I was as worried as any SSX fan when Electronic Arts unveiled the darker, grittier SSX: Deadly Descents late last year. I like my outlandish snowboarding video games to be, well, outlandish, silly, colourful.
So I'm happy to have played SSX with my own two hands, walking away from the experience more excited than ever.
During a recent preview of the game, due January 2012 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, I got a chance to see the new SSX's cool technical tricks. There's Mountain Man, the software that transformed NASA satellite data of the planet into in-game mountains and landscapes, the foundation on which SSX developers built the game's more exploratory courses. We were shown the many mountain peaks, all based on real-world locations, with SSX's take on Google Earth -- the navigational interface that serves as its main menu.
EA promised us some 150 to 180 drop points around the globe, spots where the game's snowboarders can pop into a race via helicopter.
I also had an extensive preview of RiderNet, the SSX equivalent of Need For Speed's excellent Autolog feature. RiderNet is the snowboarding game's socially networked multiplayer service. Through it, you'll have the opportunity to connect with and challenge friends. You'll see your friends' and rivals' high scores. You'll be able to challenge them, issue them challenges, and receive status updates on those challenges via in-game messages, through external social networks and via an iPhone app.
Winning scoring challenges via RiderNet can net you in-game currency, the stuff you'll spend on equipment (boards, boosts, etc.). And holding onto records for longer, as friends and rivals try and fail to beat your scores, also earns you money. Lots of it, according to SSX's developers.
SSX lets players tackle these challenges in single-player competitions, meaning you'll download "ghosts" of other players' runs. You can download and race against multiple versions of other players' attempts at a downhill race, with their spectral forms shown performing every turn, every trick as you try to best their attempts. A very, very long glowing trail will follow their ghosts as you race against them, allowing players to chart the paths of their rivals more accurately.
The new SSX will also, as sinful as it may sound, let players rewind and readjust their runs as they practice speeding down mountainsides. Think you could nail a jump better? Or would you rather go for a nearby shortcut? Just hit the rewind button and give it another shot. It's not as blasphemous as it sounds, especially since rewinding a portion of your run puts you that much farther behind a rival, if you're competing against their ghost.
All these concepts, new additions to SSX, were of interest to me (I fell in love with Autolog's challenges and rivalries), but it was the gameplay of the new arcadey racer that was most appealing. In short, it felt like a classic SSX game (or at least what I remember of the most recent entry I played, SSX 3). Its controls slowly grew on me, slowly feeling more and more familiar, as I raced down the side of an Alaskan mountain, grinding on oil pipelines that would have been designed by madmen.
It was a subtler SSX, more grounded in realism. There were no fireworks displays, no crowds delivering thunderous applause and no rainbow coloured slopes. It was the mountain, me (playing Mac) and thousands of feet of slope to explore. Courses felt less restrictive, more improvisational. Everything felt good, if a touch looser than I remember my SSX.
So, yes, I'm happy so far. RiderNet sounds engaging. The snowboarding feels good. It feels like SSX, just a little more grown up.