The king of extreme sports is back! SSX returns to the consoles after a self imposed hiatus that has spanned this entire generation. EA sports have reincarnated a franchise that, although no one was really screaming for, has been met with great excitement and anticipation by gamers wanting to get their tricky back on. I’ve been slaloming the mountains of the world on my Xbox360 along with Zoe, Mac and the rest of team SSX to ascertain whether you should gulp down that Pepsi Max and get on the range or slip into some oversized slippers and enjoy some hot chocolate back in the lodge.
Deadly Expansive Vista - The first thing that will strike you about SSX is the stunning beauty of the numerous mountain ranges from around the world that are depicted in the game. Having never visited any of them, I can’t vouch for the air of authenticity that the developers hinted at, but looking down over the mountain as you prepare for your latest speed run fills you with a sense of scale rarely felt in a videogame. Once your run begins there are multiple branching paths for you to either find your way down the mountain quicker than the competition or to hit the big jumps in order to elevate your score multiplier into the stratosphere. The backdrops are the real highpoint of the game but unfortunately the same level of creation and detail has not been applied to the character models with some of them seemingly being plucked straight from the late nineties era that they dominated so well.
Jump and Grind - The nuts and bolts of SSX have not really changed since the heyday of the franchise, and for good reason. The feeling of elation as you barrel head over heels pulling tricks as you descend over a cliffside only to straighten up metres before a spine breaking faceplant, landing on a large grindable pipeline that you ride until the next chance to throw yourself hundreds of metres into the air to pull off another death defying tricky move is something I have only ever experienced from an SSX game and this iteration has it in abundance. Every mountain needs to be hit at breakneck speed in order to get gold and the required scores for success in the tricky events sit on the more challenging side of achievability. It’s a recipe that, although probably a little dated now, provides a genuine sense of thrill and challenge that will delight newcomers and feel like a long lost family member’s return to old school players.
Choreographed Soundtrack - The obligatory selection of EA licensed music tracks are all present and correct, but the implementation of the playback has been cleverly integrated into the gameplay to give the player an audio indication of how they are fairing. Try to over grind a pipeline and the soundtrack will start to repeat itself like a needle stuck on a record. Hit some massive air and the music fades as you reach for the clouds only to explode with a mighty BOOM! as you hit the ground. Of course the Run DMC track that has run through every title, since Tricky, returns but with a brilliant remix that brings it into the current day. It’s not often that the music in a game must be considered integral to the gameplay but it very much is in SSX and it hits every note perfectly.
Hard Packed With Ideas - There are 3 main game modes in SSX all containing three subsets of challenges. Tricks runs, speed runs and survive challenges. Global events give the player a chance to compete with the entire SSX community for kudos and game credits. Every entrant is charged a ‘drop fee’ to enter an event. This pot of fees is split amongst all competitors depending on how they fare. Hit a brilliant speed run and get down among the top percent of players and you’ll be banded with ‘diamond’ players who can expect to recoup hundreds of thousands. Trip and fall down the range and scrape into the bronze banding and you’ll get a meagre reward. For those who can’t make the bronze reward you’ll be lucky to leave the mountainside with the North Face jacket on your back. The explore events are based around the same challenges but pit you against the AI, who are bracketed as gold, silver and bronze, and the ghost of the player closest to your time from your friendslist. This is the mode I believe players will spend most time with as once the challenge of attaining gold on all tracks has been achieved there remains the competition from your friends. Times are tracked by, what is fast becoming an EA staple, a Need for Speed Autolog-type system, here called Rider net. There will be more news on the survive challenges and career mode at the bottom of the slope.
