Jonny reviews the snowboarding game that simply defies description.
Despite this review’s abstract, here’s something to give you a general mental picture of what Dark Summit is like: take the basic gameplay and controls of SSX and the level design of Beetle Adventure Racing, and add to them a mission structure like that of Goldeneye or any of its imitators. Yes, I said Beetle Adventure Racing, but more on that later. The truth is that Dark Summit’s core is an above-average snowboarding game clearly inspired by EA Big’s SSX, but the game’s developer has added so many touches of style, fresh design ideas, and yes, even gameplay improvements, that the end result comes off as a far different experience.
Perhaps the best starting point is level design. Dark Summit takes place entirely on one mountain, Mt. Garrick. However, the mountain is absolutely HUGE and can easily take ten minutes or more to race straight down from the highest point. Instead of different tracks, you have different starting points along the mountain...the farther you progress through the game, the higher on the mountain you can start. And, as logic would demand, each successive “level” is seamlessly connected to all the ones before it, giving you tons of chances to take on any earlier missions you may have missed or to replay your favorite section of the run. Thankfully, you can also go back to the starting point menu at any time via the pause menu...a nice touch for when you’ve played the earlier sections to death and want to stick mainly to the top portions.
To say there are multiple paths would be an understatement. At any given point along Mt. Garrick, there could be as many as four or five or more paths you could be on. Some of these paths simply branch off to give you a choice, some are hidden, and others are only accessible if you approach them from a higher starting point. Littered throughout the mountain are hundreds of destructible objects, from trashcans to portable toilets to snowmen to exploding cows. Most of these items react very realistically when you crash into them, and many will actually roll down the hill alongside you, getting in your way and also knocking down even more objects. Special trick icons and cash to help you buy equipment are also to be found along the mountainside, usually in out-of-the-way locations. Overall, the level design is very free, open, and creative. You are heavily encouraged to explore all the little nooks and crannies, and doing so is usually quite rewarding. It’s not a stretch to compare Mt. Garrick to the famous levels (or more accurately, worlds) of Beetle Adventure Racing on N64. And even though Dark Summit essentially has just one world, that world is easily large and varied enough to support the game.
If you can play SSX, you can play Dark Summit. The controls are very similar, though there are a few differences worth noting. Grinds take a more important role in Dark Summit than they do in SSX (or at least the original SSX), so there is a dedicated grind button. It works fairly well, although it’s harder to start a grind than it should be...I would have liked the snap-on effect from Tony Hawk 3, however unrealistic that may be. Spin and flip rotation speeds are constant (there is no “pre-winding”) but fast enough to work well, and the grab system is easy to use and tweak. Special tricks are very easy to use, and a couple of them approach the level of silliness seen in SSX Tricky (though most are mainstays like the Misty). The trick system as a whole is quite simplified when compared to other games in this genre, but it’s easy to use, which is important since many missions will require you to pull off certain combos or special tricks.
Although not perfect, Dark Summit’s mission-based game design is more or less successful in giving the game a healthy dose of originality. Early missions teach you how to play the game, while later missions range from knocking down a bunch of snowmen to finding bombs (don’t ask) to racing against the main villain all the way down the mountain. The latter example is a ten-minute affair and one of the most intense experiences I had during my rental. The best part of the missions is that you can tackle them in any order you like; a new starting location on the mountain opens up after you fill a quotient, but you certainly don’t have to complete every mission to progress. Also, because of the mountain’s downhill nature, you can use the pause menu to restart the last mission if you screw it up. The only bad aspect of the mission-based gameplay is that sometimes the objectives aren’t very clear, and you’re left to figure out what to do through trial and error, which usually leads to frustration.
While nothing exceptional, the game’s visuals are definitely up to par, and they have made the journey to GameCube without major framerate problems. Oddly enough, there is some pop-up in the distance...a problem I didn’t think would be present on GameCube software. On the positive side of things, there are some nice particle and explosion effects, and the characters are modeled quite well.
Dark Summit’s final, and perhaps most important, major unique element is its attitude. The very word “attitude” has become rather washed out in these so-called extreme sports games, but this particular title actually manages to set itself aside through sheer weirdness. Audio is a major part of that effect. The music is moody and a bit creepy, and it’s periodically replaced by a few moments of just sound effects, which tend to be very creepy also and appropriate to the surroundings. The game’s voicework is extensive and, for the most part, very well done. You have to love the Chief and his random, threatening comments. “The cows are completely normal!” “There is no hidden agenda!” “Broken bones never heal!” NPC skiers also talk to you when you’re nearby, most of them chiding you for your reckless behavior. All the voices work together to really strengthen the admittedly absurd notion of a lone snowboarding rebel battling against some secret military project. The story is otherwise threadbare, but if the plot is lacking, the game’s character really shines.
To wrap up this lengthy review, I’ll make this bold statement: Dark Summit is the best non-wrestling THQ title I’ve ever played. It’s not the most realistic or technically impressive snowboarding game out there, but it does bring a ton of unique ideas to the table and, more importantly, executes most of those ideas quite well. GameCube owners who don’t care for SSX Tricky or can’t deal with its shoddy port to Nintendo’s system should seriously consider giving Dark Summit a try. Its main mode is just perfect for a five-day rental, and it would seem to be a very worthy purchase to those who can appreciate the game’s bizarre style and unusual game design.