With a pedigree as prestigious as SSX Tricky, Sled Storm had my expectations understandably high, but after a few moments with EA Canada's latest snow-capped release it became obvious that the two games share more than just a mutual developer. At the heart of Sled Storm are the same underlying mechanics that made Tricky so enjoyable, but unfortunately basing Sled Storm squarely on its predecessor has diluted its impact. Elements could quite easily be transplanted between the two, and the underlying sensation of déjà vu is striking. Your options from the start are extremely thin on the ground, save the requisites that you'd expect from what is essentially an arcade racer. Championship. Quick race. Time Trial. Multiplayer. However, the latter options are practically pointless without first unlocking extra characters, sleds and tracks in the championship, tasks familiar to anybody who spent more than a day with either of BIG's previous releases. To begin with, you can pick from three of the game's eight riders, each with varying agility and a handful of tricks available to them, before mounting their least impressive sled. Making your decision really isn't particularly tough at this stage, as each of the riders are of similar talent and are bottom-of-the-barrel material. It's actually the sled you should be more interested in, in terms of performance...
Like Driving A Skip
Starting off on the games only open track, I straight away noticed how odd the sled felt. Instinctively I was expecting a smooth, sweeping control of a snowboard, but this was of course replaced by a clunky and fairly unresponsive machine. The sled feels suitably weighty, and handles in a sluggish manner as you attempt to get the thing up an impossibly steep slope. Any sense of speed isn't immediately apparent as you start the race. Gradually, though, as you get the hang of the trick methods and handling, the boost meter at the right of your HUD begins to fill. Tracks are littered with objects to break and knock down with your sled, such as the beacons marking the edge of a turn, and doing so also helps fill your boost meter. When you've finally accumulated a satisfying amount of boost, you can let her rip with the square button, and then your sled really gets moving. One of the most satisfying feelings in the game is squeezing every last drop of boost out of your sled as you career up a hill in a suitably disorienting mess of motion blur and booster flame, launching into the air as you reach the crest and pulling off a few ridiculous stunts whilst maintaining control of your mechanical beast. Reach for a combination of the shoulder and triangle buttons off the back of any jump and you can pull off a trick, just as you could in SSX and its successor, and like those games Sled Storm makes the act of performing feats simple and effective.
Once you're over the sludgy handling, and you can happily power slide about the course pulling off the occasional trick from time to time, you need to get to grips with actually winning a race, and this is where the game takes a slight departure from SSX. Before long it becomes obvious that the emphasis is less on insane acrobatics and more on placing first, and having sidelined the 'tricky' aspect to an extent, EA Canada has also implemented some criminal race balancing... Even if you happen to be doing particularly well, boosting way ahead of the opposition with plenty of snow between you and them, you can be sure that a single slip-up will ensure that an opponent (or several) will be past you in a flash. Conversely, should you be bouncing off rocks and obstacles and getting hurled off your sled every few seconds, the rest of the pack will very obviously slow down to allow you to catch up. One of the reasons SSX worked so well was that falling behind was salvagable if you put the tricks in, and thus Sled Storm's lazy approach to this particular problem grates. Furthermore, the game never really becomes particularly interesting or unpredictable. Rather than each of the riders performing in a race on the basis of their own individual statistics and performance, they perform on the basis of yours. This renders progression through the championship a somewhat shallow affair, and you can lose interest very quickly.
If anything's going to make you want to continue through the game, though, it's to see what kind of ridiculous stunts the track designers have pulled later on in the game. Sled Storm is a great looking title, and many of the tracks are a pleasure to look at, if a pain to race through at times. Things start off sedately enough, with a jaunt down a well-constructed spectator-friendly course, but things soon degenerate into the ridiculous and occasionally downright frustrating. The more inventive tracks see you racing through surreal, cartoon environments with circus, Christmas and Halloween influences which would be more suited to a game like Toon Car. The more sensible tracks have some irritating quirks, like badly placed directional indicators. On far more than one occasion did I take a visual cue to go right or left, and end up careening straight into a wall or a solid piece of scenery. At other times a slight falter can send you off course so severely that you lose all sense of direction, and even lose track of which way is up. And no, I wasn't drunk. I wish I had been - I might have enjoyed it then. It's hard to recommend that you go out and spend your money on Sled Storm. Certainly don't play it expecting something of SSX's depth or calibre, although unfortunately it's obvious that EA wanted this title to be just that. My advice is to rent it, and have fun for the two days of play you're likely to get out of it. What starts off to be a fun little arcade racer turns out to be a sadly wasted opportunity in the wake of far superior alternatives. Hopefully EA Canda's other 'BIG' game, FreekStyle, will take a different approach.
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