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The reckless manner in which you hurtle each of SSX’s contestants down the most treacherous slopes in the world has always been core to its appeal. Launching them 100ft into the air over bottomless razor edged crevasse’s with an absolute disregard for the bone shattering solidity of the glacial ice at the other end, whilst rotating and contorting them at inhumane speeds in a manner that defies all the laws of physics bar gravity is a simple visceral pleasure. These guys have the flexibility and shock absorbance of a Sackboy.
As a franchise born in 2000 under the EA sports BIG extreme sport brand name, the SSX series has always leaned toward this style of insanely addictive arcade gameplay rather than the subtleties of real snowboarding.
Series fans can rest assured then that this first high definition instalment, following a 5 year hiatus, retains all of the preposterous acrobatics that defined its predecessors. And so too does it continue the incredible level designs that encouraged such reckless behaviour, taking you on a tour of the globe’s ‘Deadliest Descents’ which range from the glacial sheets of Antarctica, to the rocky peaks of the Alps and even some snow powdered caverns veining a volcanic Kilimanjaro.
Each of the 153 drops is constructed from NASA satellite topography data, lending a semblance of realism to locations. One that has been all but demolished by EA Canada’s level designers as they carved away at them with their SSX chisels molding each into a cocktail of vertiginous free-falls, conveniently dispersed ramps and smooth snaking runs. A bad race is rarely the fault of such well-designed tracks, although failure can once too often come from the overabundant and trickily placed chasms on a few levels.
Activities are split into 3 categories – Ride it, Trick it and Survive it, the former two being the well-established racing and trick based scoring competitions of previous SSX’s. New addition Survive it mode introduces hazards to the standard series gameplay, such as pitch black caverns, avalanches and vision obscuring blizzards. Far from ill- prepared the SSX gang have a collection of new gadgets to deal with these deadly conditions, including a headlamp to illuminate interiors and the much publicised wing suit to extend flight over large gaps. These items are a hit and miss jumble in their modification of gameplay. Some like the aforementioned head-lamp force interesting new play styles, as the focus becomes less on whacky tricks and speed, and more on carefully maintaining the forward direction of light to illuminate a safe path. Whereas others, such as the pulse goggles, are not so welcome, mapping out a wireframe model of the blizzard obscured path that will fool even the most discerning of riders into confusing the deadliest precipice with a safe line as there is little to distinguish the two.
A more successful new gameplay addition is a Prince of Persia/GRID like ability to rewind time, which may at first appear to shift the odds in player favour, being able to instantly correct any mistake. In actual fact its use is often severely limited and far more balanced. Only you are affected by this reverse of time (like certain instances in Braid) giving other riders an advantage as they fly past your reversing body. Its use also drains your score which is substantially detrimental in Trick it competitions and the number of uses is limited in most events. It serves to replace the infinite re-spawns of all previous SSX’s and as such actually forces a more careful play style on many of the death fraught courses.
Cautious riding has never really fallen within SSX’s remit, but the combination of these ‘Deadly Descents’ with a lack of infinite re-spawns can often force it, muting an otherwise carefree experience. Thankfully then SSX is predominantly constructed from the standard racing and trick based modes in which success depends upon finding the series’ signature smooth rhythm, juggling the same trick to boost interplay of all past SSX’s with greater tricks rewarded with more boost. Fill the boost meter and you enter Tricky mode in which you have unlimited boost and the ability to detach from your board and pull of more complex tricks. Accomplish enough of these tricks within a limited time period and you enter Uber Tricky mode, with a faster boost and crazy Uber tricks available. It’s a mechanic as old as the franchise, and it still works perfectly well here.
Accomplishing these feats of flexibility couldn’t be easier thanks to a new Skate inspired twin stick control system. The old configuration still remains an option for series veterans, but utilising the right stick to select which edge of the board to grab before adjusting it with a twirl works wonderfully in tandem with using the triggers for tweaks. A huge variation of tricks can be easily performed and entering Tricky mode brings some truly insane combinations of spins, flips and hand standing grinds, recalling the madness of SSX Tricky.
Landing smoothly is extremely easy, only requiring that you release all control a few seconds before impact and the game features some pretty heavy handed auto assists in helping you land on rails and dodge trees. It can feel pretty cheap but it’s essential in maintaining the efficient flow of speed and tricks that SSX gameplay is built on.
The single player mode, World Tour, tasks the SSX team with conquering 9 mountain ranges located around the Globe before their rouge rival Griff does. Short comic book style cutscenes attempt to give backstory to each of the ‘kooky’ characters but fall flat, failing to realise that the real characters of SSX are the courses. Each of the 9 locations feature a series of Race it and Trick it competitions between SSX teammates before a race with Griff and finally the Survive it Deadly Descent course. Progression is easy as you are rarely required to finish first to advance and at 4-5 hours long the single player component serves more as a tutorial for the more robust online multiplayer components.
It is here that the real bulk of the SSX experience lies, within the Explore and Global Events modes, and through Ridernet. Explore provides over 100 trick and racing challenges in which you compete against EA Canada’s pre-set times and scores for Gold, Silver or Bronze rankings. It also gives the option of asynchronously competing against ghosts of online rivals, meaning you can race against your friend’s best times at your convenience. Global events present competitions with pre-defined racing/trick parameters on every track in which up to 100,000 people can participate. This is multiplayer on a massive scale as thousands of competitors can be vying simultaneously for the highest score on an event that lasts a week, and yet there is a glaring disconnect from other players. All are competing against each other, but not in real time, even though you can see the ghostly outlines of other competitors. Instead the top tier of players are banded into winning categories from Diamond to Bronze over the duration of the event, with newly set standards constantly affecting your position.
Ridernet is an always accessible recommendation engine that, much like Need For Speed’s autolog, acts as your online guide, highlighting events in which rivals have bested your times as well as recommending competitions for you to participate in. Depending on your performance in any event you are rewarded with in game credits that can be used to purchase a number of upgrades to boards, outfits and to gain entry into some Global Events, the biggest of which command millions of credits. It is a shallow economy and you will soon find yourself with more credits than you will ever need after having purchased all upgrades.
SSX may be packed to the brim with online content, which goes some way to compensating for its short single player, but the omission of any standard real-time races or even a split screen multiplayer feels like two steps forward and one step backwards. Especially so after having gone to all of the trouble to brilliantly implement these new forms of multiplayer.
Taking two strides forward however is the visual design. Clean smooth slopes are covered with wonderfully textured powdery whites and deep blue and frosty ices. Character models are a little simple, but not once will you experience a dip in the frame rate, an absolutely essential fact in retaining the series smoothness. Bolstering the presentation a suitably pounding soundtrack of recent rock and dub step dynamically remixes in sync with your performance. Play well and the beats swell, bail out and the music dies.
SSX is a triumphant return for the king of the hill. Where other extreme sports behemoths (here’s looking at you Mr Hawks) have died of oversaturation, resorting to gimmicks, SSX’s vacation has given the franchise plenty of breathing space to tweak its formula with well-considered new ideas, both in gameplay and social integration. Many of these have been strategically plucked from other recent racing and sports games, and are for the most part, well implemented, ensuring that they simply flavour the main ingredients. These remain intact and subtly refined, providing an avalanche of pure arcade fun, which is something of a rarity for this generation of seriousness and realism.