20th Dec 2005 | 11:15
Fact: when games try to borrow 'cool' or 'edgy' or 'irreverent' themes from lifestyle cultures, calamity is never more than a slalom flag away. That's because properly cool, edgy, irreverent people are too busy snorting wasabi for dares, or getting ludicrous tattoos on unmentionable body parts, or regurgitating omelette ingredients into frying pans to bother with learning to program. You'd never catch them sitting in an anonymous office cube for hours and hours making a console game.
Amped is obviously a game based on a lifestyle culture, but that's not why it's cool. It pulls off that incredible feat because the game itself is cool. It's not appropriating stuff from MTV - it's very much its own thing and rightly proud of it! Amped is not the try-hard it so easily could have been - it carves its own course down the hill.
Amped is probably the most effortlessly cool game ever made. It's certainly the only game that includes a gang we'd sort of like to hang out with in real life (not that we're lonely or desperate or anything). Next to Amped, SSX On Tour's attempts at emulating boarder culture look like your drunken Uncle Clive trying to do the David Brent dance at a wedding, and most other games simply look hopelessly lazy.
One of the reasons that Amped is probably the most effortlessly cool game ever made is the cutscenes, which are nothing short of genius - like a sort of collaboration between The Adam and Joe Show and a mad toddler with too much time on his hands. Each one's done in a different style - from stop-motion toymation to anime, crazy sketchbook renderings of made-up Hindu mountain gods and Russian gameshows hosted by hand puppets - and they're all genuinely funny, which is almost unheard of. This sense of style extends to the rest of the game too, with Terry Gilliam pop-ups punctuating the menus and Sergeant Pepper-style visuals on the point-to-point challenges. It's a massive contrast to the clean, sensible look of the actual snowboarding, and it's lovely. For hardcore boarders who want to look the part and wear real-world kit, there are plenty of recognisable outfits to be earned, from Burton pro wear to the more traditional stupid crash helmets. Smooth.
Frosty as all this is, though, the hardpacked core of the gaming snowball is the way Amped handles. It's closer to a downhill Tony Hawk's than SSX - a tap of Y locks onto rails, while butters (standing on one end of the board, like a skateboarding manual roll), balancing and flatland tricks use exactly the same controls as the Pro Skater series. Transitions seem easier than in previous Ampeds, with a longer window of opportunity to put combos together - occasionally this feels cheap, but mostly it's a welcome dumbing down. In powder, it's also possible to carve with the triggers, producing big, swooshing turns that keep the combo action going even when there isn't a jump in sight. In the air, things are different again - while SSX emphasises heavy prewinding and yanking the stick for multiple spins, Amped encourages a gentler touch for slower, high-scoring 'Stylish' spins. Which system you prefer will be partly personal preference, but Amped's is closer to the laconic feel of 'real' snowboarding, or the sense of effortlessness seen in the best videos. And nobody pulls off their bindings and helicopters the board around their neck. Although you can get in snowball fights. Deal with it, purists.
SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE
Not so 'cool' or 'edgy' but equally important is the course design, and it's here that Amped shines. Though they're all essentially made of snow, trees and rocks (as opposed to, say, pinball bumpers and waterslides), Amped's runs somehow manage to be much more memorable than On Tour's, thanks to much cleaner lines and far superior suddenly-hurtling-off-a-cliff bits. You'll spend a lot of time simply meandering down the slopes, because Amped won't let you skip straight to challenges, instead forcing you to make your way over to them from the nearest ski lift. But this works fine, because a) It helps you memorise the slopes, b) a pocket snowmobile makes backtracking uphill easy, and c) if you mess up a challenge, an instant restart's a mere button press away. Throw in some challenges that it's totally possible to complete while you're on your way somewhere else - pulling a big trick for the cameras, say, or 'stoking' a significant portion of casual slope-users - and you've got that feel of a huge, organic series of mountains that On Tour was missing. Developer Indie Built has even slung in a hang-glider for you to appreciate the vast scope of each mountain from above. Unfortunately there doesn't appear to be a gob-on-the-ski school feature while gliding high above the pistes, which we think is a bit of a missed opportunity, frankly.
Amped only oversteps the boundaries once or twice in its puppy-dog eagerness to please, and it's here that it falls flat on its face - even if it gets up again quickly enough. In the early going, for instance, there's a bit too much emphasis on antics such as riding a bath down the slopes or deliberately injuring yourself in initially hilarious masochism modes. The ragdoll physics, courtesy of the impressive Havok engine, do make smashing your face into a wall of ice a pleasurably aesthetic experience, but it goes to the point where you will wonder when you're actually going to get to do some snowboarding. Then there's the snowball fighting. What can we say? It's bad enough the kids down your street chucking clods of pebbly black ice your way - you don't want to have to deal with it in a game. This is something the developer doesn't appear to have taken into consideration, but imagine you've just hit a grind only to be dislodged by an onlooker with a handful of slush. How is that enjoyable? We were thinking for a bit maybe it was meant to be comic, but the reality is it's just disruptive and annoying. To return to the playful puppy analogy - they're great fun, but sometimes you feel like tapping them on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper and locking them in the kitchen while you finish what you were doing. Sometimes Amped needs to learn when it's best to just leave you alone!
But hey - nobody call the RSPCA. These are just niggles in an otherwise excellent game. With a story mode that demands to be finished and pacing so good that it'll steal big chunks of your life, Amped 3's one of the best extreme sports titles since the original SSX. It's cool, it's edgy, it's irreverent and it's fun. It's, like, totally stomping. It's still cool to say 'stomping', right?