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Shaun White Snowboarding

Hit the slopes with your (Balance) Board
What's It All About:
Has there ever been a first-party non-standard-controller peripheral that's received solid, sustained support? After playing with the Wii Zapper and Balance Board, and seeing how few titles utilize them, it just drives home how many pieces of plastic have been sold and abandoned, simply because they are limited in what you can do with them. Thus, to see the Balance Board collect dust is not shocking, even if it is one of the more versatile accessories around (utilizing it for the virtual drum kit in Wii Music was a nice touch, for example.)

Of course, most gamers saw one tremendous opportunity in the Balance Board, recognizing how it might come in handy in replicating any number of "board" sports, like skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding. It's taken some time to make it a reality, but with Ubisoft making an all-console assault with popular extreme athlete Shaun White, everything came together to take advantage of the Wii controller's capabilities to make a game that plays well with the console's something-for-everyone philosophy.

Instead of a port of the sandbox-style Shaun White games on the XBox 360 and PS3, the Wii gets a different title, with the added "Road Trip," symbolizing the game's set-up, as you bounce around the globe following White to a few different locales, starting in Canada before moving on to more picturesque places like Japan and Switzerland. (If the idea sounds familiar, White starred in a credit-card commercial a few years back with the same idea.) In each location there are a handful of runs to tackle, each with a pair of challenges, which each have two goals of their own. In some, you have to beat a time downhill, others it's achieve a score via tricks, while others require you to gather items. If you just want to "win" and unlock the rest of the game, you need only beat the first "dare" goal, but why stop there, when the usually tougher "respect" goal sits there taunting you.

Whatever the challenge, the only way to win is to learn the many in-game tricks and master your snowboarding. You can help yourself by meeting new friends (by defeating stages, natch) who will join your team and enhance your playable roster with their skills. The unique thing is you need to select two players, one a rider, the other your cameraman. The rider's effect on your run is obvious, as they each have different skills in jumping, speed and tricks, but the cameraman can give you a boost as well, as they will give you special assistance if you reach a level of "respect" by reaching certain in-run goals. The boosts can be added speed or added height on jumps, and they can make the difference if you're close to your goal.

Between stages, you have access to a laptop, which accumulates unlockables based on your progress. The laptop lets you access your e-mail, which includes messages from other characters, but like in reality, the majority of it is spam, but unlike in reality, it's kind of funny. There are also mementos, which, on the other hand, aren't even interesting, and take way more effort than they are worth. The attempt to create more reasons to revisit the game is admirable, but at this point, if an unlockable doesn't affect game play, why bother?

One of the ways to really extend your time with the title is to get some friends on-board (pun unintended.) You can play with up to 3 friends in three multiplayer modes, Co-Op, Versus and Hot Seat, though if one of the players uses the Balance Board (and only one at any time can) you can only play with two other players. Co-Op is the most important for multiplayer enjoyment, as that allows you to unlock the various events and countries, by earning medals in splitscreen action. It puts a good deal of pressure on all involved to hit the goals as a team, but it's a good way to get everyone involved. The versus mode is pretty much the same, but competitive, while Hot Seat is bound to leave some board, as you take turns trying beat an on-screen representation of the best player in the room. In my experience, multiplayer games that involve turns don't work when it comes to action sports.

One of the most unique features of the Wii has to be the variety of ways you can play the games, making them adaptable for most players. The challenge comes in making the controls work when you have very specific needs. In this case, most players will want to try and jump and stomp on their board, the way you would in reality, but the Balance Board can't handle that kind of abuse (especially from the larger gamers among us.) Thus, the jump motion is replaced by doing what can be described as a power squat, pumping more pressure down on the board. Otherwise, it's a matter of leaning in the direction you want to move, more or less simulating a real snowboard ride (the Wii-mote's buttons serve as modifiers for tricks.) If you've mastered WiiFit this should be a breeze, but it's also a bit of a workout, especially when crouching for speed frequently. You can adjust the sensitivity of the board, with three levels available, but the default should work for most players.

The Balance Board has the definite advantage as far as immersive play goes, but using the Wii-mote on its own gives you more precise controls, which can be needed during tougher challenges. The motion control feels natural and intuitive, and is honestly more fun (read: arcade-style) when it comes to carving down a hill, as the Board is more "real" in its reactions. Tilting or flicking the controller while holding the easily accessible A and B buttons (together or separately) will do pretty much everything you need, though when 'boarding a half-pipe, it's a lot easier to use the Balance Board, as the sense of perspective feels more correct. The game creators realized the difference in the controls because depending on your choice of input device, the goals change slightly, with the Wii-mote challenges coming in slightly tougher.

No one's going to confuse the video output of the Wii for that of the other two trailing systems, but when a developer really puts an effort into the look of a Wii title, it shows, and this game is just such a title. Instead of trying to replicate the photorealistic imagery of the other versions of Shaun White, for the Wii a completely different cartoonish style was created that works well for the title, coming in somewhere between anime and comic-book art. Despite that style, the game captures the action and speed you want, without any noticeable slowdown or framerate issues. You can fly through these course with blinding speed, but nothing looks out of place, and the settings look pretty tremendous, especially the night scenes. The idea of the cameraman also plays into the look, as the camera bounces and jitters when traveling over rough terrain, and a crash will send a spray of snow over the lens (along with the rider, before slowly dissipating.) Topping things off is a well-designed head-up display that keeps all the game info readily visible, but out of the gameplay area (with the exception of a Balance Board pressure indicator, which is optional.)

For once, the Wii gets an impressive all-around audio presentation, as the Dolby Pro Logic II sound on this game is solid all-around. From the dialogue, which includes well-performed bits voice-over from White, to the excellent music mix, the game just sounds good. The soundtrack, which you can cycle through on a level basis (between 2 and 4 tracks per run,) is eclectic, but fitting for the game, including classic acts like Jefferson Airplane, Blue Oyster Cult, Sweet and Heart; recent favs like MGMT, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Modest Mouse; and some odd (yet welcome) picks, such as Bob Dylan, Gil Scott Haron and Harry Nilsson. Honestly though, you could just put "Alive and Amplified" by the Mooney Suzuki on non-stop replay, and no one could complain. There are also a lot of impressive little touches to the sound of the game, like the scrape of the board on ice when there's no powder, or the ding in the Wii-mote speaker when you land a trick. Plus, when you don't land one, boy it sounds painful.

And in the End...
If you want to really get into a snowboarding game, actually standing on a board is probably the best choice, and the integration with the Balance Board raises Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip above the pack in that respect, but it's in no way gimmicky, as it can be just as enjoyable with your Wii-mote, thanks to a very intuitive control system. Though the game isn't the deepest around, and the unlockables won't convince anyone to spend extended sessions with it, it's got enough to demand some decent game time, and offers a fun time when playing with others (especially when watching others attempt to steer with their body.) It's an excellent example of what you can do when playing within the boundaries of the Wii's capabilities, while taking full advantage of them as well.