the big points and get huge scores. It’s a little limited and gets somewhat monotonous after a while. Time Attack is straight racing and is fun, but I don’t feel that its really what ESPN Snowboarding is about. The real bread and butter mode is Slopestyle, which combines the best of Time Attack and Big Air modes. There are several courses with many different paths. The goal is to get the most trick points, combined with the best possible score. Slopestyle is a lot of fun and the most addictive mode of them all.
Each event may be played through the tournament style X-Games mode, or the more interesting and complex Snowboarder mode. Snowboarder mode allows you to build and guide a snowboarder through their career as a professional snowboarder. You start on the amateur level and slowly build yourself up over time. It requires a lot of patience and a ton of skill as you start with almost nothing. There is a plethora of equipment, clothing and skills to buy. It is very difficult though as you need to possess good stats to get a good standing in many of the events. Therefore you find yourself caught in a Catch-22. Overall, the gameplay of ESPN Snowboarder offers a lot but is hampered by poor control and unimaginative level design.
I liked ESPN Snowboarding but I don’t feel that it really reached its full potential. The simulation nature of the game takes away from the fun aspect, but some snowboarding fans will find it appealing for its realism. In the end, ESPN Winter X-Games Snowboarding 2002 winds up slowly moping down the slope rather than racing down like a bat out of hell.