Written : Tuesday, February 28, 2012
By: Lee Bradley
It could have been very different. When EA first revealed the rebooted SSX - then subtitled Deadly Descents - the game was going to be a realistic, serious affair. It would be about men and mountains, a gritty fight for survival against the elements. Call of Duty: Modern Snowboarding.
Fans of the series reacted poorly. SSX isn’t about realism, they grumbled, it’s about hurtling down impossibly bright white slopes and launching yourself spinning towards the sun, hoping never to come down. They were right. EA buckled, changing direction mid-development and dropping the Deadly Descents subtitle in the process.
The resulting game is stuck somewhere between those two visions, where you can conveniently attempt to stack all the negatives against the old and the positives against the new. Capable of some staggering thrills, SSX nevertheless falls frustratingly short of brilliance.
"Something doesn't seem right about this."
The disconnect is apparent at the very heart of the game. There are three main gameplay modes; Race It, Trick It and Survive It. While the first two of these reflect the joyful nature of the original SSX titles, the latter goes against everything the series stands for.
Survive It is, presumably, how the entirety of Deadly Descents would have played out. It challenges you with getting to the bottom of a peak without dying, a task it complicates with fiendish track design and a number of challenging environments requiring special equipment, like power armour, oxygen tanks or special goggles. Yet it isn’t merely a case of purchasing these items with the in-game currency, equipping them and setting off. These tools need to be tended to as you descend the mountain.
So when tackling Mount Everest in the Himalayas, you have to equip an oxygen tank to combat the extremely thin air. As you carve down the mountain your vision will narrow, necessitating frequent blasts of oxygen via a shoulder button press. Be too liberal with the gas, however, and the tank will run out and you will lose consciousness.
Far from a test of skill, using the equipment is just a pain in the arse. It’s fiddly and annoying, more liable to tie your fingers and thumbs in knots than put a smile on your face. This isn’t helped by the course design, either. Throwing perilous drops and various environmental disasters at you, mastering a descent is a constant process of trial, error and ultimately failure. Not about tricks or racing, it’s a tedious and frustrating journey from A to B.
It’s a shame, as the shortcomings of Survive It are thrown into sharp relief by the brilliance of the Race It and Trick It events. Here, we get a throwback to the arms-aloft exuberance of yesteryear, zooming around on a series of peaks mapped from reality using NASA technology, but sculpted by EA to create pure fantasy.
Tricks are executed either by using the classic button control method, or a revised analogue stick approach. You charge up, then release the button or stick to launch high into the air, using a combination of the right stick and triggers to execute the game’s varied twirls, flips and twists. It’s incredibly easy to execute even the most outlandish of tricks, with ultra-forgiving timing. Just let go of the inputs moments before you return to the ground and you’ll comfortably land your move.
"Max the envelope, push the extreme and so forth."
As you perform tricks, a gauge fills up along the bottom of the screen until the word ‘Tricky’ appears, to a remixed soundtrack of the Run DMC classic. During this state, your moves are even more outlandish, racking up increased points. Continue to execute enough tricks in Tricky without crashing and you’ll eventually access ‘Super Tricky,’ exploding in a blizzard of flared tracers and blurred boosts. Your moves are now utterly nuts and worth tons of points. It’s immensely gratifying.
As is the grinding. Also simplified, you don’t have to balance or worry about losing speed any more. Once you’re on, you’re on, grinding along SSX’s ludicrously fun network of pipes, up and over the slopes below in increasingly unbelievable swoops and climbs. The ultimate vertiginous thrill, meanwhile, comes from Wingsuits, flappy armed flight outfits allowing you to cross gaping chasms and cut out tricky sections. They’re wonderful.
So in a reverse of the norm and a clear evolution of the series, the challenge comes not from executing the moves, but instead from the mountains and tracks themselves. A little patchy in regards to quality, SSX nevertheless offers up some brilliant descents stuffed with alternative routes, shortcuts, ramps, jumps, blind leaps and bottomless falls.
Indeed, while a degree of your success is based on your knowledge of each track, at its worst SSX tests your memory as much as your patience, prompting restart after restart, or rewind after rewind. Falling straight down a ravine you had no chance of knowing about is not fun. Thankfully, the good tracks outnumber the bad.
World Tour mode threads Race It, Trick It and Survive It through a narrative of sorts, involving team SSX going up against a rival across a series of nine locations. It’s more of an extended tutorial than the game’s main attraction however, instead paving the way for the expansive Explore mode.
Alone, Explore mode provides enough challenges to keep you going for quite some time. There are 150 drops in total, spread across a variety of locations. You’ll want to avoid many of them thanks to the tiresome Survive It events and the occasional controller-chewingly tough track, but it’s a hell of a lot of content to tackle regardless.
The most interesting application of all this comes in the Global Events. This is SSX’s multiplayer, elevated by the presence of RiderNet, a retooled version of NFS: Hot Pursuit's Autolog - a deep set of social and community features.
"Ooh, I feel all light-headed."
Global events put you up against the entirety of SSX’s player base, in an endless series of asynchronous challenges. These are events that set a task and a time limit, then offer up huge bonuses based on performance. It’s here that you’ll earn the bulk of the credits you’ll need to invest in better outfits and gear.
Alternatively, you can go up against your friends in custom events. These too are asynchronous and all the better for it. Expect to lose hours repeating drops in an effort to topple your mates. It’s fearsomely compulsive stuff that more than makes up for the lack of traditional multiplayer.
The achievements, meanwhile, are pretty robust and a definite challenge. While there are only a few that encourage you to approach the game in new and interesting ways, there’s enough variety here to propel you through SSX’s myriad of modes and races. It will take you a while to clock up 1000Gs in this one.
Ultimately, SSX arrives at a time when it has no clear competitor in the market. Revisiting a genre that experienced its zenith around a decade ago, EA Sports has revitalised a type of game once thought dead. It’s a welcome return. Often thrilling and bursting with ideas, SSX is let down only by the ghosts of Deadly Descents, a far less compelling vision of what the reboot should be.
While the track listing may not be to everyone’s tastes, the way the audio adapts and reacts to the on-screen action is impressive. The option to use custom tunes from your own collection is enticing.
While the character designs are dull, some of the mountain views are great. Especially when you’re 200 feet above them, performing your 10th spin in quick succession.
An odd mix of accessibility and challenge that doesn’t get it quite right. The trick system and grinds are a cinch, allowing you to pull off glorious moves within moments. The tracks, however, can be frustratingly tough.
While the sheer amount of content and options is staggering, and RiderNet is fearsomely compelling, Survive It events are a terrible mistake. It’s a sizable blemish in an otherwise gleaming offering.
Largely an exercise in guiding you through the game’s modes and events, SSX’s achievements will take you a while to amass. The only examples of true creativity are reserved for the deadly descents, in a series of tough challenges. Solid.
SSX is an enjoyable experience that revels in its ability to send you hurtling towards the clouds, cartwheeling as you go. It’s only when that carefree exuberance is impeded that the game disappoints. Thanks to the remnants of an older, inferior game, SSX does that too often to achieve true greatness.