Saturday, April 22, 2006

Stoked Rider Review

Stoked Rider, developed and published by Bongfish.
The Good: Extremely large and varied terrain, interesting and original concept, central challenge list, hidden bonuses
The Not So Good: Very little instruction for beginners, finding a drop zone is much more difficult than it should be, hidden bonuses are really hidden
What say you? An imaginative idea that needs to be more user-friendly and welcoming for players: 5/8

Striving to appeal more to the younger generation, the Olympics had made the shift from old, stodgy sports like skiing and towards new, cooler events like snowboarding. Stealing a page from the semi-successful X-Games (which surprisingly don’t involve Mulder or Scully), the Olympics are now filled with baggy pants wearing athletes who enjoy shredding (lettuce, I assume). Following along with this newer fad are snowboarding games, most noticeable the SSX series on consoles. There’s hasn’t been a presence of extreme sports on the PC however, outside of the occasional Tony Hawk port. Hoping to cash in on this void is Stoked Rider, a freeride snowboarding game where it’s just you, the mountain, gravity, and a lot of trees. Freeride snowboarding is all about tearing down the side of cliffs, emulating the “agony of defeat” (although hopefully not too closely). Let’s go boarding, kids!

Stoked Rider generally has outstanding mountain graphics, creating a believable (but extreme) version of snow-covered peaks you might find in various ranges around the world. The game was inspired by Tommy Brunner and his freeriding in Alaska, and Stoked Rider is complete with breathtaking visuals from both close and far perspectives. Obviously, the most work went into creating a varied 64 square kilometer (or 1,581 square furlongs) and the developers came up strong in this area. When I first fired up the game, I thought I was seeing an opening pre-rendered movie, but it was actually the real game mountain: I was pretty impressed. There are some graphical issues, however, such as clipping (the board can disappear into the snow) and camera angles (the game automatically changes the angle, sometimes to an angle you can see anything but snow with). Still, the wonderful mountain vistas are one of the highlights of Stoked Rider. The sound consists of generic effects: snow moving under the board, the alternative soundtrack, and the jubilant sound of mastering a trick; not exactly at the same quality as the graphics, but not terrible or damaging to the gameplay.

Being a simulation of freeriding, Stoked Rider lets you choose any part of the mountain and start boarding. This level of freedom has benefits and drawbacks. It does give the user the ability to basically go wherever they want, but a missing overall structure or mission-based sequence of scenarios can make the game too repetitive over time. This is slightly offset by the central high score table. If you complete an especially sick (“sick” meaning “affected with disease”) run, you can upload it to the central server and challenge other players to go farther down the mountain than you did. You can download any run other people have uploaded as well, although I wish there was a way to “download all;” there are over 100 different challenges, and downloading each individually involves more clicking than necessary. You begin each session from the base, go up in your helicopter, and select a drop zone from any suitable area of the terrain that is not too steep or out of bounds. The drop zone selection is probably the weakest aspect of the game as Stoked Rider makes it much harder than needed. You are tied to the helicopter in selecting a drop zone, rotating the view requires right clicking then moving the mouse then right clicking and left clicking to select a zone. If the zone you want is anywhere near the helicopter in your view, you must readjust the view as the game doesn’t allow clicking too close to the chopper. I’d much rather have an overhead or isometric map to select my starting point. Adding in the helicopter gives the illusion of realism (since freeriding is done by dropping from a helipcopter), but that doesn’t mean its inclusion makes the game fun. In addition, you must fly around a find unlocked bases, scouring the landscape for buildings that only pop into view when you’re close enough. I want to spend my time in the game snowboarding, not playing hide and seek.

Controlling your boarder is easy enough: the four directional controls plus jump, brake, and shifting of weight. Performing tricks is simple as well: jump and press another button to execute indy airs, backside airs, and spins. The physics in the game are generally enjoyable, although the boards go slow in the beginning and the undulations in the terrain make the boarder go airborne more than he should. Your run ends when you go below a certain threshold of speed for three seconds; however, you can cheat by jumping before time runs out, continuing a run even though it should be over. This results in some inflated runs and takes away from the fun of the game. You can earn several upgrades or bonuses during the game. Additional bases are unlocked by descending a certain amount of meters, tricks can earn better boards, and other bonuses are scattered around the map in various locations. Since the map is 64 square kilometers (or 1,066 bovates), you can imagine that it takes a lot of luck and time to find better protective gear, clothes, and songs. The fact that a lot of the objects only pop into view when you are fairly close only complicates the issue. There are some features that are missing from the game that I’d like to see. First, there is only one challenge included by the developers in the game; the rest must be downloaded from other users. I’d like to see a better array of challenges in the game and winning each of them result in some sort of bonus (clothes, boards, or just trick points). Also, the game requires you to validate your key each time you run the game, so why isn’t there any multiplayer? A future version of the game would benefit from a massively multiplayer mountain where you can challenge fellow competitors to checkpoint races. That would be cool.

Stoked Rider definitely has the potential to be a great PC snowboarding game. The graphics are outstanding and the basic game is there, although the lack of structured missions makes the game a little monotonous. The physics model makes boarding in the game challenging and enjoyable, the best thing next to actually going out there. Some added features, such as multiplayer, more included missions, and easier drop zone locating, would add to the good base Stoked Rider has. The game is hard on the new players, as the manual or game doesn’t really give any advice and generally confuses the new player (with definitions such as “forcing the board's velocity-direction towards the nose-direction by the help of anisotropic-friction”). I only found out by mistake how to move the helicopter without selecting a drop zone (double-click). The game can become boring if you don’t take advantage of the challenges available online. In addition, the helicopter controls make navigation around the mountains too arduous. Still, Stoked Rider is easily the best snowboarding game on the PC; of course, it’s the 2nd snowboarding game on the PC, so that’s a superfluous compliment. Gamers who have been itching for a snowboarding game should look no further than Stoked Rider, a respectable game with unquestionable room for expansion.