While EA Sports Big has had a short existence compared to many other studios, the stable of titles it has produced has single-handedly re-invigorated the extreme sports genre. From NBA Street to its flagship classic, SSX, Big has delivered on features that other titles have merely proposed or flatly failed at. Intense rivalries, larger than life characters and impossible tricks provided adrenaline-fueled arenas for these games to shine in. Yet while many people are content to rest on their laurels once they’ve gotten used to a formula that works, Big consistently seeks to push the envelope of sports, even revising their own methods for new titles. Their latest release, Shox, is a perfect example of this drive to energize extreme titles, as EA Sports Big turns their eye towards rally racing.
Shox is a large departure from the successful formula I mentioned earlier, because it has no definable faces or cartoon characters to place a name to as a game persona. Instead, players assign their own name to a profile that runs throughout the entire career mode of the game. While are two multiplayer options (one that let’s two players race each other and one that’s basically a demolition derby/capture the flag hybrid), the main focus of the game is on the single player experience known as Championship mode. Consisting of the compact, sports, power and turbo divisions, you start off at the bottom of the race standings with the overall goal to assert your driving dominance over the entire league.
To start you off, you’re provided with a lump sum of money with which to buy your first car and enter your first race. You can choose to go off looks, but a more effective choice is based off the car’s stats, which measure the speed, stability and steering of the machine. Since the races range from the dust and heat of the desert, the chilling, blizzard swept tundra and the lush, foliage-filled jungle, and picking the most effective car really is key to taking the checkered flag home. Obviously, one car won’t be able to continually navigate you to victory, so you’ll have to augment your stable of cars to increase your chances of winning. Overall, 24 cars from major manufacturers like Porsche, Audi and Ford are available throughout the game (6 per division); however, the methods of acquiring them vary.
The most immediate way is purchasing the car outright using the prize money from your winnings. Measuring the speed of your race, the damage to your car, and difficulty of the race affects the amount of dough you take with you. However, you can augment this stockpile with the Shox Zones that are placed within each track. Essentially checkpoints between stretches of road, the Shox Zones time how well you manage to negotiate a section of course, assigning a gold, silver or bronze ranking. More money is funneled into your bank account with better ratings, and if you manage to score three gold ranks in a competition, you trigger an effect known as a Shoxwave. A shimmering, fast-moving surge of energy sprints around the track, and if you can catch up to it and “surf the wave,” you’ll earn additional thousands of dollars as well as get a speed boost. The other way you can earn cars is by gambling for them. Every car can be wagered for in short track speed duels. However, to add even more of a challenge, the computer gets a little head start, which means you have to have a better car and all of your skills to beat your opponent.
The visuals in Shox are truly impressive, with plenty of eye candy scattered throughout the game. Car models look very similar to the real thing, although obviously souped up for the off road rally racing that you’ll be tearing through on courses. Speaking of the terrain, there’s plenty to see, with large, detailed backgrounds that are packed with ambient animation like flying birds or leaping crowds. You’ll really be able to detect mud, road dust and snow kicked up from the road as you fly down straight-aways and turns. What’s more, you’ll be able to observe how your car gets progressively filthier as it completes laps, with the wheels and doors getting caked with dirt. This attention to detail also extends to damage modeling, which will detect and modify accordingly the amount of damage to your car and where on the car body the dents took place. Some of this will get highlighted with the Drama and Crash Cams, which kick into gear with a Matrix/Max Payne bullet-time rotation during spectacular maneuvers and horrifying accidents. Along with all of these details comes real-time lighting that can sometimes cause temporary blindness with the lens flares, particularly with some of the reflections that bounce off other cars or surfaces. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, the game runs at a solid 60 frames per second without discernible slowdown, with the one exception of the Shoxwave. There’s a slight amount of slowdown and camera fuzziness when you enter the wave, but before you get up in arms, it’s supposed to be like that.
The sound delivers as well, with plenty of ambient noises that you’d expect from a rally racing game. Roaring engines, cheering crowds and birdcalls, as well as dirt flying and shrieking tires can all be picked out of the cacophony of driving. The largest, and perhaps most noticeable effects are triggering the Shoxwave, which howls loudly with crackling energy, and entering the Shoxwave, which slows everything to a low, pulsing heartbeat as long as you ride it. Dramatic and energizing at the same time, there’s a definite sense of power surrounding this feature of the game. Musically, the soundtrack is supported with plenty of techno, all of which host driving, pulsing beats. The one downside is the announcer, who can be rather annoying at times, tempting players to either mute the game or turn off his contributions to the onscreen action.
Of course, as an EA Sports Big title, the action is very arcade like and attention grabbing. Shox is one of those titles that are very easy to start up and jump into immediately. However, there are some problems within the gameplay that reduces Shox from a great game to a good one. Remarkably, each one is a beneficial feature and a hindrance. The first one is that while the game is easy to get into, it’s also relatively easy throughout the entire game. It’s entirely possible to fly through this game from start to finish in only a few hours. Much of the success within the game rests within the choice of the proper car that you might not be able to immediately afford. However, if you manage to memorize the layout of a particular course, you can continually replay that level, constantly adding to your bank account until you have enough money to buy the car you need.
If you happen to crash or get into a few accidents along the way, you’ll wind up losing some of that cash. Yet while the damage to the car can be rather extreme, most likely requiring thousands of dollars in repair, there is no discernible change to the car’s handling or speed. It’s understandable that the designers didn’t want to hamper or involve players with the mundane details of fixing their car, but it should at least have a visible impact upon play if you, or the AI, wreck the car. The AI is actually another pitfall. The AI in the game is rather good, and does a great job of providing you with a challenge, cutting off lanes for you to pass other cars and even running you into the wall if it’ll help them gain an advantage. However, the computer opposition is so tenacious that any leads you have will evaporate if you have an accident, resulting in some other driver catching up with you.
Finally, the gambling feature, while a very good idea, is not implemented as well as it could’ve been. I like the idea of wagering for new cars, because it requires a lot of skill to protect my investment. However, the stakes in Shox are radically imbalanced. If you lose a race, you don’t lose your car, merely the money that you wagered. Yet each time you race, the required bet that you put down on a vehicle is halved, meaning that if you have enough money, you can continually challenge a driver to a race until his price range is so low that you’ll coming out of the deal like a bandit. Couple that with the ability to continually return to easier, memorized courses and the threat of fully losing your money shouldn’t affect you. The other major imbalance is that in duels for cars, the computer gets a head start on the track, which is usually enough to give it the winning edge. Since most courses are twenty to forty seconds long, this can be a long road to purchase cars on.
Overall, Shox is one of those games whose premise and delivery are very well done, but slight problems that arise in the gameplay hinders full enjoyment of the game. Definitely designed for the racer in all of us, Shox has such a simple, intuitive concept that anyone can get into and enjoy, but the gambling, damage models, and relative ease of the game can contribute to slight boredom after a while. Fans of the EA Sports Big line, racing games, or extreme games will probably want to check this one out, but others may want to rent it to see if Shox will ride its own wave into your PS2.