Better wear your thermals.
Having steadily grown in popularity over the past several years, snowboarding is exiting the niche market and entering the mainstream. As more and more people get into the sport, it's no surprise that more and more companies are starting to crank out video game versions.
EA already took a PS2 stab at it with SSX, one of the best games for the system. Next down the half-pipe is ESPN Winter X Games Snowboarding...though getting down the pipe is easier said than done.
It's important to note that this is a MUCH different game than SSX, and that comparisons between the two, while somewhat necessary, aren't really fair. The EA game is an action romp, a high-speed ride down fantastical mountain environments, while X Games is much more subdued, going for a full-fledged simulation feel.
And in a sense, it does a helluva job.
You'll find a slew of real boarders and authentic X Games courses, which you can play in a variety of modes. Four are actual X Games events - the Super Pipe and Big Air let you pull fancy tricks, Snowboarder X is a good old fashioned race through gates, and Slopestyle puts you on a run filled with fun boxes, rails and other objects to play with. You can also play multiplayer in a well done split screen. Pretty standard stuff here.
Those in need of more depth need look no further than the Snowboarder mode, which lets you build a boarder from the ground up. The level of detail here is unprecedented in a snowboard game. You can buy a veritable plethora of real snowboarding gear, everything from new boards to new jackets and boots (featuring real jacket and boot manufacturers). This is the hardcore boarders dream come true.
The Lounge area of Snowboarder mode is where you get a sense of the depth. Functioning as the central hub, the Lounge lets you move a little avatar around a mock ski lodge. You can purchase new lift tickets to open up new areas to explore. You can also buy better gear or check out your records.
Of course, nothing in life is free, and there are several ways to earn bread. You can enter competitions to make money, though the competition is pretty tough. Alternatively, you can set up a film shoot. The better you board, the more money the film guys will pay for the tape of your run. This, by the way, is a really cool design idea.
Graphically, the game is impressive. The courses are straight out of the X Games, and for the most part look right on. The boarders themselves look terrific - their jackets get ruffled by the wind to create a really cool speed effect. The backgrounds are near photo-realistic. While the boarder animations are a little rigid, the overall result is very solid.
X Games hits a rough mogul, however, when it comes to control. Snowboarding in real-life is difficult to learn and hard to master, and the game really attempts to capture this by making the boarding extremely hard. Why? I don't know, since it makes for a frustrating experience.
You'll constantly find yourself losing momentum and wind up a sitting duck in the middle of a slope. Someone forget to throw in the "get my ass moving" button, and this can lead burning tons of time off the clock just trying to get going again. I can't tell you how irritating it is getting stuck behind a house or large rock, since they also forgot to add the "get my ass out from behind this house or large rock" button. You'll literally smash into an object and stop moving. That's it. No turbo boost to help out. Nothing. You're just stuck there. Ah, how fun.
At least in SSX you could press 'Select' and get placed back on the track again. I know, I know, this game is a sim. Real X Game athletes can't just magically get bailed out. Well, I'm not a real athlete. I'm a gamer, and I like my magic buttons, dammit.
The trick system is equally awkward. Boarders have too much momentum in the air; unlike SSX's tight control, it's hard to stop spinning and land tricks. While great for the hardcore snowboarder, the rest of you will probably grow weary of landing on your ass over and over again. Sure, it's more realistic...but it isn't more fun.
X Games is furthered hampered by the fact that it just doesn't feel fast enough. You sort of putt down the hill, never really blazing down the slope. I'm not a pro boarder by any stretch of the imagination, but if this is how fast you really go, then I'll pass.
I think ESPN achieved their goal in creating a realistic snowboarding game, but the result is too much sim and not enough game. A better game engine would have made this a fierce competitor, but it currently stands somewhere in the middle of the mountain.