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After a significant lapse since the U.S. release, the beginning of October saw the arrival of the European version of the somewhat diminutive snowboarding sim Stoked on 360 and PS3. Despite concerns about its pacing and the lack of clear signposting, the more I've played it, the more I've found myself drawn to its no-nonsense approach, lean, focussed feel and pleasing attention to detail.
Right from the off, almost everything about Stoked feels likes it's been stripped back. It doesn't feel stark and bare, however, it feels toned and classy - like the way once you reach a certain price tag cars start to come with less, rather than more. There is no pointless back-story in which we find out about how our character has some over-arching reason for his desire to achieve snowboarding greatness, no deluge of options screens requiring confirmation of as-yet unknown variables. You choose some features for your character from among the most basic aspects of a person, some kit from a very limited stock, and you hit the helicopter and head for the mountain.
It pretty quickly becomes clear that the less-is-more approach continues into the gameplay. The control scheme establishes an intuitive connection between the left stick and your boarder and the right and their board. You flick the right stick up to ollie, use the left stick to spin or flip in the air and combine various right stick directions with one of the triggers to pull off various grabs from a large catalogue of choices.
The learning curve is pretty steep and few shortcuts to difficult manoeuvres present themselves, which is in keeping with the keen realism which runs through every aspect of Stoked - e.g. If you want/need to do a trick fakie, then you'll first need to do a 180, just like everyone else. The decision has clearly been made to make mastering the basics a challenge and to keep the top end within the realm of the possible. In this sense, there is a clear parallel with what EA did with Skate and Skate 2 - an approach that enabled them to wrestle control of the skateboarding genre from the hands of the more fancifully inclined Tony Hawk franchise.
The basic setup is one that makes sense and stays true to the highly authentic vibe that Stoked gives off.
Each mountain offers various runs and each run offers ten challenges comprising of stuff like performing a particular trick or beating a previously set score by a local boarder. Each challenge is marked by an icon, which hovers in the air above the location of the challenge area, with the option to accept the challenge appearing on screen as you approach. It's a simple, naturalistic format, and it functions at the start as quite a neat way of basically integrating a tutorial mode into the main action.
It seemed pretty obvious that the initial idea was to complete all these challenges, but only after consulting a slightly out of the way menu did I learn that I was actually trying to collect the ‘fame points' that I hadn't noticed I'd been gaining. Once I achieved a certain amount, sixty-six to be precise, the way was be paved for me to catch the eye of magazine photographers and professional sponsors. Although it took me a while to figure out what I supposed to be aiming for long-term, and I found the learning curve pretty steep with regard to some of the tricks, the basic setup is one that makes sense and stays true to the highly authentic vibe that Stoked gives off.
The main problem is that in amongst all the straightforward, no-nonsense ideas, there lurk some really odd choices. For instance, the spacing of the challenges: each run is surprisingly wide and long, and the general pattern seems to be to have various clusters of challenges at very widespread intervals down the slope. One result of this is that you spend large periods of time just carving down the mountain searching for the next clump of icons, hoping that you're still heading in the direction you set out on the last time you were high enough to see the all icons floating above the challenge zones. Another slight oddity is the way that the challenges don't seem to incorporate any reliable sense of progression, with very demanding tasks being regularly followed up by ridiculously easy ones.
However, a larger frustration exists. Although you enter each challenge by selecting it as the option appears on screen and this cuts you to challenge summary screen and so on, you exit a completed challenge in real time. Therefore, depending on the nature of the completed challenge and the exact location of the next icon, it is very easy to fly straight passed the next challenge zone. Given that, true to life, it's not possible to travel up the mountain, only down, this can mean having to head back to the top of the slope and then wend your way all the way back to where you just were.
I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that in the nigh-on two hours of play that it took me to secure a sponsor and turn pro, almost half of it was spent just cruising around trying to find where I was supposed to be going next. That having been said, carving down the slopes is not an unpleasant experience. The graphical renderings of the mountain environments are really nice and the sound effects are especially good, injecting a real sense of involvement into even the slightly tedious task of getting to the right place.
Stoked is definitely not a game for young kids or the casual gamer, but as David Simon says of The Wire, **** the casual gamer
Once you achieve sixty-six fame points and attract a sponsor the game feels like it suddenly shifts up through the gears at pace. Events and challenges come thick and fast and, from then on, thankfully little time is wasted carving around looking for stuff to jump over or grind along. If you can make it this far, then you will see the game at its best. The only problem is that some might not be up for the initial investment.
Stoked is definitely not a game for young kids or the casual gamer, but as David Simon says of The Wire, **** the casual gamer (well he says ‘viewer' rather than ‘gamer', but you get the idea). Serious things aren't made for people who just want to dip in and out, being challenged as little as possible, and in that sense Stoked is a serious game. I like the fact that it's difficult to get the hang of and that there is very little in the way of unnecessary flab (anyone remember the coins in Shawn White's Snowboarding?), and I admire the guts it takes to make a game that is this unreservedly aimed at fans of snowboarding and its culture. However, given that it pretty much gets away with most of the risks that it takes, it is a shame to see Stoked flounder over a few pretty trivial mistakes.
With such an unfussy premise, it really needs more clear signposting, more of a sense of what we're trying to achieve and what lies ahead of us longer term. More problematically still, the pacing is poorly judged. So poorly judged, in fact, that there might even be some people who fit its hardcore demographic, buy it and enjoy it at first, but don't have the stamina to make it to pro status. I like the idea of throwing the player straight in and making them learn from scratch, in-game, but the amateur section is far too long and sorely lacks a clear sense of progression.
Stoked on 360 and PlayStation 3 is a really good game tarnished by some really rookie errors. That having been said, it has the foundations right, and it is much easier to start from there and arrive at a really good game by smoothing out problems with presentation and pacing, than it is to inject realism, vitality and soul into a glossy but ultimately sterile shell. While for now, I'd probably only recommend buying Stoked to patient, passionate snowboarders, a genre redefining sequel might only be a few well judged alterations away.
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