When's an MMO not an MMO if it has all the hallmarks of an MMO? GuildWars broke the mold in 2005, and the industry hasn't looked back. Project Powder from Outspark is one of these borderline MMOs, similar to some previously reviewed games like UB Funkeys. Played online, Project Powder is competitive downhill snowboarding. It has character development, a skill tree, MMO elements in which player avatars come together in an area before the start of a race ... and PvP.
Project Powder is one of those games that a player can pick up immediately. There is no character creation, merely a selection between the few characters available, and once chosen and named, you're in the game. Going through the tutorial will give you an idea of what to expect. It shows you the movements and tricks you can perform with your snowboard while hurtling downhill at breakneck speed. The game is played with your keyboard. A little counterintuitive to me at first, as I had to steer with my right hand on the arrow keys and perform tricks with the WASD keys - although spins are done with the left and right arrow keys, and some tricks combine the keys. The space bar allows you to jump for an additional height off a ramp.
There's actually a back story to this game, which explains why there are snowboarding runs through some interesting landscapes. The year is 2146 AD and global warming has melted the ice caps. There is no winter and snow has become the stuff of myth and legend. However, the advancement of science and technology now allows us to travel to far-off planets with winter-like conditions and pristine powder. With less gravitational pull than planet Earth, these planets afford some great snowboarding experiences. Huge ramps give boarders long air-times and the ability to land safely after flights of more than 300 meters.
How to play
How do you play this game? You race. There are three game modes: Race, Battle and Coin. In reality, they are all races. Race is straight downhill racing. There are built-in ramps for jumps, and during this air time is when you perform tricks. Battle is your PvP mode. It's still a downhill race with obstacles and ramps, but along the course, there are also consumables you roll over to pick up. These are offensive or defensive. The leader gets to pick the consumable, but that leader changes often as racers blast each other with Ice Lances or drop walls in front of each other. A shield can be an instant block if deployed at the right time. The consumables will line up as large icons across the top of your screen as you gather them, and if you've got them, use them, as you can only store two items at a time. Coin mode is coin collection while racing downhill. The object here is to gather as many coins as possible. The leader again has the advantage because he can pick the best coins. The coins you gather will be converted (at a low rate of exchange) into game currency called Luv and will be used for in-game purchases. All races can be played in solo or team mode; private games - especially crew against crew challenge games can be created by adding a password to the race.
The game is very forgiving. If you wipe out, it picks you up again and sets you on your way. You also can hit the escape key to get back on course if you stray too far. It is actually a game of skill. Experienced players soon learn the ins and outs of each course and find the areas that you can take to the air for additional air-time to perform tricks. Every trick completed gains you points and fills a boost bar. Once this bar is full, you can fire it for a speed boost. The points you accumulate from tricks and the speed at which you complete the course are factored into your final experience points gained for each race you take.
The game does suffer from one of the common faults of many limited free feature/micro-transaction games, and that is the lack of a user's manual. The website and game tool-tips provide some information, but just as I suffered through the EQ game tutorial all those years ago of "give the note to the trainer" without telling you exactly how, finding the skill tree was interesting (under the My Info tab) as was trying to enhance my gear with gems. "Drag and Drop," the tool-tip said. I'm glad that there was no way to lose the gem as I spent a frustrating evening trying to enhance my press hoodie with my newly minted gem. You leave it in your inventory, click on the gem that's in the gem tab, click back into the inventory tab with the gem hanging off your cursor, and then click the gear you want to enhance. Doeeeiii! *forehead slap*
Character development is gaining experience to level and learn new tricks in the skill tree. You may have learned the various tricks in the tutorial, but you can only gain points when you are licensed in those tricks. Trick licenses are obtained in instanced areas, and this is where you can do practice runs -- although these straight runs with ramps are nowhere close to the reality of the challenges of the race courses.
Apart from tricks learned, you collect gear and equipment. Gear and equipment are important because they are the only way you get permanent boosts. You start with a generic character in ugly grey sweats, and the only way to get permanent boosts is to buy -- or rather, rent -- gear and equipment. Each piece of equipment contains enhancement slots for speed and various trick boosts. Different ores are gained as random loot awards in game, and you will need to combine three of each in a gem box to create the enhancement gem.
Even at level one, don't be surprised to find yourself left far behind in any game if you enter it and find you're the only one without cool gear. However, as long as you don't finish the course too far behind the pack, you will gain experience, and it doesn't take long to gain levels, in-game currency and the random loot.
Renting gear is how the game monetizes. Characters start with a generic baggy grey sweater and pants, gloves and shoes, and a similarly washed-out board. For $5, you can buy 3,500 Spark Cash and a four week rental of a spiffy top or board. A single enhancement slot will cost you about 1,000 Spark Cash. The "Pro-Shop" is also available on a secure website, where you can buy better and more expensive equipment with three enhancement slots.
The official forums are quiet, although some players have already posted game guides for some maps showing the best places to take to the air. Guilds or Clans are known as "Crews" in Project Powder, and the busier forums are the Crew forums where a lot of the chatter takes place. The game also provides in-game e-mail functionality, and before a race starts is where players gather to chat, play with animated emotes, throw snowballs at each other and do a little trash-talking, (which is common in the team versus team races) and take team screenshots.
Graphics and Sound
You are hurtling down the slopes at breakneck speeds, and what I can describe of the landscape I flew past is "Umm... looks cool enough." Character detail and animations are realistic, and what really looks cool are the trick animations - especially as you get to the higher levels and begin to do more than just Tail Tweaks.
The music is appropriately upbeat and of the dance and rap genre, suited to a competitive game such as this is. There's the occasional, "Hey, watch it!" when your avatar gets bumped and "Ooof!" when you do a face plant in the snow, but otherwise, there isn't any other voice acting. Normally, I'd take copious screenshots with my reviews, but as the game doesn't have a screenshot facility that stores them as graphic files and this is a downhill racing game I'm playing, I haven't a single one. There are however, many, many player-made videos for those wanting to give this game a look-see on the Outspark site .
You don't have to have good gear to play this game as good gear doesn't a good player make. A speed enhancement means nothing if you can't control your movement and wipe out at every turn; the same goes for trick enhancements if you wipe every landing. It's about timing: learning when to jump for the extra lift, what tricks you can accomplish while in the air and when to break from the trick to land safely. It's about learning the courses and finding the best areas to get more air time while still racing down toward the finish line. However, good gear does help a lot when you've already learned the game. It's not fun at all to see players of the same level race ahead of you as you chug along on your starter board but as a skill based game, it can be fun to go into the non-level restricted channels and go head to head with players of higher levels (and beat them). Open Beta flowed into commercial launch May 11, 2009, with no characters wipes, so there are already players well into level 20 and above.
Project Powder is a neat, very playable little title. It's one of those games that you can play for a few minutes by just doing one or two runs or one that you can play for hours at a time if you are so inclined. The game is very easy to pick up, but mastering it may be a different story. For the competitive, the game is surprisingly fun, although the fun might run out if you're the type play for hours on end as there are only eight maps at launch and a number of game guides already out for the maps. As it's free to try and play, why not give it whirl? You may enjoy it more than you expected, like I did.