When I was a kid, extreme sport culture was Jackass culture. It was jumping off hotel balconies into a pool culture. It was lighting things on fire and hitting your friends in the head culture. And, out of this culture, came video games. Lots and lots of video games. There were skateboarding games, of course, and snowboarding games. Inline skating games and wakeboarding games. BMX games and surfing games and motocross and ATV games.
Lately, however, the fire around extreme sports games has cooled. The most recent Tony Hawk game, released last year to mixed reviews, was 8 years removed from its predecessor. There hasn’t been an SSX game since 2012. So it’s exciting to see, in 2016, Poppermost Studio coming out with a game like Snow. Snow describes itself as “The Only Free to Play Open World Winter Sports Game”. From the very beginning, however, it’s clear that it is doing everything it can to distance itself from the extreme sports games of the early 2000’s. Snow has a flat, clean aesthetic that’s a sharp break from the gritty, graffiti-ed look of games like Tony Hawk and SSX. The soundtrack forgoes punk and hip-hop for chill, ambient house. Even the name Snow stands in contrast to names like American Wasteland and BMX XXX. So Snow’s mission statement is clear, but how does it actually play?
Well, out of the gate, the signs are a bit worrying. The graphics are ok, but nothing to write home about. The physics are a bit wonky, with your character sliding and bouncing off things in all sorts of weird ways. It’s hard to build up speed, which can be downright frustrating in a game that’s supposed to be about speed and freedom. The worst part for me, however, were the controls.
Doing a trick in Snow is essentially made up of 3 stages: First, you need to build up speed (which consists of tapping then holding the accelerate button) while steering towards a ramp or launch point. Next, you need to press and hold a different button to crouch, at which point you can no longer accelerate or steer. Instead, your steering controls now are used to “wind up” your trick, allowing you to spin more once in the air. Finally, you release the jump button and begin spinning, pressing combinations of trick buttons to do various grabs. Most traditional snowboarding games simplify this process, using one button for speed up/jump and allowing you to continue steering until you reach the jump. Other games like EA’s Skate have gone in the opposite direction and made doing tricks a complex, but elegant process, but even after playing Snow for several hours, doing tricks still felt like a clumsy, rapid-fire mashing of buttons, and I never got the feeling of fun and freedom I hoped for.
The most frustrating thing for me is the fact that, when you crash, instead of instantly respawning the game acts as if you have “died”, and gives you the choice to either restart at your last drop point or rewind time and try again. I can see having this system as an option, but there have been so many times where I mess up a trick but I just want to keep going — instead, you’re forced to rewind and start again. All these annoyances come together to make a single player experience that falls flat for me. It lacks the speed and excitement of past extreme sports games, and the awkward physics and unusual respawn system make exploring the open world less fun than it could be. I often found myself getting stuck, dying randomly, and bouncing off random objects. In fact, I was all set to write this game off completely until I got on a multiplayer server.
Clearly, this game was designed for multiplayer. Skiing or snowboarding down these massive mountains becomes way more fun when you’re doing it with other people. Even the single player’s most annoying feature — the respawn system — becomes really fun when you can spawn on top of other players. Instead of having to restart at the beginning or spend time rewinding and trying again, you can simply drop in on another player, gaining their speed and momentum. You end up forming a churning, carving, tumbling pack with everyone on the server, bombing down hills doing tricks, crashing, respawning, having people respawn on you… It’s a refreshing and exhilarating multiplayer experience, and actually does a great job of building a connection between you and other players.
The level design is also fantastic. Designing an open world extreme sports game must’ve been a hell of a challenge, and on this Poppermost truly delivered. The mountains in Snow are absolutely massive, but more than that they’re actually interesting. There are wineries, sunken villages, plane crashes… Exploring in Snow is fun and rewarding, and a great motivation to keep playing. As you discover new areas, you’re able to use them as drop points for the future, and playing with other people is a great way to discover new ones. It’s very exciting to see an online multiplayer game that focuses on exploration and cooperation, rather than fighting and competition.
Snow has a lot of potential, but I feel like it’s not quite there yet. If the mechanics were a little tighter, I can definitely see myself wanting to spend hours on its massive mountains, uncovering all the secrets they contain. And while Snow’s open world is really, I wish there was more you could do with other players besides simply ski/snowboard. Still, Snow is free-to-play, which is obviously a big selling point. It would be cool to log on and shred with your friends, and while I don’t normally spend money in F2P games, I could actually see doing it in Snow. All upgrades are purely cosmetic (there’s no real progression or unlock system per se), but extreme sports games are fundamentally about showing off, and what better way to show off than with custom gear? Right now, Snow feels like it’s stuck between the extreme sports games of the past and the more artistic, mature experience it envisions for the future. If it can pull a little more in either direction, they could have something very interesting on their hands.