Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Console: Xbox 360, PS3
ESRB Rating: E (Everyone)
Hours Played: 15
Progress: 7 (out of 9) deadly descents completed
Extreme sports titles have taken a bit of a holiday recently, FIFA Street, Tony Hawk and yes SSX have fallen off the annual release schedule to something a bit more inconsistent. In SSX‘s case it has been over 5 years since we saw a release in the series with SSX Blur on the Nintendo Wii. Often taking a few years off can do wonders when it comes to reinvigorating a franchise, but is this the SSX we all know and love, or a reworked travesty that has become a mere husk of its former self? Read on to find out…
Wait… what? I don’t get to skip the “story” section reviewing a snowboarding game!? No, that’s right, the developers have actually gone to the trouble of incorporating a story to drive the game forward. As if boarding down the world’s most famous mountains while pulling off insane tricks wasn’t enough motivation by itself. You are part of Team SSX, which includes some of the world’s best extreme sports athletes. The plan is to capture the hearts and minds of fans around the world by conquering nine “deadly descents”, the most dangerous mountains in the world you could ever hope to set a board on. Unfortunately one of your most talented team members, Griff, leaves the team to seek glory and the inevitable sponsorship money, all for himself.
Although we appreciate the effort of wrapping the world of SSX and its characters in the warm embrace of a story, it matters little to the motivation of the gamer to go from one mountain rage to the next. The occasional blurb about what Griff has been up to, or how his latest time has to be beat does little to add to the joy players will get from shredding down gigantic mountainsides while pulling off otherworldly tricks.
One of the more impressive aspects of SSX‘s visual presentation is the fact that the developers used authentic NASA satellite imagery to map many of the mountains available to board down. Each region (the Alps, Alaska, the Himalayas to name but a few) have several mountains to tackle, each is not only big but also offers a myriad of paths to utilize on the way down. The track design, with a few exceptions, is very well done. Each mountain range has its own themes, for instance one may have old, abandoned industrial structures, allowing you to grind down lengths of piping, while another allows you to board down a section of the Great Wall of China.
The visuals are nice and bright with crisp colours and sharp features. The detail in both characters and environmental objects is a bit lacking, but when you consider the size of the tracks it is only natural that some detail had to be sacrificed in favour of being able to render such sprawling environments. The game runs very smoothly with a consistent frame-rate and fluid animations. For a game that’s been on hiatus for this long and having been released this late in the life-cycle of current-gen consoles, it is maybe a tad underwhelming, however SSX‘s visuals are by no means sub-par.
What would an extreme sports title be without some electronica blasting through your speakers? This latest SSX title benefits from the current craze surrounding the dubstep genre and its many subsets by including tracks by artists like Skrillex and Flux Pavilion. It all suits the game very well, however for those of you who do not enjoy that particular genre of music, custom playlists can be imported. The voice acting is solid and what little ambient sound effects exist are done quite well, however the auditory experience of SSX could definitely have been a tad more intense to mirror its gameplay.
The controls are a true joy in this game. Marrying the face buttons, which determine which part of the board you grab, with the movement of the right thumb stick is very intuitive and smooth. By crouching as you are heading towards a ramp and “loading up” by keeping the right thumb stick pushed in one direction, the gamer can pull off amazing rotations as part of an impressive repertoire of tricks. I would have liked carving through the snow to be a bit more responsive, but the trick system is smooth and allows the player to chain together different moves in an incredibly fluid fashion.
The runs you’ll be making down the game’s various mountains can be divided into Races, make it down the mountain the fastest, Trick It, get the highest score by pulling off tricks and Deadly Descent: the culmination of your efforts in one particular region where your only objective is to survive it to the bottom of the mountain. This last one is the newest and most notable addition to the game. Each region presents a new deadly hazard, such as rocks, trees, lack of oxygen or gaping crevices. Your boarder will have access to different tools to overcome these hazards, one of the more interesting ones being the wing suit, which allows you to soar for a limited time over cliffs and fatal drops. These tools are part of the customization that is available for your team. In addition to purchasing the best tools available to survive a run, the player can also buy new suits to alter the look of the boarder, with some bestowing special abilities and then there are also the boards themselves, of course, which have different characteristics that lend themselves to different types of runs.
