It's not always easy to be an SSX fan. After releasing four back-to-back games on the PlayStation 2, Electronic Arts opted to put the successful franchise on hiatus for close to seven years. Along the way we've been subjected to a disappointing Wii game, tons of delays and an E3 trailer that made the reboot look like a Call of Duty game. After so much drama and speculation, it's a relief to say that this long-overdue SSX sequel does the franchise proud.
SSX doesn't pretend to reinvent the wheel; this is still a fast-paced snowboarding game in which players race and trick their way to gold medals. The annoying announcer suggests that it's a combination of snowboarding and motocross, which probably sounded more elegant on paper. I say SSX is more like Burnout meets Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. It's a lot like speeding 150 miles per hours down a treacherous mountain full of rocks and leaps of faith. Actually, it's exactly like that.
This new SSX is brought to you by the team behind the Skate series. Despite not being very good at them, I'm generally a fan of the series. You can see the Skate influence in the default control scheme, which has players using the right analog stick to pull off jumps, tricks and more. Thankfully players can opt for the decidedly easier button configuration. This ends up feeling a lot more like classic SSX games, though it's not a carbon copy of On Tour or other PlayStation 2 era releases.
The trick system isn't overly complicated, which is perfect when you're barreling down a hill at breakneck speeds. There are three different move types, each of which can be modified by holding the right trigger. As you spin, grab and grind tricks out, you'll earn multipliers and a boost meter that will let you create bigger and better signature moves. You can also use the boost meter to increase your speed, something that is invaluable during races. There's a nice give-and-take that forces players to do tricks to keep their speeds high.
The game's impressive 153 drops include some of the most recognizable mountains in the world. Get ready to trick off of Mount Everest, Kilimanjaro and dozens of other popular peaks from around the world. SSX uses a satellite mapping technology that allows the developers to create incredibly realistic paths that reflect the look of the real place. Thankfully they have added crazy jumps, tons of grind opportunities and everything else that makes this kind of video game fun.
What has always set SSX apart from the crowd is its use of non-linear level designs. Although you are always headed in the same direction (down), there are countless ways of getting there. Sometimes it's as simple as taking a diverging path, while other times you'll find a hidden passageway in a cave or take a jump over the competition. There is an impressive amount of depth to each one of these drops, offering enough incentive to replay them over and over again.
There are times when you can see the threads of what could have been. The brand new World Tour mode gives us a look at the Deadly Descent, a term that nearly became this reboot's subtitle. Here you take a trip around the globe, tricking off some of the world's best known mountains and racing against a whole host of familiar faces. The diverse locales include Alaska, the Rockies, Siberia, Africa, the Alps, the Himalayas and more. These locations have a number of peaks to explore each with their own set of drops and challenges.
These nine regions play out in a similar fashion. Here you'll be introduced to a different member of the SSX troupe. That person will then be told to earn a bunch of points in trick mode and complete a series of races. The game throws increasingly challenging missions at you until you're ultimately ready to take on the game's boss battle -- Deadly Descent.
Each of the nine Deadly Descent challenges is different. In one stage you'll be speeding down a mountain while an avalanche tries to gobble you up. In other stages you'll be navigating a series of caverns with little more than a light attached to your helmet. An early challenge has players fighting strong winds, while later levels force you to contend with rocks and ice.
Some of these de facto boss stages offer new items and gameplay mechanics. In one stage you'll be given a special suit that lets you glide through the air for a short amount of time. This plays into an especially challenging course full of suicide drops. In another stage you will be given an oxygen mask to survive the impossibly thin air. Some of these special items add to the fun and variety of SSX, while others feel gimmicky. Thankfully, once you're done with that region it's off to meet a new character and battle another natural disaster.
Playing the World Tour mode opens up a batch of new characters you can take into the game's other modes. When you're not advancing the ridiculous storyline (complete with motion comics for each snowboarder), you're exploring the ridiculous number of drops. Here you will find a near endless stream of challenges, including trick, race and survival events on practically all of the 153 drops. This is a massive undertaking to complete; thankfully you'll be able to compare your best runs against your friends.
SSX wisely steals a version of the Autolog, the innovative score tracker found in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Here you will find recommendations on where to go next and whose score to best. Much like Criterion's racer, SSX benefits greatly from having this quickly updated information at your fingertips. You'll never be at a loss for something to do when competing against your friends.
But why simply take on your friends score when you can battle the entire world? The final SSX mode has you competing for in-game credits in a series of Global Events. Some of these events are for everybody, while others can only be seen by friends. There's a certain amount of time placed on these events, and once that time expires you will earn a certain amount of credits based entirely on your final placement.
Sadly, SSX doesn't offer a traditional real-time multiplayer mode. Perhaps it's because the levels are too complicated or because the developers simply ran out of time, but it would have been nice to see an eight-player race against friends. Currently you can see ghost images of your friends; however that's a sad substitute for a multiplayer mode with a real lobby system.
Beyond the lack of a real-time multiplayer component, most of my complaints are about the changes made in the past seven years. I'll start with the rewind function. It used to be that players could push the select/back button after a crash, quickly resetting the action and keeping them in the race. In this new game you are given a rewind feature, which reverses the last few seconds of the race. It won't take long to realize that this only rewinds you, giving everybody else on the field a big advantage. I found that rewinding took far too much time and made it nearly impossible to catch up. This is not an adequate replacement for the reset button.
I was also disappointed by some of the level designs. Don't get me wrong, for the most part the game's various drops are perfectly playable and a lot of fun. However, I missed some of the over-the-top diversity we saw in SSX3. Where are the fireworks? Why are there no stages set in an avalanche-covered city? These are staples of the SSX experience, yet they are nowhere to be seen in this reboot.
On the other hand, there are a lot of changes I like to the gameplay. I am especially happy that the characters right themselves after a trick, sparing the players from needlessly crashing after every jump. I also love how smoothly everything flows. The graphics are also strong, even if they aren't as flashy as past games. SSX has it all -- great presentation, an engaging trick system and enough events to keep you going for well over a hundred hours.
There are things I would change about this new SSX. But when a game is this much fun to play, it's easy to overlook some of the disappointments. Regardless of whether you're a longtime fan of the series or dropping in for the first time, there is plenty to love about Electronic Arts' newest extreme sports game. It's great to have SSX back!