There will always be comparisons drawn between Mark McMorris Infinite Air and other snowboarding titles like the late, great series, SSX, so let’s get that out of the way.
SSX was a seminal leap forward for extreme sports games which was loved by many, including myself, and the absence of the series on current-gen hardware has left a very large snowboarding-game-shaped hole in our lives. So the questions is: can Infinite Air fill that hole? Maybe not, but it’s had a damn good try.
First off: Beware! Infinite Air is not as “arcadey” as SSX, as it may appear to be at first glance; it’s actually much closer in form to the Skate series on PS3. Rather than simply popping the game on and racking up crazy multipliers, you’ll need to take some time to acquaint yourself with the controls – and by “some time” I mean allow an hour or more of failure after failure, and eventually, little by little, you’ll begin to impress even yourself with some of the skills you pull off. It’s all done by controlling the sticks to shift your weight on the board and using the triggers to wind-up a jump or to grab the board. The issue here is that time isn’t really dedicated to helping you understand the controls. It’s a bit like taking a week-long driving lesson before taking the test; you may pass, but until you’ve got some time and experience, you probably shouldn’t be on the road (or in this case, slopes). What Skate did so well was take the time to gradually build on your abilities. You’d learn to move forward, then move and ollie, then ollie onto a ledge and so on. Infinite Air feels more like your tutor has a hot date to get to and just wants you to try everything once so he can head off. It’s a real shame and proves to be the faulty linchpin that fails to hold this game together.
The finicky and poorly explained control system aside, Infinite Air is generally adequate in other areas without ever becoming exceptional. It doesn’t look as pretty as I’d hoped it might; certainly not as glorious as the PS3’s SSX reboot, but it’s functional enough that you can overlook that. Slopes and ridges are clearly defined, the weather effects are nifty and your rider and their kit look pretty realistic. Stuck somewhere between indie title and full-release, Infinite Air is belied by its relatively small file size of around 6GB which gives the impression that there’s less content and (even) less impressive graphics here than you might expect when actually, while it’s far from the greatest looking or most content-stuffed title out there, it’s passably pretty and fairly full. That said, I couldn’t shift the sense that it felt more like some pre-alpha gameplay than the full release. Textures are disappointingly bland and the scenery pops in and out to the point of it becoming a real distraction. The sense of speed is there and rippling clothes and lines in the snow from previous runs help to smooth over some of the cracks, but graphically, it remains far behind even some last-gen titles.
This isn’t helped by the fact that, frustratingly and almost inexplicably, the developers have chosen to lock away new levels behind a tiered level system. This is especially irritating if you just want a change of scenery after attempting the same challenge for the fiftieth time. Each of the six tiers has four levels and each of those has five challenges within it, with 120 challenges in total. These can range from simply “land two different grab tricks” on the first level to landing complicated trick combos, racking up high scores or beating a pro rider on the same course on later levels. The trouble here is that, while each challenge is indeed possible, until you’ve completed a specific number of the challenges available to you, the next level tier remains locked, preventing you from moving on until you’ve mastered the challenges contained in levels already unlocked. Mercifully, challenges complete once you’ve fulfilled the criteria and you don’t have to finish the level for it to count, so if you land a trick early on before wiping out on the next tree in your path, it still counts.
Similarly underwhelming is the soundtrack. The tracks included are neither plentiful or remarkable, but they do at least fit in with the feel of the game. It’s a standard extreme sports mix of indie rock, and they’re mixed well enough to act as background music without distracting you. The main audio highlight, though, is the sound of your board carving its way through the snow; it’s pretty unbeatable.
Another plus is that rider customisation is present to some extent. You can either choose one from a handful of pro riders (not surprisingly, including titular Olympic Bronze medallist and X-Games champion Mark McMorris) or you can create a custom rider. Simply choose a male or female rider then pick your own helmet or hat, jacket, salopettes, boots, board and bindings then hit the slopes in style (or if you’re anything like me, with a penchant for colourful clothing, looking like a fancy-dress store mannequin). There’s no Fifa or Mass Effect level of character design here, but you’ll be spending your time wrapped up in your gear anyway, so that’s understandable.
