Looking back on the original SSX titles, it's hard to believe that they were based on an actual real-world sports activity. The snowboard riders you steered across the bright white landscapes of 2001 were near indestructible, able to shrug off massive crashes with quips and bit of boost. But, with a reboot that binds the arcade action of SSX more closely to reality, Psymon, Elise, Mac and their fellow riders come across as more fragile than ever before.
Take a few particularly brutal tumbles while grinding through the Alps and your armour breaks away, eventually leaving your health bar unprotected. Or, if your wingsuit takes too much damage, then there's no way you're gliding across an icy chasm.
Wait. Armor? Wingsuits? Is this really SSX?
Yes, it's still SSX. All the dizzying jumps, acrobatic spins and insane grabs that made the series so beloved are still in here, pegged to the tiered power-up mechanic that basically turns you into a superhuman sportsperson. And the thrill of second-to-second improvisation — where your fingers weave out a beautifully complicated sequence of tricks, punctuated by the thump of a satisfying landing — feel even better than the franchise's last few installments. In fact, the level of control feels like it requires more precision than, say, the SSX Tricky of the past. It's still an adrenaline rush of the first order, but one that makes you feel more athletic.
New mechanics get introduced in a way that shows the gravitational pull of real-world considerations. EA's developers used actual satellite data to create the nine locations where you'll compete for snowboarding glory and they seem to have asked the question of what it'd be like to glide down Mount Everest. Well, you'll need to make sure that your rider could suck in air. And here you do need to do that. Tricking out Moby or Psymon or whoever with equipment ensures that they can breathe, see or withstand collision plays a big part of the single-player portion of SSX. What sounds like so much drudgery actually evolves up the core racing-and-tricking experience in compelling ways. Slapping a headlamp on a helmet may sound tedious but riding through the pitch-black tunnels inside Mt. Kilimanjaro with limited visibility gave me moments where I actually held my breath. Speed wasn't my friend here, not in a place where I wasn't sure if the next turn would vault me over lethal lava flows.
In levels where I needed an oxygen tank, I had to remind myself not to get so drunk off the thrill of scoring massive combos that I'd forget to inhale some oxygen to keep Kaori alive. Each character faces a similar challenge and while gear management's pretty binary — here's a better solar panel! — the experience isn't hampered by that lack of depth.
The plot set-up for SSX is a new rivalry between two snowboarder collectives — Team SSX and Team Griff — with older characters and some fresh faces. Playing as series stalwart Zoe Payne, you'll encounter and unlock each rider on Team SSX on the game's nine mountain ranges. So it's Zoe's job to conquer the Rockies, new character Alex Moreau makes the Siberian peaks her turf and so on. It's a bit different than getting to choose whoever you wanted from the outset as in previous SSX games but since there's an attempt being made a telling a story here, the decision makes.
The candy-coloured loop-de-loop habit trails of old and glittering cityscapes of old are gone but that doesn't mean that you're getting with only trees and snow drifts. The levels branch wildly, multi-pathed with hidden tunnels, grind rail shortcuts and upper tiers you can only reach by making epic jumps. Crashed planes in Patagonia, rusted-over factories in Siberia, the Great Wall of China and the Alaskan oil pipeline all deliver the amusement park architecture you expect from SSX. It's just not showing up in primary colours.
Each range holds a Deadly Descent, a massive hazard-peppered run that's essentially a boss battle. These aren't speed or score runs; the goal on a Deadly Descent is simply to survive. Each one of the peaks have unique threats — avalanches, downed trees, treacherous ice or extreme cold — that you need a special skill or piece of gear to prevail over. You'll also need to listen to the helicopter pilots for guidance. Paying attention's a crucial skill to have but a tough one to learn since you'll be tuning out the pilots' chatter as just so much white noise.
Developer: EA Canada Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360 (Version played) Released: February 28 (Xbox Live)
Type of game: Snowboarding sports game with online multiplayer.
What I played: Completed Story Mode in about 8 hours; spent about 4 hours playing race and trick events mode across various maps as well as online modes.
Two Things I Loved
- This SSX still feels like an arcade experience, but one where the real world peeks through in enticing ways.
- Tricking off the helicopter is awesome in a "that's how high I am?!" way. Pulling a grind or a grab off of the whirlybird's chassis never gets old. Do it as much as you can.
Two Things I Hated
- The subtle pressure to spend, spend, spend. Even if you don't ever drop a dime on the in-game currency, you feel like you should. That's insidious.
