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Sno Cross Championship Racing (PSX) Review

Background Info

PSX Screens(9)
Sno Cross Championship Racing is only the second snowmobile racer to appear on the PlayStation, the previous effort being Sled Storm by EA. Developed by UDS, and published by Crave Entertainment, Sno Cross is an enjoyable, though somewhat frustrating, first effort into this relatively new racing sub-genre.

Presentation/Graphics : 92
The first thing you notice about Sno Cross' graphics are the great course models. The tracks are located in places such as Aspen (Colorado), Nagano (Japan) and Murmansk (Russia) and the graphics really create a wonderful sense of atmosphere unique to each of the different locations. For example, in Kitzbuhel (Austria) the course takes place in and around a ski resort. Hence, the track includes structures such as ski lodges, trees, bridges, hotels, cable cars, ski lifts, as well as numerous spectators that line the course. With the exception of the spectators, all of the other trackside structures are rendered in 3D. The natural topography of the courses is also impressive, with numerous natural features including rocky outcroppings, undulating hills and cliffs. Textures for the courses and the snowmobiles are very crisp and clear, and the different types of terrain are easily distinguishable, be it ice, packed snow, asphalt or semi-liquid slush. Icy terrain also features impressive reflections of the snowmobiles and riders.

Sno Cross is also privy to some great particle and lighting effects. Snowmobiles kick up copious amounts of snow as they blaze round the courses, and when you're closely trailing another racer the snow can even hinder your visibility. Rain and Sleet effects are generally well done, although it's a little weird that rain still pours down from up above even when you're in a tunnel! The snowing effects are generally well done, although the snowflakes seem a little too large. Sno Cross' lighting effects are also impressive, and racing at night is awesome with your snowmobile's single headlight piecing the night, illuminating the darkness in a very realistic fashion. The only problem with the lighting I encountered was that you couldn't see the illumination provided by other racer's headlights. For example, if you happened to crash and break your headlights, even if you race alongside an opponent whose lights still work, the terrain ahead of you still isn't illuminated.

Rider animations are decent, though nothing spectacular; the riders can lean back and forth and from one side to another. There are some tricks that the riders can perform, but these aren't spectacular (i.e. the 'Fist Pump'), and consequently neither are the animations. The game features 12 different Yamaha Snowmobile models, and each features some really cool damage effects. For example, if you manage to damage one of your skis you'll see that it starts to veer to one side as you race. If you're reckless enough you can even destroy parts of the snowmobile's body, and the animations as the pieces fly off are quite spectacular.

Despite the great textures, good particle effects, and great course graphics Sno Cross still manages to keep a decent framerate throughout. It isn't blistering, but then again it's not like these Snowmobiles go at 150+mph so that's understandable. Nevertheless, the framerate is fast enough, and most importantly it's consistent even in split screen two player mode.

The only negative side to Sno Cross' graphics is the huge decrease in draw distance when you're racing in rain or snow. During day races with no weather effects the draw distance is fantastic, with little or no pop-up. However, once you turn on rain/sleet or snow the horizon become an opaque fog that only comes into focus within 10-20 yards. This isn't a problem in the Single Race mode as you can just turn off any weather effects, but in Championship mode most of the races feature rain/sleet or snow and since there's no course map just following the course becomes a challenge.

However, despite the somewhat annoying short draw distance in rain or snow, Sno Cross' graphics are generally very impressive. The textures and courses are top notch, and little touches like the gradual disappearance of snowmobile tracks as snow falls really help to cement together the total package.

Presentation/Audio : 75
The sound of snow 'sloshing' if there's one really impressive thing about Sno Cross' audio it's the accurate imitation of this sound. Living in Canada, I get my fair share of driving in snow every year, and the sound of watery slush being squeezed out from under tires is definitely one of the sounds of the season. Imagine my amazement when I turned my first corner in Sno Cross to hear the exact same sound! It may seem quite simple that a member of the programming team just recorded the sound, but with so many racing games featuring unrealistic or uninspired racing sound effects when one game does go the extra mile and pays attention to detail it really shines through. There are even different and easily distinguishable types of sounds for different types of snow, from tightly packed snow, to semi-liquid slush. The different classes of snowmobile engines all feature different engine sounds, and there are also ambient sounds unique to each of the environments such as passing cars, crowd sounds and birds chirping.

