By Graham Smith on February 6th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
SNOW is currently in Steam Early Access, which means it’s unfinished but you can buy it and start playing right now. Let’s therefore put the buyer’s advice up top: you should not do that. While some games in Early Access are already robust, content-rich, and ready to offer dozens of hours of enjoyment, SNOW is not there yet. After an hour, you’ll have seen all there is to see.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t tremendous potential in the idea: an open-world ski and snowboarding game, in which you can speed from one slope to another contiguously, or shoot off the track and and go exploring. There’s little hints here of what the game might become, and for that hour you might spend with it, you’d likely have fun.
I used to play Tribes 2 a lot. In between sniping at enemy defenders, or performing shrike stunts with friends on a private server, I liked to go skiing. Your ability to gather tremendous speed by sliding down that game’s mountains was key to success, and you’d use that skill while dueling or attempting to capture the opponent’s flag. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
Tribes 2 had enormous levels on which to play, but beyond the edge of the in-game map, the world did not end. There were further stretches of infinite – or seemingly infinite – terrain, devoid of landmarks or objectives, but accessible to any player who wanted to leave the war behind and go exploring. And so I would. I’d go ski across the randomly generated sprawl, hunting for particularly steep slopes from which to slide.
Eventually I’d grow tired and return to the fight, but that was a real part of enjoying that game. Sliding and skiing made movement Tribes’ basic unit of fun, allowing you to enjoy yourself even if you couldn’t hit anyone with a spinfusor.
This is why an open-world skiing game works. If movement is fun, you don’t need to be compelled to continue by the competition for faster times or coming first in a race. You just need a world to explore that’s sufficiently interesting, and even that bar is set low. All I need is a good hill.
Currently SNOW is all set on the same side of a mountain, with spawn points littered across its surface. Some of those are placed at the top of smooth slopes, some in front of jumps and ramps, and others in wilder spaces surrounded by trees and craggy outcrops. You can start from any of those points and, depending on the route you take, perhaps find yourself reaching the others later.
You’re rewarded for skiing and exploring by a couple of different things. One is the feeling of excitement at stumbling across a new landmark, which currently the map only provides a couple of times: for example, when you first crest a hill to come across a dam cutting across the crisp white expanse. The other is what Tribes had: the excitement of finding a particularly good slope, anticipating that moment of speed, and watching the speedometer in the corner tick up as you descend.
There’s a multiplayer mode as well, though I haven’t had the opportunity to play it, and you can score points by grinding on rails and Tony Hawking in the air when you hit a jump, though it feels simplistic and a little pointless. SNOW is an emptier, white-out Proteus with slippy sliding instead of walking. That’s all there is.
That is almost literally all there is. The menu is mainly made of greyed-out options, each one a mode or feature that has yet to be implemented.
The section which seems to have had the most effort put into it is the in-game store, where real money can be traded for hats, jackets, poles, skis and so on, each marked by a real world logo. Many of these items are included in the different packs through which you can purchase the game, but it’s a good example of the way microtransaction models can warp the priorities of game development. SNOW has many different types of snowgoggles, sure, but it doesn’t have any sound effects. The model incentivizes the creation of gloves before snowboards.
Break now to watch the most recent update trailer, which does show what progress is being made.
I’m going to bracket this write-up with two descriptions of fun times I’ve had skiing and snowboarding, neither of which are from the game I’m really writing about. That’s strange, but it’s because I want to balance the reality of what SNOW is (an alpha game you shouldn’t buy yet because there’s not enough to it) with the potential of what it could be as glimpsed in its better moments.
SSX3 is my favourite snowboarding game. It combines racing with stunts, but its best feature was that everything took place on the side of the same mountain. Once you had unlocked the whole track, you could board from its peak to its bottom, each track strung together in a race that could take almost 30 minutes to complete.
Along the way, you’d move through steep slopes, to canyons, to ice caves. SSX3 threw in environmental hazards to break up the rhythm of its races, with collapsing ceilings and pursuing avalanches. It was exhilirating, because the skill required to avoid obstacles, perform stunts, beat opponents and win the strung-together race amplified the pleasure of moving, by making it about maintaining speed, and flowing as gracefully as possible through each area.
SNOW is in its infancy, but it’s sliding down an exciting slope. Keep an eye on it.