The beloved SSX games of the last generation are still among the extreme sports genre's best, even today. So why has it taken this long for a true return to form?
Back when EA's reboot of SSX was first unveiled as SSX: Deadly Descents, the reaction from fans wasn't particularly warm. I'm still not entirely sure how much of this was a perception issue, but regardless of how the finished game came to be, it's certainly an extension of what made past installments so great.
After playing for about an hour, I went back to see how it compared to SSX Tricky, which still happened to be sitting in my GameCube. Disregarding the obvious graphical improvements, I couldn't help but notice how slow everything was, from the players' movement to the speed of tricks. Funny -- I don't remember it being like this at all.
SSX (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Released: February 28, 2012 (NA) / March 2, 2012 (EU)
It isn't so much that past installments were sluggish; rather, SSX frequently moves at breakneck speeds. This occasionally ends up being problematic, but the faster pacing sets the groundwork for some truly spectacular moments. It's also a good fit for the game's environments -- nine real-world mountain ranges -- that were recreated digitally using satellite data from NASA. Since you aren't restricted to indoor courses, you have a ton of room to be totally reckless.
The setup for why you're snowboarding across such treacherous terrain is silly, but it gets the job done and serves as a way to bring together the franchise's existing characters. Essentially, Team SSX is in a competition with a rival snowboarder named Griff to clear the nine aforementioned deadly descents for fame and profit. Nine against one seems a little unfair, but you'll be cursing his name before long.
This mode, World Tour, serves as a good introduction to what's new in SSX as well as the characters, which you'll gradually unlock. Their over-the-top back-stories are told through animated comics, a storytelling method I'm generally against in games, although like the plot itself, it fits the crazed subject matter fairly well.
Across the game's three modes, gameplay is broken up into three distinct event types: Race It, Trick It, and Survive It. Returning fans will be familiar with the first two. Whereas Trick It involves performing ludicrous tricks for the sake of earning points, Race It has you pulling off moves to build up your boost. Before I get any further, let me say that Run-D.M.C.'s "It's Tricky" does, in fact, make a glorious return. Oh, and if you despise dubstep, you'll be happy to know that custom playlists are supported.
Survive It is brand new for SSX, and it's quite a bit different from anything else. Each of the nine mountains has a specific element of danger to watch out for, such as rock-filled slopes or thin air or overwhelming darkness. One of the descents involves avoiding shade and tunnels to keep your body temperature up, while another plays out like a chase scene as you try to outmaneuver avalanches.
You'll need special gear, purchasable alongside boards, outfits, and mods (one-time-use bonuses), to survive these harsh environments. Items are stat-based, some offer perks (e.g., more boost), and there's a ton of them. The wingsuit has got to be my personal favorite, but depending on the level, you don't always have a choice if you want to reach the bottom alive.
I appreciate the variety that comes with Survive It, though I must say, a good deal of frustration directly resulted from these missions. The speed of SSX is such that until you have a really good handle on your character's movement and have leveled them up a bit, you're likely going to get annoyed. It's almost as if the game is playing itself, but doing a poor job.
What's interesting about this game is that the tricks themselves aren't where the difficulty comes into play. Instead, it's scoring high enough, racing quickly, or merely surviving that's a challenge. In SSX, tricks are ridiculously easy to perform; all you have to do is show a little restraint and let go of the buttons at the last possible second, and chances are good you'll land unharmed. Since your rider sticks to rails, even grinding is laughably easy.
Grabs can be done using either the right stick (think Skate, to some extent) or the face buttons. This ends up feeling highly intuitive before long, and I love how you can switch between either option at any time. While EA offers also offers a classic SSX control scheme for series veterans, I found much more success with the new method.
Strangely, it ends up being the level design that's punishing, which is odd, because the game is otherwise an exercise in helping the player to look awesome with very little effort required on their end. Though you have the ability to rewind time at the expense of points off your score, falling into a bottomless pit (of which there are far too many on certain levels) is frequently enough to justify a full restart for Race It, assuming you want first place. Having an incredible run only to come off of a ramp at just the wrong angle and shoot into a chasm of death you couldn't see coming is not a good feeling.
Memorizing course layouts isn't always sufficient -- again, there's the speed factor, and especially for Survive It, seeing where you're going in and of itself can be challenging. Not to mention the HUD, which has alerts that sometimes block what's directly ahead of you. You do have a helicopter pilot flying above to offer strategic advice, but for me, these instructions sometimes came too late to be useful.
Next after World Tour is Explore. In this mode, there are 150 "drops" (you always jump out of a helicopter to start a run) spread across the nine regions of SSX. Some drops overlap, covering many of the same sections of a mountain. They may not all be wholly original, but between the three event types, it's a sizable amount of content to burn through -- especially if you're going for gold medals, or competing with real-world friends asynchronously for additional credits.
The most interesting aspect of SSX has to be the final mode, Global Events. This is the game's multiplayer, and it's also where RiderNet -- a set of social and community features modeled after Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit's Autolog -- really shines.
As I said earlier, there's a ridiculous amount of equipment to purchase, and it's not cheap. You'll likely earn the bulk of your credits in Global Events. Here, you're competing against the entire online SSX player base in limited-time events. When these expire, huge amounts of credits are dispersed to entrants based on how well they performed. You could almost think of it as an ever-changing leaderboard.
If you'd rather play only with your friends, you can initiate a custom Global Event at any drop point and send them an invite. Through RiderNet feeds and recommendations, this should lead to some long-lasting rivalries, despite the lack of "multiplayer" as many have come to know it.
Geotags are another interesting element. These are collectible items that you can place in the game for other players to find. You get credits by putting them down, and if no one collects your Geotags, you'll earn greater rewards. With such an emphasis placed on the community aspect of SSX, those without Internet access are really going to miss out.
It's worth noting that there is an online pass included with new copies of the game. Credits earned in Global Events are saved, but cannot be spent until you register your pass. If you're going to buy a used copy, know that you can still accumulate plenty of credits across the other two modes.
It feels like an eternity since we last had a truly great SSX, which this 2012 installment certainly is. Most of what made the series so enjoyable has either been left untouched or tweaked slightly, so fans should dig what's being offered here. The online functionality in particular stands out as a wonderful addition.
I ran into a few issues -- namely the occasionally frustrating level design, which is inconsistent at best -- but there's so much to love that the problematic aspects don't sully an otherwise terrific game. Between character leveling, equipment, hundreds of drops, and rivalries with friends, SSX is going to provide months of entertainment for most of us. It might have been a long wait, but it was well worth it.