As this generation of consoles slowly moves into the home stretch of its lifespan, we begin to look back on the history and wonder if any franchises that were praised during the PlayStation 2 era deservedly got a sequel. We’ve ticked off some games on the chart already, like Grand Theft Auto IV, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, just to name some. One game missing that was highly praised is the SSX series (just look at Metacritic; first three games have over 90+ rating) from Electronic Arts. The SSX series was the most popular snowboarding game of its time, with my favourite, SSX3, gaining over five million sales. It’s crazy that Electronic Arts (EA) has taken this long to finally get a sequel on the PS3 and Xbox 360, but it’s here, and I can whole heartily say it’s still a shed load of fun.
With the game simply called SSX, you can tell that EA is aiming to give the series a reboot. SSX blends in some of the old with the new to try to capture fresh fans while attempting to satisfy the old ones who made the series so popular in the first place. EA starts well by keeping the story focus on characters we already know. Plot wise, the game opens up with DJ Atmoika (although with quite a lesser role than normal) introducing you to Zoe Payne, who is now 26 and trying to find new ways to spice up her interest in the sport. Zoe hatches the idea to create Team SSX to reignite her interest, and teams up with old favourites like Mac Fraser and Kaori Nishidake to beat Griff Simmons in a race to conquer the nine deadly descents set around the world.
SSX appreciatively keeps its arcade roots allowing gamers to effortlessly control their way down the game’s mountainous regions. The developers used data borrowed from NASA to recreate and map the mountains from locations such as New Zealand, Siberia and the Himalayas. Every area is thrilling to snowboard through as the level designers at EA Canada have added their inspiration on top of the real life data to create detail and sophisticated environments that feature ample areas to pull off death defying tricks.
Each mountain has its own hazardous problem, which you’ll get accustomed to when they are introduced through SSX’s World Tour mode. The World Tour mode interestingly almost feels like an in-depth tutorial instead of a challenging game mode. It serves to introduce you to the game, the areas and the characters. It’s a fairly easy mode to beat since any event that features four competitors only requires you to come third or higher, and, apart from the credit earning, there is no difference in coming first, second or third. The only real challenge that comes from this mode is the last area where you are thrown into a mountain that combines all the other mountains’ unique dangers, like limited visibility, ice or avalanches.
To help with such deadly matters, each character has specific equipment they can use during these deadly descents. Ice hooks allow you to turn on ice much better, flying squirrel wing suits allow you to glide for a limited time, pulse goggles will let you see the mould of the mountain in rough snowfall, and a neat one, the solar panels, forces your racer to stay in the sun to keep warm because going into caves or shadows causes you to freeze up. Each one effects gameplay to a mixed degree, with some more so than others.
Three different event modes make up what you can do in SSX. Race is all about the first one to cross the finish line. Trick on the other hand is focused on doing tricks and stunts to gain points. The aim being to be the person with the most points by the time you arrive at the bottom of the course. Controls have changed for this reboot of SSX, with mirroring tricks assigned to the right stick and the face buttons, so it’s down to taste which you prefer. I personally found the buttons to be much more user friendly. Using the stick means having to flip it in a direction, or flip and then rotate 90 degrees to pull off a flashier move. Doing this with the buttons just requires you to hold R2 while pressing a button. Veterans of the series can opt to use the classic controls if that’s something you’d prefer to do.
One noticeable detail with this SSX is the representation of speed. It’s fast, fast to the point where on some courses you’ll blindly fly off a slope to your doom. The tracks are less forgiving than past SSX games, mainly due to this game’s focus on hazards. It can be damn frustrating at times. If it wasn’t for EA having a work around by allowing you to rewind time, it would have been a negative on the fun factor. The rewind time feature – mainly reserved to racing games like F1 2011, Forza 4 or Dirt 3 – is slightly different. Rewind only rewinds you; other racers will be left untouched to carry on down the slopes. If you are in a trick event, you’ll also be punished with a deduction in points, so it’s not something you can keep using to gain an advantage. It’s possible to come back from the point deduction in trick mode, but in a race after a couple of falls I just ended up restarting.
