Serious competition for SSX and co?
720-degree spins. Stat points. Big air. Multipliers. Grabs. Tweaks. Flips. Grinds. Dudes. Eurogamer is in familiar territory. Very familiar territory. We've written so much about extreme sports games that we're running out of stock introductions. Bollocks. However there seems one obvious fact to kick off with: that we never actually reviewed Amped. Righteous.
One of the (slightly) less successful Xbox launch titles, at the time Amped was nonetheless critically acclaimed (by those with more than two full time writers) for managing to be entertaining without succumbing to its competitors' ludicrous detachment from reality. Although nearly bested by the criminally underrated Transworld Snowboarding, to this day it offers a slightly more down-to-earth (although no less floaty) rendition of the sport that SSX so beautifully caricatures.
A Hawk's Eye View
For those who unwittingly missed out on the first one then, Amped 2 is an important feature of Microsoft's winter release schedule. It's much bigger than its predecessor, introducing Laax in Switzerland, Mt. Buller in Australia and the Harris Mountain in New Zealand, among others, to a cast of mountains that already includes Breckinridge and Mt. Millicent. It also draws inspiration from other successful extreme sports titles, absorbing Tony Hawk's manuals (or "butters" as they're known here) and even introducing an out and out skateboarding-on-snow aspect - Snow Skating. In addition to all that, it should be integrated with the Xbox Live service for up to eight-player boarding.
Leaving Live alone for now, single player options are themselves plentiful. There's a tutorial mode, which walks you through all the basic options and subtleties of the game - and even extreme sports vets will want to check this out to get a handle on the slightly different controls, with grabs bound to directions on the right analogue stick and grinds on the B button. With that out of the way, the main meat of the game is to be found in the Career mode.
Although quite similar to its namesake in THPS, the Career mode doesn't send you off-piste with a contrived attempt at non-linearity. Instead, you're given a simple goal - or series of goals - to complete for each 'run', and you're on your way - like old-school Hawk. There's no race here; instead you'll be trying to perform certain tricks, find hidden snowmen, impress a potential sponsor with a showcase of his favourite moves, or just rack up increasingly menacing point totals, both in general and at specific locations on the run where eager photographers are waiting to catch you in action. As you complete goals, your boarder is rewarded with stat points, which can be used to improve his or her abilities in various key areas - jumping, spinning, flipping, etc - and as you improve, your name will actually start to appear on banners around the mountain.
Manual and Automagic
As you'd expect, things are a bit "wilder" in Amped 2, with higher scores borne of the new "butters" system. Butters are used in exactly the same way that "manuals" are used in THPS. By pushing up and then down quickly on the analogue stick, your boarder will ride on one end of the board for as long as possible, while you try and simultaneously direct them towards another trick for your combo and keep a balance meter from tipping too far up or down.
With a bit of practice, butters can be used to link flips and grabs to grinds and so forth, and although you won't have as much luck with multi-faceted combos as in the ludicrously fluid and forgiving Tony Hawk's, it's still possible to accumulate some worryingly high scores. The balance meter also comes into play on grinds, although we still prefer SSX's system of letting you drop instead of penalising you for screwing up a grind.
Another refinement of the tricks system is the new "style" measure. Unlike other extreme sports titles, where landing at all is good enough to bank whatever points total you've been carrying, Amped 2 offers incentive to spin and flip steadily and consistently without easing back to the neutral position or landing like a cruise missile in an egg shell exhibition. When you take off, you're encouraged to hold the stick only half or two-thirds of the way in the direction you want to spin or flip, and steadily rotate without bottling it or easing back until you land the trick. Doing so brings up a style meter, which tacks many thousands of bonus points onto your trick total, all of which can be lost in an instant if you don't land within a certain window of acceptability. It sounds harsh, but it's actually quite ingenious, eliminating much of the stick and button thrashing associated with extreme sports titles in a second.
Lively Business This Snow Business
All these refinements amount to a game which feels good without betraying the spirit of the original, and it's a feeling we get from virtually every other aspect thus far. Graphically, certainly, Amped 2 is in another class altogether. With the exception of collision detection, which needs some work, every aspect is above and beyond what Amped managed. The level of periphery detail is particularly impressive, on every aspect of level furniture from the sun's reflection on metal surfaces to our rider's hair flapping in the breeze, and the texture work is extremely eye-catching too. And yet, despite all this work, the Xbox doesn't seem to break a sweat, rendering almost the entire mountain from above as a helicopter swoops up and down previewing the slopes - we're even told that you'll be able to see other boarders as you fly overhead on Xbox Live.
And, well, that segues rather neatly into an explanation of the online aspect, doesn't it? Although we can't get online with our build of the game (something MS really needs to address with these debug consoles of ours!), we're told to expect free ride options for up to eight players, allowing for ad-hoc challenges and other rather gnarly shenanigans, and a handful of THPS-alike competitive modes. HORSE is one (score as many points as the rider in front or you're awarded a letter - the whole word spells failure), and King of the Mountain sounds a lot like THPS' "Graffiti", where riders have to nab a high score on jumps, lips and so on to flag it for themselves, and only a higher score can dislodge their name.
Given the XSN Sports logos plastered all over the place, you can also expect to see high score tables online and lots of other methods of ranking. We're already being ranked based on our progress in the single player game, so hopefully we'll be in a good position to take you all on when the game launches - allegedly on November 14th.
Turned to 11
Finally, you may recall a little while ago that MS made a bit of a hoo-hah about the inclusion in Amped 2 of Snow Skating, a little-known practice of riding a skateboard deck with what appear to be miniature skis strapped to the bottom. On top there are no footholds, so it's open to kickflipping (X) and other sorts of grab tricks. Although the decision has been made not to put Snow Skating on an equal footing to the main snowboarding Career mode (we smell a spin-off game), you'll still be able to kickflip your way through a few Snow Skating challenges.
Snow Skating feels a lot more like Tony Hawk than anything else we've encountered in the game so far. Although there are no flips that we've pulled off other than those of the aforementioned kicking variety, the feel is a lot more like a bike without stabilisers than the snowboarding sections, and the tracks have far more trickable objects - particularly grinds - with parks designed by professional Snow Skating fanatics. Or so it says 'ere.
Less professional, though, is the game's soundtrack. We're trying to be nice, but it's just, well, shit. Lots of young "me-too" artists filled with all sorts of angst about god knows what [probably their bogus parents - Dudely Ed], Amped 2 offers every flavour of American indie boredom we've encountered to date. Come back Blink 182! All is forgiven! [You reckon? -Ed] Still, some will like it. We don't. Fortunately, our custom soundtrack comes to the rescue. Ahh. [Arrrrgh, more like! -Ed]
At the time of writing, we've just finished a fairly mammoth evening's worth of Amped 2, and although there are still a few crash bugs to be squashed and it drove us up the wall from time to time, we kept plugging away. It may be appearing just weeks after SSX 3, but Amped 2 has something different to offer, and may complement EA BIG's magnum snow-pus rather well. We'll let you know what we think when the two go head to head...