The same customisation options exist for the slopes themselves, with the chance to customise your own course and create your own lines to shred and share with the online community as you please with the World Editor. This is standard fare for Canadian developers, hb Studios, as they have a long history of sports sims and while they’ve largely worked on annual releases like Madden, NFL and the Rugby series, their previous stand-alone title, The Golf Club, itself the result of the cancelled Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchise, received plenty of post-launch support, with lots of DLC added after-the-fact. This offers a good indication that the rider and track creation options will only increase as time goes on. This World Editor mode is likely to be the main attraction for some people and it will likely serve them well with plentiful options to explore and a user-friendly interface.
The focus for Infinite Air is on free-riding with plenty of emphasis on the backcountry. If you’re not particularly snow sport-savvy, the backcountry is best described as areas of the mountain not frequented by the majority of riders; the slopes are littered with trees, rocks and large drop-offs but the snow is often fresher and not as well-trodden as the regularly ridden routes. This means rides are less straightforward than on-piste events, but can be more exhilarating and ultimately more rewarding – which is why people risk the inherent avalanche threats carried by the backcountry in real life. It’s unusual for a game to focus so much on this, as it doesn’t lend itself to speed or style, preferring instead to reward skilful riding and opportunism, but Infinite Air works those plus points to its advantage, offering occasional set-piece opportunitites mixed with “natural” lines.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its downsides; undefined tracks make it tough to stay on course despite faint, floating markers showing the edge of the course. The camber that’s usually present at the edges of a track helping to force you downwards is missing, too, so a few poorly-timed turns will send you careering off to the side, leaving an uphill struggle to return to the main route. You can, however, quickly tap a button to restart the event or “get up”, though this will probably leave you stuck where you crashed as the game literally stands you up, rather than placing you somewhere more appropriate. Crashed into a rock? Now you’re trapped by it. Gone off-course? Tough. The main issue I found was I’d hit a sweet ramp, bust a great trick and then either before or right after landing, I’d smack face first into a tree and lose all the points and multipliers I’d acquired.
It’s tough to overstate how much of a difference this minimal approach, coupled with the overly complex control system, makes. In the Skate series, the streets of San Vanelona felt as though they were teeming with opportunities to trick, race and cause chaos with everything from park benches to water fountains just waiting to be utilised for grinds or big air, and you’d enjoy a rewarding feeling every time you managed to land a flip without bailing. Infinite Air feels nothing like this; instead you can find yourself waiting for a big jump opportunity, grinding a few logs to up your multiplier ready for the huge jump you just know is coming, but before you know it, you’re at the end of the course, meaning you’re more likely to spend your time desperately seeking out any chance to pull off a trick than you will actually pulling them off. It’s a shame it sticks so rigidly to these real-world mechanics when it could offer a less restrictive, simplified approach without sacrificing its simulator feel, because when you do nail a trick, it feels awesome! The trouble is that for a mainstream release, the fidelity required by the control system is just too precise and the scarcity of trick opportunities is disappointing.
Mark McMorris Infinte Air is a complex mixture of good and bad, and unfortunately it errs towards the latter. The awkward controls and poorly populated pathways hamper the overall enjoyment that can be gained after spending some time learning the ins and outs. It’s rare to see a game so brazenly ask that you actually invest time in it, rather than simply reward you with instant gratification. In a generation of “prestiging” and free-to-play and pay-to-win models, I think that should be respected – but without ensuring you have a complete grasp on the control system, it sends you out totally unprepared and you’ll still be figuring out the basics after a good few hours of play. What Infinite Air may lack in simplicity with its steep learning curve it tries to make up for by offering a return on your investment with unlocks of new outfit options and tracks, but it just doesn’t quite manage.
If you’re desperate for a snowboarding or extreme sports title and you don’t mind putting in the time, Mark McMorris Infinte Air will likely quench that thirst, but don’t expect to be racking up points and hitting perfect lines even after many hours of it. Paying full-price for something that I would suggest resembles pre-alpha gameplay seems like folly, especially with Ubisoft’s STEEP set to launch on 2nd December.