Version tested: Wii
Everything except Modern Warfare 2 has fled from Q4 2009. Mass Effect 2, BioShock 2, Heavy Rain. All gone. It's because none of them wanted to go up against Shaun White: World Stage, for fear of the inevitable - for fear of being crushed, like fragile snowmen, in the terrible wake of the Flying Tomato.
It's not hard to understand why, either. I have fond - if rather vague - memories of Shaun White: Road Trip. Nice, chunky character art comes to mind, along with a solid, colourful world, and a soundtrack featuring the Blue Oyster Cult along with, I think, some Bob Dylan.
It wasn't all great, of course - I seem to remember the half-pipe sections were about as much fun as being forced to do the catering at your own funeral, and the trick system was fuzzy to the point of being faintly pointless - but I'm pretty sure I enjoyed the game overall, and even brought it out once or twice over Christmas, at which point a friend of mine fell off the balance board and broke that little bookcase I should have placed safely in the hallway.
Luckily, World Stage is here to rekindle my fading memory a little, because, as sequels go, it's really pretty similar to the original. Progress in this kind of game is always a bit glacial - it's probably hard to get excited about the idea of making improvements when you're faced with a yearly release schedule, just as it was probably hard to get excited about the idea of the Suez Canal while staring at a giant wall of rock with a pickaxe in your hand - but World Stage makes for such a cautious update that it can be quite difficult to even work out which bits are different.
So, what has changed? The biggest addition for 2009 seems to be the ability to design your own tricks, pre-recording the spins, grabs and tucks for each move in a special area, before slapping on an icon and giving the whole thing a name of your choosing.
It's a nice enough idea, but it's an option that's only available if you have a Wii MotionPlus. This seems a bit of a swizz, as, given the limited degree of feedback and precision the design mode apparently requires, it seems to be the kind of thing that it would be entirely impossible to do without one.
Designing tricks also unwittingly lays bare the game's biggest problem, revealing that the trick suite itself is hardly the most charismatic collections of animations in the first place, composed of a handful of different stances and grabs muddled up in a variety of permutations, and differentiated, for the most part, mainly by the choice of name and graphic stuck on top.
Furthermore, the system is so carefully designed to cope with the innate imprecision of the Wii remote, that any broader use for the MotionPlus seems largely redundant. Giving you extra control in a game which is entirely built around a necessary sense of ambiguity is hardly that useful to you, and it merely highlights the fact that pulling off moves has been de-skilled to the point that the only thing separating a basic low-scoring trick from a riskier, higher-scoring one is how many buttons you hold down while making the same simple gesture.
Elsewhere, the competition structure has been jiggled around a bit - you move from one location to the next a lot more, and you also get to play as Shaun White himself a little bit earlier on in proceedings - and there are new locations, including spots in the UK and France.
The stylised globe-trotting backgrounds are certainly eye-catching - I have no idea which manner of peyote buttons the art team was whacked out on when they visited Paris, but the Eiffel Tower is not made of purple candy, and it isn't a million feet tall, either. But the slope designs seem a little uninspired and interchangeable this time around, and most are too anonymous to bring any real sense of escalating excitement to the game's relentless flow of trick challenges and races.
A lot of the old stuff still works, of course. Entering each event after choosing a cameraman, each of whom comes with their own perk, continues to add a gentle strategic element to the game, while the multiplayer stuff - still offline except for leaderboards - remains a rowdy treat, offering freeplay or cup runs, supporting split-screen and hot-seat options.
Equally, if you're between the ages of six and eight, a lot of the game's design decisions suddenly make a lot more sense. There's a trick system based on shaking the controller like you're in the process of being electrocuted, and the relentlessly upbeat manner in which deems your performance "Not Bad!", for instance, even when you place eighth in an eight-man event, having hit every tree, missed every power-up, and ended each jump in a painful tangle of broken limbs.
But even then, cannier tweens might leave with the sense that the game seems slightly rushed. Events will often dump you into a track that's patently not suited for it - a big air challenge filled with rails to grind, a trick run with lots of empty straights - and the unlockable outfits and boards can seem like a bit of an afterthought.
World Stage is alright, so if it's an alright game you're after, this is the one you've been looking for. Bombing downhill with such a chirpy crew in tow was always going to provide a certain amount of fun, and there's still the sense that this is a series that has adapted itself a lot more intelligently to the Wii than most games have.
Despite that, at just two games in, Shaun White's ideas are starting to look a little thin on the ground. You'll still likely enjoy playing World Stage for the four or five hours it will take to see a fair amount of what's on offer, but when it's all over, it may be harder to argue that the game itself is particularly special.
6 / 10