Pulling off tricks during your descent builds up the series’ signature tricky metre. Once you’ve managed to fill the bar, you’ll gain the ability unlimited boost and the ability to perform better tricks until the tricky status runs out. If you manage to keep performing more tricks and fill up the tricky metre again, you’ll turn it orange and enter super tricky mode. This allows you to pull off even more high scoring trick combos along with the character’s own personal move. Combining different moves is incredibly easy, almost to the point you can just button mash different inputs to come out with some gravity defying moves.
The real meat in SSX comes with Explore mode where each of the 150+ events have a target time or score to beat, each one having a gold, silver or bronze rating. If you ever want to be able to get all the gold medals, you’ll have to put in some serious track learning. Trial and error is really the only way to find the fastest route down the mountain, or the route that will allow you to perform the most tricks. Each mountain has quite a few split off pathways during the trip to the bottom.
Trying to modernise SSX has lead to the inclusion of a level up system. Experience is gained by taking part in events, more so if you win them. As you level up, more equipment becomes available for you to buy. Items are limited to the level you are or below, so to get the best stuff you’re going to need to keep playing to unlock them. Snowboards have attributes that affect your speed, boost and trick ability, suits can sometimes affect your tricky metre. Specialist character gear, like armour for example, can be improved too. All this costs your earned credits you, and of course this being a EA game means you can swap real money for game money if you can’t be bothered earning it yourself.
While you are taking part in the explore mode, the RiderNet service is keeping a track of your times and scores. It’s a rebranding of the Autolog system from the latest Need for Speed games. RiderNet will post status updates that will show notes to inform you what your friends are doing, any scores beaten by either you or your friend, and store ghost data. It’s handy to have as it takes minimal effort to see if you’ve shamed your buddies best score.
Multiplayer in SSX is different than what you’re probably expecting. Set in the Global Events area, this mode allows you to compete with other players around the world. Players don’t simply join lobbies and race; instead, people pay some credits into a prize pot and then compete against all the times/scores set by other players in the same event. Times and scores are set into brackets, bronze, silver, gold, platinum and diamond, and coming higher in these means more money to take home. If you’re good at the game, this is a easy place to earn money, especially if you win an event that features the maximum of 100,000 contestants. Players can create custom global events too, so you can make one with just your friends. Ghosts are visible during this mode to see how you are doing compared to the time/scores you need to beat to fit into the correct bracket. This mode is neat, feeling like a rewarding time attack against the world, but sometimes I wish I could just play some straight up multiplayer with my friends, which sadly I can’t.
EA’s implementation of the Online Pass is here, but all it does is block you from earning any money from the Global Events. A nice thing is that the game stores all your winnings from the events, so you can claim them at a later date if you did buy this game pre-owned. Compared to other online passes on the market, this one is less restrictive.
When it comes to presentation, this iteration of SSX is darker in looks than its colour filled predecessors. Fans will notice the change in character designs to fit in with the more realistic look of the game, but don’t let that judge your opinion as it looks great. The star of the show are the environments, which are thrilling to behold as you plough down the white powder covered hills carving past trees, rocks, broken down power plants and ridiculously long pipes. Mix this in with the speed and SSX gives you a sense of danger and excitement like no other sports game. Music compliments the game well; none of the songs feel out of place, and they react to what you are doing – pull out a large jump and listen as the music becomes quieter until you land again.
Simply put, I am happy that SSX has returned. There hasn’t been a great snowboarding game since this generation started, and it’s been like what, a whole 6+ years? SSX3 is still my personal best, but that’s down to that one having the open world vibe. SSX is more streamlined than SSX3, but still manages to keep the essence of what made old SSX games fun. While some of the new inclusions are questionable, in the end you’ll lose yourself with the game when you’re just having a compelling time on the slopes, throwing out tricks like no tomorrow, and just having plain fun. There’s nothing out there on the video game market today featuring snowboards that comes close to the compelling and joyous fun that SSX provides.
Editor’s Note: Check out some HD gameplay of SSX below!