Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien Review

Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien, developed and published by Bongfish Interactive Entertainment.
The Good: Improved scored and timed challenges that are easy to create and download, replays of high scores are available, a lot of terrain
The Not So Good: Some crazy collision physics, camera can be annoying on occasion, almost constant clipping
What say you? A reasonably entertaining and enhanced continuation of the Stoked Rider series: 6/8

It’s that time of the year again: when the leaves change color and the temperature drops down to a bone-chilling 70 degrees, at least here in Florida. But in parts further north, populated by insane people that think living in below-freezing temperatures is acceptable, fresh snow will fall and people will flock to mountain resorts to partake in the wonderment. Snowboarding has gained ever-increasing popularity, even becoming more trendy than skiing in some areas. Following up on Stoked Rider, Bongfish hopes to cash in on this craze with the curiously-titled Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien (the game has an alien, on a snowboard, in Alaska, so mystery solved!). How will this sequel improve on the original?

The graphics and sound of Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien are almost identical to the previous version. The mountain graphics are still really good: realistic mountain vistas are prominent in the game’s world. The snowfall is also lifelike, coming at the camera in disturbing volume. The boarder animations could be better, however: giving the player freedom to explore 64 square kilometers of terrain comes with some drawbacks. There are copious amounts of clipping: the snowboard disappears for long periods of time and your stoked rider is flying down the mountain up to his knees in snow. There are also some painfully funny animations when your rider becomes sideways, mostly consisting of strange seizures as he tries to right himself. I would like to see the board “glued” to the terrain and a little more flexibility in the rider, especially in the knees (which seem to be immobile). Still, the graphics do their job and provide a convincing atmosphere for the game. The sound is pretty basic: just some intermittent movement-over-snow effects coupled with some repetitive background music (there are only 9 songs that seem to play in the same order each game). The rider grunt gets pretty annoying after a while as well. The graphics and sound have not undergone very many improvements since the last time we experienced Stoked Rider, but they are adequate enough to make the game playable.

The theme of Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien is snowboarding, and you can tackle the mountains in any number of ways. First, there are tutorial missions, which don’t really teach you how to do anything, but are simple to complete while you are learning the controls (you’ll need to read the manual). Once you complete the tutorial, you have access to the freeride mode, where you can pilot your helicopter to any part of the map (which is a lot easier this time) and board down the side, earning points for performing tricks and how far down you safely travel. You are only limited in how high your helicopter can travel; you must find additional bases scattered around the map to unlock additional choppers. I still don’t like this method of unlocking additional things in the game: it should be based on user performance, which thankfully everything else in the game is. You can spend your points on additional clothes, boards, and gear which give you better ratings and/or make you look cool. It’s pretty easy to unlock stuff, as the combination of tricks and run height ads up quickly: I was able to unlock pretty much everything after only a half hour of gameplay. The height at which you can start a run also increases with additional trials. You can also gain access the alien rider; I do not like its inclusion, as the rocket pack makes it very easy to cheat (although some of the cheating has been reduced in the latest patch). Once you are completed with a run, you can submit it to the central server as either a score run (based on tricks) or a time trial (based on speed). Others can then download the challenge and try to beat it (which are presented in a list in order or popularity or freshness), which is a neat competition element of the game. Most of the submitted runs are pretty difficult and take place on steep slopes with little room for error, but there are some easier challenges available if you can find them. The runs are also limited by a time limit in Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien (unlike in Stoked Rider, where you could keep going until you stopped) which severely limits the cheating. Before attempting a run, you can see a replay of the winning run for each challenge: this is a great addition that’s really helpful for beginning players.

The gameplay of Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien is generally unchanged: steer, jump, perform tricks. Getting tricks to work is pretty easy, as long as you let go and line up before you land. The first time you land a perfect double backflip indy grab is pretty exhilarating. The physics are believable, except when you land awkwardly on the mountain: this may result in some spastic boarder behavior. The game is slightly more realistic than Tony Hawk, as you can’t string five tricks together in three seconds, but you can still pull off some things that just aren’t possible in real life. I feel that Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien strikes a good balance between realism and arcade fun. The addition of more shrubs, trees, and rocks as obstacles makes the game a bit more challenging and also more fun, and the dynamic weather and time of day presents a realistic environment to perform in. The developers have made Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien more enjoyable than its predecessor and that’s all you can really ask for in a sequel.

For those people who enjoy snowboarding and would like a slightly more realistic approach to extreme sports, Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien is a respectable game. It is very similar to its predecessor, but Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien is a more complete execution. While the graphics and sound are unchanged, finding a drop zone as well as submitting and downloading challenges is a lot easier. With the large area the game covers, there is almost limitless replay value, assuming that you enjoy the basic premise of the game in the first place. The improved challenges eliminate a lot of the potential cheating in the game, as each has a time limit attached to it. You can also engage in scored runs that are geared towards tricks or time trials that are geared towards speed: this variety is very welcome. The future addition of an editor (in an upcoming patch) should prove to be interesting, although there is plenty of terrain to explore. Overall, the upgrades in Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien are well worth the expansion-like price of $25.