Unfortunately, accompanying the excellent sound effects are some incredibly mediocre music tracks. The music is horribly bland and uninspiring techno that tries to give you a headache. After a few races I was forced to turn off the music and turn on my stereo instead. It's a shame that UDS and Crave couldn't create any music tracks that could match the excellence of the sound effects.

Interface/Options : 80
Sno Cross Championship Racing features four modes of play; Single Race, Time Trial, Championship and Hill Climb. Single Race allows you to race around your course of choice, and you can also select various options such as number of laps and the weather conditions. Time Trial allows you to race against the clock in any one of the available tracks and the best times are automatically saved to memory card.

The mode of play that makes up the bulk of the game is Championship mode. Here you race in the various courses that make up the circuit, collecting points for victories as well as cash winnings. The game features an accurate damage model, so cash winnings are to be used for repairing snowmobile components, or for upgrading them. The skis, suspension, tracks and engine can all be repaired or upgraded. You can also earn cash by doing various tricks while racing. There are three classes of Championship circuits; 500cc, 600cc and 700cc. You start at 500cc, and must finish first to unlock the 600cc mode, and must do the same in that mode to unlock the 700cc circuit. Finishing first also unlocks extra tracks and snowmobiles as well as the Hill Climb mode.

The main problem with the Championship mode, as well as the two aforementioned modes, is the limited number of tracks. Championship mode on the 500cc and 600cc classes features only four tracks; Aspen, Calgary, Kiruna and Murmansk. Winning the 500cc mode then unlocks Nagano and Kitzbuhel, while winning the 600cc Championship unlocks the Munich track. Even though the tracks are all beautifully rendered and a lot of fun to race, seven tracks really don't provide enough variety over the long haul.

In Hill Climb mode your task is to make it to the top of a steep hill in the fastest time possible. There are three different hills to conquer, and several ways to get to the top of each one. As with the other modes, record times are automatically saved to memory card.

The best feature of Sno Cross is definitely the amazing track editor. The editor has numerous themes and track components that can be selected, rotated and easily placed on a huge grid. Building a course is as simple as piecing together the components like Lego blocks. The various components range from simple straights, to jumps, bridges, tunnels, banked curves, and even canyons. The editor is so simple and intuitive to use that I was able to create several courses without even looking at the manual for help. It only takes matter of minutes to create some truly awesome tracks that can be saved to memory card, and then used in Single Race and Time Trial modes.

Gameplay : 78
First off, Sno Cross Championship Racing is an incredibly challenging game! Even though you only ever race against 3 other opponents, the courses and weather conditions are more than enough of a challenge to all but the best racing gamers. The first thing that you notice about Sno Cross once you pick up the controller is the handling. Now I've never driven a snowmobile, but this game does a good job of simulating how I'd imagine one of these machines would handle. Tight turns require the best skis and suspension, and also require you to really lean forward and into the corner. Game physics are excellent, and each surface has its own unique nuances. Driving on densely packed snow is generally the easiest, but tight turns are hard to do, while driving on slush allows you to slide around corners more easily but accelerating is harder. Driving on ice is very difficult and you need tight control of throttle and steering to make the snowmobile go where you want it to. Control is tight and responsive and you can chose to steer using the D-Pad or the Analogue sticks.

