Bongfish. Bongfish Interactive Entertainment. Strange name for a game developer. That said, I've known a few snowboarders who were pretty keen on hitting bongs and... eating... fish, so maybe Bongfish is an apt handle for the company who've developed Stoked for the Xbox 360. In all, it's not a bad title. And this comes from a guy who thought snowboarding games had peaked with 1080 on the 64. Thankfully, as the console market has moved on, so have the sensibilities of developers like Bongfish, and here they are in 2009 to deliver an addition to the extreme sports collection of 360 owners worldwide.
Stoked is all about style, and from the first you're expected to start piling the labels on the character you'll use throughout the game. This is a fairly standard trapping of games like Stoked, in which your character will have access to cooler gear as you battle on through. I have never seen as many labels in any game as there are in Stoked, however. Clothing labels, energy drinks, snowboarding gear (of course) and many others make appearances both in your character customization screen, and elsewhere throughout the game. At first your range is a bit restricted, but later you'll have access to a broader range of... everything. Shirts by Billabong, eyewear by Oakley. Talking dollars and cents, I would say a decent portion of this game's dev cost was offset by product placement deals.
The main thing that struck me about this initial set up is that you can alter the angle of your board bindings, and the width of your board. Knowing not point uno about snowboarding, I let it be, but if you know what you're doing you will be able to work out a set up that is most beneficial to you, depending on how you play the game. You can also pick your nationality, and yep - New Zealand is in there. Tu meke!
A short intro video whisks you from A to B, where B is your tutorial stage (wait... did I just do some algebra?). Yeah, I know. Tutorials always suck, but in Stoked, without some time to let your fingers do the walking - or your thumbs at least - you won't get far. Even parts of the training area are hard to get past, which sort of sets the tone for the rest of the game: Stoked is one of the more challenging sports titles I have played in a while. The controls are fairly logical, but there is a huge focus on timing and co-ordination, as I suppose there should be, so the rewards really don't come until you have put some effort in. Grabs belong to the left and right triggers, ollies off the right stick and direction/spins/flips are on the left. It all sounds quite easy when you put it like that, but it's the combinations that will really mix up your grey matter.
Your guide is Wolle Nyvelt, Austrian snowboarding legend. He voices your training - much of which is informing you who sucks. It's not him, by the way. This is pretty shallow stuff, really, but in a game where the sponsors have been so clearly sought for name status, it's no surprise a few of the sport's ambassadors have been captured also. Each tutorial section, encompassing a different trick you have to land in order to move on, starts with Wolle showing you how it's done. Once you've got the ollie, flip, spin, grab and grind down, it's time to hit the slopes for real.
Your drop off is by helicopter, with some background about the locale from the pilot, which is a nice touch. What isn't so flash is that it's here you get exposed to some of Stoked's rough visuals. While some real artistic TLC has gone into the mountains themselves, and things like trees and rocks (i.e. objects that really don't matter) the rest of the environment, your character and many of the effects have suffered. Sure, you'll find yourself almost believing it when the weather closes in and it snows, but otherwise too much time spent surveying your surroundings will really break you out of the mood. It's hard to lose yourself in graphics that are only just better-than-average.
At first there's just a few mountains open to you, and following the tutorial (which is in Chile) you'll find yourself on Japan's iconic Mt. Fuji. Yes, yes - more will open up as you go on, but while the locations in this game are diverse, the action gets a bit same-same. Anyway, at spots along your route down the mountain - a route which sort of sneaks up on you as you leap from the chopper into the powder and all of a sudden find yourself hurtling along at breakneck speed - are challenge flags. As you whiz by, you can opt into the challenge by pressing X. The tricks you need to complete in order to beat the challenge are listed on screen, and you have a limited amount of time to bust out each one. If you fail (which you will) you have the choice of looping back to the start, carrying on to the next one, or just messing about on your own. On each course, a Pro Challenge Checklist will tick off the tricks or combos you have performed so you can keep track.
Challenge rewards come to you in the form of fame points. Beat a challenge, and you'll receive points which amp up your profile. When the media take an interest, they'll start to snap photos of you and this can lead to a sponsorship deal. This is when the game really starts opening up. Sponsorship will give you access to a bunch of new gear, new places to ride and events to compete in, and much more besides. This is the kind of depth that developers could never have even imagined back in the days of titles like 1080.
Honourable mentions here for the sound and the magazine style with which the menus have been put together. The music in the game is always good and frequently great, with options to customize and select playlists from huge number of songs. There's tasteful hip-hop, peppy Euro-pop and some good old fashioned punk rock in there too. I recommend dropping the volume of the sound effects right off (the sound of a board cutting through snow isn't that hard to capture, and they've done it) and working up packages of tunes you like instead. And while it might not be enough for the developers to do a big round-table back-pat over, the menus are funky (yeah, I said it) and fun to navigate. There's some great backgrounds, combinations of photos and rendered art, and a great sort of collage style to the whole deal.
Packed with extras as well as some tight gameplay in places, Stoked should keep snowboarding fans well entertained. While there's little that's extreme about sitting home with your Xbox, the game certainly does a decent job of transporting you out to those cold and lonely mountains. Once you have decided on your character's style - Hucker (ugly but adventurous) or Stylist (straight-laced but very smooth) - there is plenty of exploring and striving to do. Little additions like forecasts you really need to watch, real-time weather effects (a big dump of snow will change the look and feel of the slope) and a scrapbook which will fill with video rewards ought to be enough to shift a few extra units to those outside the snowboard-sim demographic too.
On the downside, some of the controls are a bit poorly thought out and even the early challenges frustratingly hard as a result. There is also some disconnect between your character, their board and the environment, which the visuals don't do much to help. Sometimes you'll scrape seamlessly over a huge pile of rocks, other times you'll wipe out on a pebble. Biting it just means you have to start over which is always frustrating when you feel as if it wasn't really your poor gamesmanship that put you there.
In all, Stoked is a solid snowboarding game that's worth a purchase for fans of the genre. In terms of novelty value, those of you who have played snowboarding games before but aren't true fans might find something to enjoy here too (I did). The game is quite difficult to master, which will leave a lot of challenges unbeaten while you're still learning and that will extend the life of Stoked quite nicely, so long as you don't hurl the controller down and stalk off cursing Bongfish's name.