In a well-worn genre like snowboarding games, it's often rare to see developers trying new approaches to the formula rather than simply adding on to what's already been done. The progression of popular genres is like decorating a Christmas tree; once the concept is in place, pieces are gradually added to evolve both the aesthetic and mechanical properties of the games. So it's refreshing when, rather than simply adding more decorations, game developers attempt to disassemble the proverbial tree and give their games a new style. Just as Devil May Cry and Halo re-wrote the rules of their genres, Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding eschews many of the conventions of snowboarding games and presents a refreshing spin on its weathered concept.
Amped's career mode, the heart of the game, gives you a nondescript amateur snowboarder with a variety of attributes such as jumping ability, speed, and balance. The goal of the game is to become a professional, sponsored snowboarder by meeting various challenges that earn you points to improve your character's attributes and sponsorship to improve his or her appearance and equipment. Each level features a 'high score' and 'media challenge'—both of which reward you with points, but the latter of which is the calling card of the game. Photographers are scattered around the mountain, and should you grab their attention with eye-popping tricks, you'll gain experience points and unlock extra challenges on the mountain. Prospective sponsors will challenge you to perform certain types of tricks, and pro snowboarders will challenge you to follow them down the mountain and beat their tricks.
At its heart, Amped's unique open-ended nature is the glue that holds these concepts together successfully. Instead of being given a time limit or other such restriction, players are simply dropped on a mountain and allowed to take advantage of both the natural and man-made formations to perform tricks at their leisure. The run doesn't end until you reach the bottom of the mountain, so there is very little pressure (aside from gravity) to accomplish the objectives. The levels are outright enormous and rich with graphical detail. Each features multiple drop points and all are filled with plenty of natural and artificial objects that can be used as ramps or rails. If doing tricks off of a man-made ramp isn't your style, you can gain points by doing tricks off of almost anything in the environment—rocks, trees, houses, ice—even lift cables. You are simply presented with a huge, open mountain to play with as you choose.
The gamplay is centered on tricks rather than competition, revolving around a challenging yet accessible trick system. The basic controls can be learned fairly quickly, but the combinations of spins, flips grabs, 'tweaks,' rail sliding (or 'jibs') and jumping are time-consuming to master and allow for literally thousands of possible combinations. And although the game is based entirely on tricks, the variation in the environments prevents the formula from ever feeling repetitive. The physics are balanced between accurate simulation and far-fetched antics, so although tricks take quite a bit of proper timing and precision, they aren't overwhelmingly hard and can end up allowing for some pretty ridiculous stuff. Imagine launching yourself from a ramp, doing flips and spins midair, then landing on a toppled tree trunk and performing additional spins and jumps before leaping from the tree for a big finish, and you'll get the idea of how Amped is played.
In addition to the aforementioned career mode, Amped features an interesting take on the multiplayer games. Instead of split-screen racing, players take turns accomplishing various objectives. For example, one game called 'king of the hill' sends the first player down the mountain to do as many tricks as possible. The next player then has to follow the same path and outperform the first player. There is no simultaneous multiplayer, but there are a variety of games that capture the concepts of the career mode and turn them into enjoyable mini games.
Amped is also one of the few early Xbox games to take advantage of the built-in hard disk to allow a customizable sound track. The default music in the game is a decent mix of indie artists, and although most of them sound fairly similar to the usual pop rock, there are a few gems in there. Nonetheless, I quickly took advantage of the customizable soundtrack and burned a number of CDs on to the game. It's a purely cosmetic feature, but in a game like this it adds a lot to the mood and prolongs the enjoyment.
Amped is ultimately set apart from, and in some respects ahead of its genre by abandoning the conventional focus on antagonistic competition in lieu of a more open-ended, player-centered methodology. Since the idea is to improve your own skills and refine your character, the only pressure is what the player chooses to place on him or her self. There's a real sensation of freedom and 'aliveness' in the levels as you interact with the environment. It's a loosely structured system centered on the idea of allowing players as much freedom as possible while still giving them objectives to keep the game moving. It's not altogether original (some concepts are borrowed from the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series), but it's still a fresh perspective on a genre that has only seen a handful of breakout titles. A unique concept, great graphics, deep but accessible gameplay, interactive environments, and plenty of variety put Amped high on the mountain.