As mentioned before, the courses are wonderfully modeled and are a real challenge to navigate. Hills, valleys, chicanes, jumps and canyons all have to be navigated at high speed without crashing. The courses are also a lot of fun, each with their fair share of gut-wrenching jumps and tight corners. Because of the damage model present in the Championship mode you really have to keep a high level of concentration to prevent any major collisions while racing. In the bottom left corner of the racing screen is a vehicle damage indicator. All the parts of your snowmobile start off green and in good condition, but as you collide with objects or fail to land jumps properly, the corresponding component on the indicator begins to change color from green to yellow and then eventually red. As the indicator changes so does the handling of your snowmobile. For example, if you keep crashing your left ski, as the indicator begins to change color your steering will be affected and your snowmobile will start to veer to the left on straights. The same type of damage applies to the engine, the suspension and the tracks. The most frightening type of damage is when you break your headlight during a night race; from that point onward your visibility is greatly reduced, and if you're also driving in rain or snow then you can kiss a top two finish goodbye. The most challenging aspect of the Championship mode is that these damages are passed on from race to race. Thus, if you don't have enough cash to repair all the damages to your snowmobile you'll enter the next race handicapped!

Computer AI is excellent and they all follow the racing line perfectly. In fact, they can often be ruthless, pushing you off the racing line and sending you hurtling into a barrier resulting in damage to your vehicle.

So with great AI, courses, handling and physics, Sno Cross seems like the ultimate package. Unfortunately, the problem of having too few tracks comes back to haunt the game. Firstly, because there so few courses the Championship mode becomes incredibly hard to win. You have to balance racing hard, with inflicting as little damage to your vehicle as possible. Most of the time when you win a race you only win enough cash to complete repairs rather than upgrade your parts. Furthermore, since there are only a handful of races a third place finish in one race practically destroys your chances of a victory in the overall Championship. Not only will you be forced to finish first in the remaining races, your third place finish would have probably resulted from massive damages to your snowmobile, most of which would carry on to hinder you in next race. Sometimes it can get incredibly frustrating, as just one little nudge by an opposing rider can result in disaster and screw you over for the remainder of the short Championship series.

The Hill Climbing mode is a welcome change from the circuit racing, and requires its own strategy to make it up the hills without stalling or falling backward. Each hill has several different paths to take to get to the top, and you'll need a keen eye and close control to get to the finish line. However, once again, with only three hills there's only so long you can play without getting bored.

I think the most frustrating thing is how close Sno Cross comes to being a truly awesome game. If the Championship mode was perhaps 10-12 different races, then this game would be one of the best console racing games out there. With the extra races not only would the game be less frustrating, the strategy involved with the damage model would also play a larger part. You could then sacrifice a race or two in order to minimize damages and build up your cash so that you can spring for an engine upgrade. As it stands you just don't have enough races to implement any strategy whatsoever, and the game just leaves you feeling frustrated especially at the 600cc and 700cc levels.

Replay Value : 68
As I've reiterated so many times during this review, even though Sno Cross' gameplay is generally great there just aren't enough tracks to satisfy most gamers. The main saving grace of the game, in terms of Replay Value, is the wonderful Track Editor. Once I held all the records in the Hill Climb and Single Race modes, and got bored with the Championship mode, the Track Editor was the only thing that brought me back for more. However, no matter how many great tracks you make, you can only use them in Time Trial or Single Race mode. Come to think of it, the track editor is so powerful I don't understand why the programmers didn't take some time to use the editor to create some tracks and include them in the Championship mode. Alternately, UDS and Crave could have even used the existing tracks and raced them backwards (ala Gran Turismo) and that would have been fine. As it is, Sno Cross comes up somewhat short on the replay value front, and I can't see anyone playing this game beyond a few weeks of purchase.

Overall : 76
It would be wrong to label Sno Cross Championship Racing a bad game; rather, Sno Cross is a good game, but one that could so easily have been excellent. The racing is fast and furious, and for the most part, fun. If you're looking for another game to add to your racing library you could do a lot worse than Sno Cross, just don't expect the thrill and excitement of your first few hours of play to continue for a long time.

By: Lavan Chandran 9/13/00

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