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Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

William Shakespeare wrote that. It was part of Henry IV’s soliloquy in his eponymous play on how damn hard it is to be king (regardless of any objections held by Mel Brooks). It seems that in those days, as soon as you gained a modicum of power, or popularity, or a shiny crown, or even a particularly delicious pig, some brigand (often Kenneth Branagh) was waiting to poison your family, convince you that your wife was cheating on you, or stab Mercutio for no damn good reason.

We no longer live in an era best portrayed by classically trained actors (and, to a lesser extent, John Leguizamo), but the message that Shakespeare was trying to impart is as important as ever: Despite your past triumphs, someone is always going to be waiting to knock you off of your throne (and that someone is generally Kenneth Branagh).

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the SSX series. For years, Electronic Arts had patented its own brand of arcade-style racing action that was more focused on huge tricks and stylish flair than the actual racing. It was a huge, much-loved critical and financial success in a time when absolutely everyone saw EA as a black-hearted corporate behemoth. When you create a game that good, it simply doesn’t matter how many puppies you’ve kicked.

Then, EA got a bit complacent. The first SSX was amazing, the second was phenomenal, hell, even the third was way above average, but when the company started partial-birthing titles like 2007’s SSX Blur, things started getting real average, real fast.

As in The Bard’s allegorical Julius Caesar, it was inevitable that someone would try and take the throne. If EA wasn’t still too busy swimming in a Scrooge McDuck-ian vault of gold coins earned from sales of Spore, the recent release of Pure might have elicited a breathy “Tu quoque, Disney?”

Pure, you see, is Disney’s attempt at creating an arcade style racer, via developer Blackrock Studios. Instead of following EA into the world of cartoonish snowboarding, The House of Mouse has opted to capitalize on the popularity of driving dangerously overpowered off-road vehicles, often while drunk – otherwise known as ATV racing.

Key in on that huge difference between Pure and the SSX games. Are you clear on that? SSX is about snowboards and Pure is about ATVs. Still with me? Good. Otherwise, the games are essentially twins.

Remember racing down a hill in SSX, hitting a jump, and clicking a few trigger buttons to launch a string of tricks? Exactly the same thing happens in Pure, down to how you “tweak” your tricks to earn even more points. Hell, even the “Signature Tricks” seen in SSX are present here. Like that earlier series, once you’ve built up enough energy by completing enough ridiculous aerial stunts, Pure offers you a flashing reminder that you can pull off your ultimate maneuver. Then it’s a simple matter of finding a jump large enough to give you sufficient air to actually attempt the thing without splattering your corpus across the side of a mountain.

Of course, the tricks aren’t just for show. In the score attack modes, they allow you to earn huge amounts of points, and in the racing modes, they are your sole opportunity to pick up “Boost,” which pushes your ATV to ludicrous speed and allows you to overtake the 16 other racers you’re pitted against.

At this point a lot of you are zipping your pants up, buckling your belts and packing your books into your backpack, wondering why you bothered reading about yet another obvious clone, but if you walk on this review right now, you’ll miss the key twist. Yes, Pure is strikingly similar to SSX, but in many ways, it’s even better.

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Take, for instance, the game’s customization options. In SSX, you could buy new snowboards for each character and change their outfits, but that was the extent of things. Blackrock Studios seemed to like that idea, but decided it could do things much, much better. Instead of buying an ATV for your character, you’re tasked with actually building one. After selecting one of the 23 separate sections of the ATV, you’re given 5 sliders indicating speed, acceleration, ability to perform tricks and all the other stats you’d care about in the game. Once you’ve decided how to best balance your vehicle’s parts for optimum performance, you give it a shiny paint job, affix the necessary decals and dub it something awesome like “Death Machine” or “John McCain is a Cylon”- the sort of tag that will inspire fear in your opponents and presumably Kara Thrace.

As if the literally hundreds of customizable parts weren’t enough of a content boost for Pure, the game also boasts dozens of tracks, all which feature multiple branching paths throughout. Admittedly, very few of the paths are ideal, and you’ll always want to follow the quickest line throughout each track, but it certainly offers more variety and terrain to cover than any other arcade racing title I’ve played.

Continuing my theme from earlier – the one about Pure being similar to SSX (not the anti-Branagh theme) — the game also shares SSX‘s most notorious flaws. Your opponents are always faster than you are, but have what is known as “rubber band AI.” If you’re doing poorly, they’ll begin to crash more often, and if you’re doing very well, they become almost inhumanly talented. The idea is that this keeps the races tense, but in practice it generally creates some truly bizarre difficulty levels.

To wit: I took first place in my first attempt on the second, third and fourth racing events, but I had to replay the very first event almost six times to place first. Then, on the fifth race, after an hour of replaying the same event, I never placed higher than 12th. It’s a great credit to the game’s design that Pure remains enjoyable even with such a frustrating string of opponents.

Of course, in Pure‘s defense, when you tire of inhuman computer opponents, you can always take the game online. Multiplayer modes on offer comprise all the racetracks and event types from the single player game – standard race, trick race, dash – but also give you the option to sprinkle the tracks with power-ups. These aren’t Mario Kart-style weaponry, but instead give players instantaneous access to their “Signature Tricks” or double their score.

Even better, through the seven to eight hours I spent online playing the game, you’re rarely stuck waiting in a lobby for more than 5 minutes and once the race starts, lag is a non-issue.

In all this talk about Kenneth Branagh, I’ve almost completely neglected his most important role: That of Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. This man, this pure thespian, was heard to remark to one Harry Potter: “Spooky how the time flies when one’s having fun.” Though Branagh (the actor) and Lockhart (the character) were most likely not speaking of Pure, I find the quote to be almost universally useful, and doubly so in the case of Disney’s game. It’s entirely possible to cite the game’s flaws or decry it as a derivative piece of fluff, but by the time you remember to do any of that, you’ll have already been playing the game for hours, and enjoying it the entire time.

Bottom Line: It’s not perfect, but Pure is the true successor to the SSX series.

Recommendation: Rent it if you never enjoyed SSX. Otherwise, as The Bard said, “Buy the damn thing, jerkass.”

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Earnest Cavalli is now going to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream (unless he falls out of bed).

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