Racing and tricking are the heart of the game and what owners of past iterations will be most familiar with. Although the Deadly Descents are fun, and make a fitting show piece for this game, they can also be a huge exercise of trail-and-error gameplay. With the main objective being to “survive”, there are a lot of instant deaths here that take away from the sense of freedom you have while tricking or racing. There can also be a big difference between the enjoyment you get from the various mountain regions in the game. One of the poorer examples of track design is the Kilimanjaro mountain range, which largely takes place underground within its lava-filled caverns. Not only does it do away with the wide open tracks the player will quickly become accustomed to, it has a very confusing layout with poor visibility and instant, lava-drenched deaths.
If you prefer to tread the powder on your own terms, you can forego the world tour in favor of the Explore mode where you can either trick or race on the different tracks and win medals by beating pre-set targets. “Global Events” allows the player to tackle different challenges; the higher your score ranks, the bigger the chunk of credits you earn out of the total prize pot. More about this in the next section. Lastly, a fun and clever diversion, are the geo tags. You collect these by running over them while going down a track, or by completing certain events. Once found, geo tags can be dropped in any location while using the game’s rewind option, which does exactly what it sounds like. Other players will be able to see your geo tags as they go through their game and the longer you can have your geo tag up without it being collected, the more credits you earn. Although this is a great concept, it usually ends up with gamers dropping their geo tag while plummeting down a cliff, forcing other players to follow their example if they wish to collect the geo tag. It would have been nice if the developers limited the ability to drop the tags only while on the track.
Dissapointingly, SSX does not support head-to-head multiplayer, but it does offer a solid sense of community. While participating in global events you will be able to share the mountains with other players who are working on completing the same objectives. “RiderNet”, the SSX version of EA’s “AutoLog” tracks all of the player’s accomplishments and records. It also tracks the scores of the players competing in global events and lets you know where you rank when you complete one and what share of the pot you are likely to get. It is a fun way of staying competitive while at the same time driving the player to do better. While competitive multiplayer would have been a welcome addition, at the very least “RiderNet” provides an excellent reason to keep coming back to the game.
SSX has always been one of the more “fun” snowboard games out there and this most current iteration is no different. The funky and lighthearted music, along with the outlandish tricks and surreal jumps promise heartfelt enjoyment. Boosting towards a jump while loading up for the take off that takes you so high you are able to grab the landing gear of your helicopter as it flies overhead is just too cool for words. Although the obligatory “Deadly Descent” is not always as enjoyable as one would think, the core gameplay offers a sprawling playground for people who want to get the most out of shredding down the world’s most famous mountain ranges.
SSX is another one of those reminders to publishers that it is OK to take a break from a franchise every now and then. A new generation of consoles, fresh gameplay additions and the most addictive trick system in snowboarding provide plenty of incentive to shred some virtual powder. Although the graphics aren’t as impressive as we would have liked and there are a few poor game design choices, the overall experience stands as one of the best snowboard games in recent memory.
+ There is one
- We don’t need it
+ Sprawling environments with great draw distance
+ Smooth frame-rate
- Both character and environmental models lack detail
+ Fun and fitting soundtrack
- Sparse sound effects
+ Fluid and intuitive
+ Tricking It mode is the game’s main strength
- Deadly Descents offer too much trial-and-error gameplay
- Not all tracks are well thought-out
+ RiderNet is fun and competitive and offers a great sense of community
- No head-to-head multiplayer competition
+ Tons of tracks and Global Events will keep you playing forever
- The game’s sudden deaths are a bit of a killjoy