Shaun White: Snowboarding World Stage
Partnering once again with heavyweight videogame publisher Ubisoft, snowboarding superstar Shaun White is looking to effortlessly carve into gamer pockets everywhere with Shaun White Snowboarding: World Stage, the newly unleashed sequel to 2008's adequate but somewhat uninspired first pass, Shaun White Snowboarding.
So, with the flame-haired trickster duly installed as the game's medal-winning and inspirational figurehead, how does World Stage stack up on Nintendo's best-selling Wii home console? Does it slam face-first into the powder, or does it chain together a succession of gravity defying moves that will suitably loosen your wallet clasp?
World Stage manages to neither stand tall nor fall flat, thanks to a continually disappointing propensity to slide slap bang down the middle of gaming's mountain of mediocrity without rail grinding across boundaries or hurtling past established yardsticks of snowboarding quality - shortfalls that could also be levelled at World Stage's predecessor.
The main meat on World Stage's structural bones is to be found in its surprisingly shallow Career Mode, which is a rather brief exercise in performance-based progression through the snowboarding world-rankings table, culminating in competing against the cream of the boarding crop via the coveted 'World Stage Cup' tournament.
With a solid selection of interchangeable crew characters available from the outset - all with individual plusses and minuses - players start at the lowly rank of 100 and must score podium finishes in a selection of differing international events to assure steady evolution up the career ladder. Along the way, relatively worthless padding is thrown before the player through the gathering of new boards, gear and apparel, as well as the ongoing unlocking of Freeride events (think 'Play Now'), and various related achievements that offer no reward other than ticked boxes.
Shallow though it is, that progress is aided by 'Friend Power' support, which returns from 2008 and provides the player with abilities borrowed from another member of the Shaun White snowboarding crew. Specifically, the collection of floating crowns from the piste, and the execution of sexy trick combos, will gradually fill the player's on-screen 'Friend Power' meter. Once full, the player can temporarily tap into the selected crewmember's skill (i.e., Jump, Mass, Balance, Speed) and instantly channel that enhancement to gain increased speed in a race, more manoeuvrability on the slalom, or bigger air when in the half-pipe.
Geography and competitions vary from the new artificial slopes and half-pipes of France (Paris) and England (London), through to the more standard TimeStamp time trials, Big Air Trick challenges and Giant Slaloms that can be found in the likes of Chile, Japan, Italy, Canada and the United States. Sadly, the plentiful supply of geographical locations is sullied by lacklustre presentation that offers up strictly passable background detailing, limp wintry atmospherics, and surprisingly shoddy crowd rendering and animation.
To be fair, the appealing pastel effect Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic of the World Stage intros certainly stands up to close scrutiny, and the 'too cool for school' in-game character crew portrayed through those movie preambles do carry forward into the game proper due to some chunkily funky models and slick trick animation. Yet, beyond that, I can't help but slap World Stage in the face (after patting it squarely on the back) by saying that it falls into the category of 'looking good for a Wii game,' which is a damning backhanded compliment meaning it's far from next-gen... but we should perhaps cut it a break given the hardware handicap suffered by Nintendo's console. No, we really shouldn't, and there are plenty of genuinely pretty Wii titles on the market that prove Ubisoft can do better.
World Stage also boasts the supposedly immersive benefit of Wii MotionPlus control, which, much like existing Wii titles supported by Nintendo's magical little dongle, offers scant little improvement to the feel and flow of the gameplay while waving and rolling the slender wand to instigate specific moves, nail tough landings or create flashy, high-scoring combos by attempting to seamlessly thread different tricks together.
With or without the dongle attachment, Wii Remote play remains the most accessible way for gamers to hit the slopes in World Stage, needing only to tilt the wand left or right to apply turns, jolt up and down to gain air off snow ramps, and input 'A' and 'B' button combos and gesture flicks to pull out a stream of Nose Grabs, Corner Kickers, 50/50s, Monkey Twists, Shikkan Flips and many other tricks that would be difficult to perform and near impossible to combine in the real world.
However, those gamers looking to gather a more authentic (although admittedly arcade-flavoured) snowboarding experience will be keen to add the bulky Wii Balance Board into the World Stage equation - which is where accessibility is promptly replaced by the ominous grind of frustration.
While there's considerably more touch and feel associated with using body weight and positioning to govern turns, tucks, grinds and jumps in combination with tricks delivered via the Wii Remote, many will find the resulting gameplay is often reliant on luck rather than judgement. Moreover, landing complicated combos that laugh in the face of physics is difficult but not impossible with the Wii Remote, whereas twisting and tottering on the worryingly imprecise Balance Board might leave the player escaping a steady succession of snowy wipeoouts, but not without looking and feeling like an intoxicated 80's throwback stuck in an embarrassingly staccato loop of robot dancing.
One of the sequel's core points of appeal apparently lies in the Trick Machine, which enables players to remove existing default moves from within the game and replace them with newly designed tricks created by assigning and mapping specific Wii Remote gestures to the controller (note: remove, not add to). Unfortunately, the Trick Machine is little more than a novel gimmick that flaps about on two fronts; the first of which is that gamers not equipped with a Wii MotionPlus dongle won't even be able to use the feature, and the second being that those with a dongle will find flick-based restrictions and a lack of in-game impact leave the Trick Machine as nothing more than bullet point fluff that's as unrealised as it is unimpressive.
The clear lack of longevity already gnawing on World Stage's ankles due to a Career Mode that can be completed in a matter of hours, shifts up to full-blown kneecap chomping when factoring in the lack of online multiplayer or downloadable content. But then, the no-show is perhaps with good reason given that World Stage isn't likely to tug on the purse strings of many outside the snowboarding hardcore. That being said, the Hotseat turn-based offline multiplayer may well be a mini-game of choice for party players looking for something a little different, and plenty of fun can be had by casual players keen on going head-to-head in more conventional split-screen Versus battles.
While I can appreciate the attraction Wii-owning Shaun White fans might feel when faced with the latest entrant in Ubisoft's burgeoning snowboarding franchise, there's simply not enough new and worthwhile content in World Stage to justify me doing anything but twisting consumer shoulders towards last year's offering instead. The original is near identical in terms of design, presentation, modes and gameplay; and, what's more, it can be snapped up for a fraction of the asking price slapped on World Stage.