Where’s the Walkthrough? - Collectables have become a mainstay of modern gaming but EA Canada have introduced an inventive spin on the idea that I predict we will be seeing popping up everywhere in the years to come. Geotags are the collectables of SSX but the clever trick of the Geotags are that once they have been collected they can then be placed anywhere in any of the tracks by the player who has collected them and will appear in the game world of every other player in the SSX community. It can be placed somewhere simple which will reward both the collector and the placer with an instant but relatively meagre return of credits. Or you can choose to place it at the apex of the biggest jump you can find or cunningly hide it behind a tree. The longer the geotag stays in place the more the reward for both players. It’s a creative idea that, now that I’ve experienced it, has me astounded that no one has tried something like it before.
Careering Downhill - The career mode of SSX, called World Tour, is a big disappointment. The general premise is that the newly formed Team SSX have decided that they want to be the first to conquer all the famous runs of the world. Unfortunately returning character Griff has broken off from SSX and has the same idea. What unfolds is a plodding, half baked story that has team captain Zoe travelling around the world recruiting potential team members at each range and then working towards the final survive challenge on that range. It’s ironic that in a game full of pipes and rails that the biggest grind you will find is the 6-8 hours it will take you to get through the career mode. The characters are all a twist on the stereotypical snowboarder and none of them stick out as particularly memorable. There’s some nostalgia in seeing a few returning faces but it stops there and the fact that the conclusion of each range is an unskippable, anger inducing survival run will have you checking the global map to see how much more you have to bear before you can go and play the stuff you actually enjoy.
Survival of the Most Persistent - Throughout the career mode you will have to face the final challenge of every range; the Survive Run. Survive is a major departure from what the average SSX player has come to expect. The idea is to get down to the bottom alive. Sounds simple enough but these tracks are not your usual SSX fare. They are designed to kill you and kill you they will, on numerous occasions until you finally crack the course put in front of you. Each range will give you a specific challenge from wide crevasses to underground cave networks. Fortunately you will be awarded certain pieces of extra kit to help overcome the challenge. A wingsuit will give you that extra distance to clear the crevasses and headlamps will light your underground progress. It’s an incredibly frustrating experience as you try, try and try again to get past a particular challenge but I was willing to tolerate them as I thought that all these extra toys would be useful later in the game. Alas only the wingsuit has any kind of useful function outside of its particular survival challenges and you’ll end the game with entirely useless oxygen masks, solar suits and other peculiar items. You can of course revisit these challenges in the explore mode but I would suggest that these tracks will see very little traffic.
A Few Sandwiches Short of a Picnic - EA Canada have been very inventive in the ways they have implemented their online functionality. The Rider net features will keep you playing for months trying to get one over on your online buddies while the geotags and ghost saving functions are all wickedly inventive. Even the entirely useless optional equipment is an example of a developer thinking outside the box of ways to bring an aging franchise into the current times. Unfortunately there is a complete lack of competitive head to head multiplayer. There are workarounds which can be done with friends but it relies on precision timing and will only ever show you racing the ghost of your friend. If you had taken a straw poll of features fans would like to see in an SSX remake I’m sure that competitive multiplayer would have featured on 100% of the replies and I’m flabbergasted that EA Canada neglected to include such a feature. There is fun to be had with the multiplayer functionality in the game but when you stop and think about how much of a blast you could have had racing friends that you can physically interact with (as in knock them on their big fat asses) then you can’t help but feel you’ve bought a gourmet cheeseburger that’s missing the cheese. It tastes almost as good as you expected but it’s missing a vital ingredient.
SSX had been away from us for a long time now and truth be told, a lot of the enjoyment in this title comes straight out of the franchise’s roots. The stunt runs and speed runs have hardly been altered and they are all the better for it. The new features like Rider Net and Geotags are clever gimmicks that were not possible last time out. Graphically, the mountain ranges are more impressive and tangible than have ever been depicted before. The lack of a proper multiplayer and the monotony of the career mode knock a bit of the shine off the overall package but I can still wholeheartedly recommend this game to SSX aficionados and to anyone else who enjoys that addictive Tetris like feel of needing to have ‘just one more go’.
*This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game with a review copy provided by the publisher.*