• Amped Review - Microsoft Xbox

    Tony Hawks on Snow. If you want a four word review of Amped as might be spoken by your local Electronics Boutique sales assistant, then you could do a lot worse. This being a website built around reviews of a thousand or more words, people have come to expect slightly more comment. Which is just as well as pigeonholing a game like Amped does it no service, not does it do justice to the excellent Tony Hawks’ series. Let’s get one thing straight though, if free roaming stunt based games aren’t your thing, Amped won’t change your mind.

    It’s not a racer in the vein of Nintendo’s 1080 or EA’s SSX, but its freestyle stunt based gameplay is far more comprehensive and satisfying than the stunt elements in those two titles.

    Amped’s has a somewhat potted history which was tainted when Microsoft were exposed for releasing false preview pictures cobbled together in Photoshop. The game has also received derision by people trying out the X-Box demo pods. Amped is not a game that can be simply picked up and played and the decision to include it in the demo pods was bad marketing. Certainly Microsoft have done little right when promoting this game.

    Which is all the more surprising when you get into the game properly, because it is actually a very enjoyable title. It certainly ranks up with Tony Hawks as one of the best in a genre that is fast becoming overcrowded. Technically the game is flawless, running at a constant frame rate and with a spectacular draw distance. Sound is very good, spot effects and speech sound crisp and clear and the variety of the 150 music tracks on offer makes a welcome change from the usual barrage of skate punk anthems. The game also makes full use of the X-Box’s music burning facility which is very welcome. Speeding across the clean snow of an Austrian mountain to the sounds of Mozart or Bach is an ear opening experience.

    Where a game such as this lives or dies is on its handling and this is where Amped scores its highest marks. Quite simply, it’s the best yet and pips even the mighty 1080 when it come to the “feel”. Many of the world’s top snowboarders have put their names against this title. There is a very apparent sense that the developers have taken great care to get the handling just right, whether cutting through thick drifts or scraping across glass-like sheets of ice.

    The game is marketed as the snowboarder’s game for snowboarders. That isn’t to say it is purely a simulation and some artistic licence is in evidence. The player can’t be injured from a great fall and the game will let you negotiate areas slower than you would in real life. Some of the more impressive tricks verge the realms of impossibility. This balance of gameplay is welcome though, as initially the title does take some getting used to. Staying on the board is easy enough but pulling off tricks takes timing. Access to the trick repertoire is gained either from the buttons of the controller or for more advanced player the second analogue stick. Once airborne or grinding, they are easy to administer, but the game is more demanding with the timing of jumps and the player’s landing position.

    Initially this can be frustrating. The nature of the slopes means that if you fail a jump, you can’t go back uphill and try again, you have to carry on downhill. Play for a while though and the timing becomes second nature and it’s at this point that the game clicks. Once you become good at Amped, it is time to enjoy the subtle nuances of the trick system.

    Special mention should be made to the excellent level design, which has been carefully crafted to cater for beginner and expert alike. Each level is a mountain in its own right with several choices of starting point. Once you’re on the slope, the path you take is down to the player, with some of the slopes nearly as wide as they are long. These are no narrow linear paths to a finishing line like some titles, the player is free to shred across the slopes to find the biggest tricks. There are no edges to the course, although wander too far away and the game will put you back on course, although you are given far more freedom to explore compared to a game like Rallisport. The stages are a nice mix of man made stunt course complete with ramps, half pipes and even cable cars that can be stunted, to the natural mountains off piste where the ramps are replaced by snow drifts and fallen trees provide the ideal grinding points.

    The vast openness of the levels lends a tactical thought process to the game that lifts it arguably even above the Tony Hawks’ titles. The initially frustrating facet of not being able to go back uphill to retake stunts lends itself to the player seeking out the best possible route down the mountain, with frequently the most obvious not being the one to garner the best rewards. There is no time limit in this game, once the player reaches the bottom of the mountain the level is over. How long he takes to get there and how many stunts he pulls off on the way is down to the player.

    A nice touch is the other snowboarders doing their own thing and the reporters standing near the big jumps taking your photo. The stages don’t feel lonely like some other sports titles, the slopes are populated just like they would in real life.

    Beyond the standard arcade modes is the vast career mode. The balance in what is the main part of the game has been finely tuned, difficult enough to excite but not too difficult to halt progression altogether. The are many different ways to progress through the career of a boarder, whether it be aiming for a total points score, earning points on specific jumps, pleasing sponsors by performing only certain kinds of tricks or competing with a digital representation of one of the snowboarding super stars on a trick vs trick basis. To fully complement the size of the levels, there is bonus task to find eight well hidden snowmen amongst the levels. Most of the time the player is free to tackle these tasks in any order he pleases and move between the available levels freely, but there are three points in the game where a new level needs the completed before the player can move on. These levels are fairly difficult, but they encourage the player to raise their standard and the reward upon completion is a new set of levels and tasks opening up.

    As you would expect, completion of the tasks results in more tricks, more clothing for your boarder and improvements in their abilities. The player gradually makes their way up through the world rankings and the game shows the growth of media coverage in amusing pythonesque clips. For a game that takes its snowboarding seriously, there is a welcome amount of humour in the game, from the sarcastic media reporters on the slopes to the strange musical snowmen taunting “Hey Amigo!” at the player.

    Beyond the excellent freestyle snowboarding game that this is, there is one question that will exit everyone’s lips; “Where is the race mode?”. It’s perhaps unfair to compare this game to the other snowboarding titles on the market. It’s a representation of one aspect of the sport and it excels at doing it, but the levels are so well designed that a simple race mode would not have been difficult to add on. Those pining for the definitive next generation snowboard racer will have to wait for Nintendo’s 1080 Version 2 due next year.

    Amped is a title that is sadly overlooked. On face value it’s another snowboarding sim crossed with Tony Hawks clone, but one that with an initially frustrating learning curve. However, underneath all that is a very playable title that deserves more than being pigeonholed and can hold its head up as being a key piece in the Microsoft cannon.

    Now if only they hadn’t released those pictures……

    A review by Jez Overton
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