More of the same, Sir?
One assumes that there must be some sort of difference between the words "freak" and "freek", other than a simple spelling inconsistency. I wandered over the road to the local skate park yesterday and asked whether anybody knew the difference, and they had no idea, but presumably for someone, somewhere, it's a word which holds some significance. Anyway, with that out of the way it's time to talk about FreekStyle, the latest EA Sports BIG game borne of the SSX formula. And oddly enough, it's a bit of a freak.
EA Sports BIG has developed a reputation for transplanting the SSX mechanics to other extreme sports titles, and FreekStyle is no exception. The control system is standard, with the analogue stick used to turn and lean back and forward in the saddle, the shoulder buttons used in combination to perform tricks in midair, and the face buttons used to apply acceleration, brakes and a speed-enhancing boost. Similarly, the single player game is made up of three-stage races and trick showcases, and as you progress you build up your character's stats and collect new bikes to ride in competition.
Another unsurprising tenet of FreekStyle is the game's over-the-top presentation. Stuffed to bursting point with aggravating skater chic, from shirtless tattoo-emblazoned youths with bolts through their faces (which saved me the trouble) and women in tight tops with 'attitude' to menus with fiery backgrounds and 'freaky' button effects, it feels an awful lot like Sled Storm and the first SSX - gritty, rough around the edges, but deliberately so.
More of the more of the same
On the track the visuals are nice, but by no means special - it really does look like SSX on bikes. Circuits have one eagerly repeated dirt texture, with darker shades indicating mud that slows down your bike, and as usual you're shoehorned along but offered a choice of different paths here and there if you're skilful enough to run the gauntlet of their challenging shortcuts.
Tracks vary in design but often appear very similar; indeed, if you kept your eyes on the track and riders you would hardly notice the difference between the first two - an industrial wasteland and what appears to be a mining facility. Things start to improve as you work your way further in. By the third circuit, you're steaming through burning forests as they collapse and climbing mountains (a nice reversal of SSX behaviour made possible by the bike), but ultimately the gameplay remains constant, and this can be a problem.
Although it's good fun to play, you start off extremely weak. You immediately fall to the back of the pack, and because it all moves so swiftly compared to SSX, if you topple (which often happens as you get used to the tricks) you're dumped to the back of the pack, with no easy way to reclaim your position. Losing races is a regular problem. No tutorial and an unhelpful manual leads to you repeating the same sections over and over, and despite the length of the courses, each race is three laps of the same circuit, repeated three times with increasingly antagonistic AI. The first six events in the single player campaign work like this, and you'll end up racing the same lap as many as 15 times in most cases before you unlock the next circuit. Without the same level of variation in design or the docile AI on the quarter and semi-final races that made SSX more bearable, FreekStyle quickly becomes a chore.
The way to combat this is "freeking out". As with SSX Tricky, performing and particularly combining tricks builds up your boost meter, but it also builds up your Freek Out meter. Once full, the little red devil's head on your HUD starts to judder incessantly, and clutching all four shoulder buttons off a jump will switch the game into bullet-time briefly before giving your bike a timed speed boost. The whole screen palpitates with an impressive motion blur effect, and you have several seconds at this high speed to get ahead of the pack. Performing tricks here will extend the Freek Out period instead of adding to your boost meter.
Sadly though, Freek Out is a once-per-race thing for the most part, and if you squander it by smacking into a tree or mistiming a jump, you've had it. Unless you can work your way up the field through hard graft, you've got no chance, which can be a bitter pill to swallow. Compounding your misery is the game's feeble collision detection and the AI's improbable ability to pip you to the post at the last second. And unlike SSX, you need to finish first in the main event to progress - there's no gold, silver or bronze awarded here.
What this all means is that FreekStyle feels too hard. And for one reason or another, it has none of the grace of its infamous sibling. This is made worse by the second set of six challenges in the single player mode, which are trick showcases set in Tony Hawk style arenas. This approach just does not work if you clutch onto the SSX mechanics as FreekStyle does. It's a forced marriage of game styles, and not a pretty one at that.
The Final Furlong
The last six races are more bearable, maddeningly, requiring you to win while totting up a certain number of points. Fair enough, but if you make it to this stage without giving up through sheer frustration at the combination of repetition and other depressing game design issues then you're a better man than I am. I wouldn't have persisted if I didn't have to - it would have gone back to the shop long ago.
At this stage there's no real respite from the panning for FreekStyle. Everything starts to get on your nerves. Your character is stronger and more able, but there's no real incentive to revisit the earlier stages because you'll be quite sick of them. The presentation starts to grate even more than ever, thanks to a combination of the 'attitudes' of the riders and an annoying Yank bellowing at you about your tricks and abilities with none of the pizzazz of Rahzel's voiceover in SSX, not to mention the infuriating skater music and the 'rivals' system. I'm sorry EA, but the idea of riders gunning for one another was pretty blasé in SSX Tricky, and it's just another nail in the coffin here. It should have been left for dead on the roadside.
You could do a lot worse than to buy FreekStyle, as it continues the trend of introducing BIG's successful formula to other means of transportation with varying degrees of success. But it's more Sled Storm than SSX Tricky, suffering from too much repetition and a challenge that hops the fence of reason and squirms in muddy trackside puddles of unfairness, linking arms with collision detection that augments frustration rather than adjudicating fairly. By no means a bad game, FreekStyle just needs rearranging, some extra polish, and a bit more effort under the bonnet. As it is, it's mostly talk, and it sounds like that kid with a board who hassled you for money as you walked to the station yesterday.