- In a game centered around character design and wild trick stylings, how are the motion comic character intros so bad? See the above for proof.
Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes
- "Trickier, prettier and more varied than ever!" - -Evan Narcisse, Kotaku
- "Makes me want to jump out of a helicopter and get chased by an avalanche!" -Evan Narcisse, Kotaku
Prior to this re-imagining, the world that the series' characters tricked through bore only a passing resemblance to ours. Now, you can get knocked unconscious and fail out even if you're in first place for an entire race. However, that's all changed and there's no escaping how verisimilitude creeps into the newly-rebooted SSX. Alterations lurk everywhere.
For example, this title endeavours to be much more nimble, with right-analog controls that recall EA's Skate games. You can create a nice sense of fluidity with your trick lines but it's easier to oversteer. Classic controls are there for old-school players but, overall, the margin for error feels much narrower. There's that real world again, jostling fans' nostalgia into a different space.
At first, the introduction of rewind might feel like a violation for SSX purists. But there's always a penalty to paid for winding back the clock. Rewinding during a race doesn't stop time for your opponents and creates more of a gap for you to close if you're in last place. If you rewind in a trick competition, then you're going to get points taken off of that combo. You're put in situations where you have to use rewind, though, like the Deadly Descents. The feature's more of a help in trick-centric competitions, where you can turn the clock back to the moment where a flubbed transition kills a lucrative combo.
And spending points on decorative items like boards and duds? Sure, that's been part of SSX. But oxygen tanks? Ice axes? Even if it's explained away in the game's mechanics, the focus on gear doesn't dilute the game's thrills. But it sure does feel like the accessories are pieces of content put there to separate you from your dollars. Microtransactions abound in SSX and they represent the other kind of reality — where money can circumvent skill requirements — that's at work here. Simply put, you're allowed to buy characters and credits that you don't feel like earning through the World Tour mode. Now, it's seemingly possible to play single-player and grind your way to either more XP or eventual unlocking of all the gear, tracks, characters and other content. Still, this is the reality that makes SSX feel a bit more modern and, honestly, more crass.
Elements of the RPG-slanted, currency-focused template carry over to multiplayer, too. You'll need to spend points — points that you can buy with real-world cash, of course — to compete in events. Doing well means that you'll hopefully earn back those points once you're done. Aside from clothes and equipment, you can buy mods — buffs that spike the performance of your gear for an entire event — and tokens called geotags. While rewinding, you can drop geotags anywhere on a run. The idea is to put them in obscenely hard-to-reach places and the longer your 'tags remain uncollected, the more XP and cash you get for your daredevil placements. It's a clever way of letting players show off where they've been. There's levelling for all this stuff, too. A Level 5 board spits out better tricks and a beefier geotag cranks out more cash and XP. Oh, and then you'll get mystery items that pop up in the in-game store, too.
The online pass scheme EA implements here makes it seem like they're trying to be balanced. You don't have to have an online pass to compete in events but you can only spend points you earn with one. The points you do earn get banked in a sort of limbo and only really exist if you have that passcode entered. In other words, you can sample the wares and earn but need to have that pass to buy your way to certain parts of the experience. It's also worth noting that the point rewards for events in online play far outstrip what you get for doing the same events in single-player. It's an effective draw.
Multiplayer racing also takes a different shape compared to previous SSXes. It's all asynchronous competition against other players' ghosts. You're not going to be bobbing and weaving in real-time here. This decision's probably going to be controversial but, right now, I'm liking it. In pre-cursors to this SSX, I'd get pummelled into the powder so much that you could never get a good burst of speed going. Racing against ghosts puts the focus squarely on you notching a personal best and highlights the solitary nature of real-world snowboarding.
The biggest overall change in 2012 SSX is that reality's inescapable in this version. However, the end result delivers a remixed vision of snowboard supercross. This isn't a winter sports sim but there's more resource management than just to-boost-or-not-to-boost. And you're not going to escape the fact that EA sees just about every bit of SSX's component parts as granular content in the flow of a giant revenue stream.
Nevertheless, the excitement at the heart of SSX remains pure. You leap and your eyes measure the distance, thumbs squeezing out every rotation they can before you need to relent and re-align. One final grind throws you into Tricky, setting you afire with even more insane dexterity. No matter what else you're being tempted with purchasing, that feeling's still worth the price of admission.