At first glance it would only seem natural to compare Destineer's newest snowboarding game, Stoked, to Electronic Arts' popular SSX series. After all, both games are recreating the look and feel of snowboarding, they both have a deep library of tricks and they are both offer wide-open mountains for you to explore to your heart's content. But look closer, because it's not SSX that Stoked should be compared to.
Stoked is a traditional snowboarding game that takes you around the world pulling off tricks for money and fame. You start as a snowboarding novice, just a man (or a woman) with a dream of becoming the biggest name in the sport. When you close your eyes you can see an Absinthe Films movie being made about you, your tricks being used in all of the top snowboarding magazines and sponsors knocking down your door to give you money. But before any of that can come true, you will need to start completing challenges to earn fame points.
The first few hours of Stoked are spent learning how to pull off tricks and navigate around these treacherous locations. You'll find that there are two types of challenges to complete early on, one that has you trying to beat a high score and one where you are asked to pull off a very specific set of tricks. At first this will all feel a little too easy; after all, how hard can it be to beat 1,500 points or complete two different tricks before time runs out? However, before long you'll be asked to pull off long lines of tricks and beat scores that don't even seem possible at first. As you play through any one of the three unlocked mountains (Chile's Almirante Nieto, Japan's Mount Fuji and Switzerland's Diablerets), you'll find yourself spending a lot of time trying to perfect your skills and master as many moves as possible.
Does any of this sound familiar? Well it should, because it's exactly the same thing you do in both Skate 1 and 2. Fans of Electronic Arts' skateboarding games will feel right at home with the challenges in Stoked, which is definitely a good thing. And that's not the only thing that will remind them of Skate. For the most part the controls very similar, all the way down to the way you jump/ollie (charging down on the right analog stick and then pushing up). When it comes to pulling off tricks and navigating the game's five mountains, you never once need to press the Xbox 360's face buttons. All of the moves are done by using the two analog sticks and the shoulder buttons. And while all of this will seem a little confusing at first, it ultimately proves to be an exceptional way to control a snowboarding game.
Comparisons to other games aside, Stoked is actually a rather impressive piece of snowboarding tech. The game gives you five fully-realized mountains, each based on real places and full of fun challenges and hidden locations. But what sets this game apart from the competition is the use of weather. Instead of allowing you to choose whatever slope conditions you want, Stoked has its own forecast that cannot be changed. If you want there to be a lot of powdery snow, then you'll have to check the forecast and then show up when it tells you to. Same goes for low amounts of snow and everything in between. You will quickly find that in order to be the best you can be at this game, you are going to have to learn how to pay attention to the weather conditions.
The conditions on each of the five mountains isn't just a minor thing, either. You'll find that some challenges are easier when there is little snow, while others require there to be several feet of snow on the ground. The real time weather also applies to online gaming, so if you and your friends want to snow on specific conditions, you will have to set your clock and show up either right before or right after a big storm. This use of weather gives off the sensation that this is a real environment and not just some game world that you can bend to your liking. I have never had to check a weather forecast more than I did in this game, and I found that this added a great deal of realism to the title.
As you complete the hundreds of challenges you will be awarded fame point, which in turn will lead you to sponsorship deals, photo assignments and much, much more. In fact, it's not until you've put in at least four or five hours that the game really comes alive. All of a sudden you aren't simply pulling off assigned tricks and going for big points, instead you are competing against other players, pulling off sick moves for a camera man and combining as many tricks as you can while flying down the mountain. All of a sudden you have a lot of variety. The game opens up and you suddenly appreciate how good this game actually is. Unfortunately it takes several hours before the game's brilliance shines through.
The real stars of this game are the five mountains lovingly recreated for the Xbox 360. Snow is not the easiest thing to make look different from one area to the next, and yet the developers have done an excellent job of giving each mountain (and each mountain's peak) a slightly different look and feel. It's more than just the different obstacles in your way, it's also the way the sun hits the snow, how the weather conditions affect it and the different color of the foliage peaking through the white hills. It's easy to tell the difference between each mountain, and before long you can pick out exactly where you are in the world without double checking. The game's five mountains add up to a lot of land to explore.
Unfortunately, if I do have any problems with these mountains, then it's the fact that there really isn't a whole heck of a lot to do. Early on it's easy to get lost just pulling off tricks and completing challenges, but after awhile I started to wish there was something else for me to do while dodging trees and jumping off of hills. In SSX there were different secret objects to pick up along the way. Something like that is sorely missing in Stoked. I'm also disappointed that there aren't more interesting obstacles to overcome. One of the best aspects of EA's snowboarding series was that you not only raced through hills and forests, but also through underground caves and snow-covered cities. Here we only get real world environments, which means that you're in for what could be considered a more boring experience.
When it comes to each mountain's graphics there are not enough good things to say. The game does an excellent job of recreating that sense of speed, the snow looks great (even giving you snow trails that stick around for awhile) and the world in the far off distance looks just as good as what is up close. However, once you focus your eyes on your character your good feelings about the graphics fall apart. Compared to the game world, your character looks absolutely terrible. I'm not sure if it's a lack of polygons or what, but each character looks stiff and rough around the edges. Thankfully I was able to get past this problem, but it's still disappointing that the rest of the game can look so good while your character looks so bad.
While the game's graphics are something of a mixed bag, I was impressed with the game's use of music. The sound effects and mountain ambience is nice on its own, but the game comes together thanks to a great line-up of mostly indie bands. This isn't one of those games where I knew every song before even turning the game on, instead it features a soundtrack that is full of surprises. I found myself running to the computer to look up a number of different bands, so if you're looking for a game with a lot of unknown talent, then look no further than Stoked.
On top of a robust single-player game, Stoked also features an incredibly deep online mode. Getting into an online game is as simple as clicking the up button on the control's D-pad, which in and of itself is similar to Electronic Arts' Burnout Paradise set-up. The game works well online because there's something instinctually fun about challenging your friends to trick-based competitions, especially when you're the one bringing all of the best moves. But even if you're not into the competition, it's still fun to explore the world with buddies and practice online. The game does offer one mode that had me coming back over and over again, and that's something called "The Ground Is Lava." In this mode you have to stay off of the snow as much as you can, so you're constantly searching for things to grind and hills to jump off of. Turn this into an eight player match and you have the very definition of fun. Sadly most of the online modes aren't as inventive as this, but at least they are still a lot of fun with friends.
Stoked isn't one of those flashy snowboarding games full of amazing effects, instead it's a low-budget game full of solid gameplay, good graphics, fresh music and five enormous mountains to explore. The game's not perfect, but it's the best snowboarding action you can currently get on the Xbox 360. Who cares is the game cribs a little too heavily off of the Skate series, this is still a fun sports game with enough challenges to keep you coming back long after you bought it. Couple that with the game's budget price and you have a fun little snowboarding game that you won't soon forget. Stoked may be a stupid name for a game, but that shouldn't stop you from picking it up.
Stoked takes everything Skate did and applies heavy amounts of snow. With its solid gameplay, good graphics, fresh music and five enormous mountains, Stoked turns out to be a truly memorable snowboarding game. It's not perfect, but this budget game should tide you over until SSX5 hits store shelves!