Growing up in Texas I didnít have a lot of opportunities to snowboard and honestly, after moving to California I didnít expect I would ever see snow, let alone get to slide down a mountain strapped to a surfboard, but you know what? California has some pretty high mountains and if you go high enough up those mountains youíll find snow, which is where I had my first snowboarding experience late last year. It was awesome and surprisingly easy, Iím guessing partly because Iíve been learning to surf in the summer months.
I am by no means an expert. Iíve caught maybe 4-6 feet of air at the most, Iíve never grinded on a pole or a log, and Iíve certainly never done a flip, but I did manage a 360. The only time my feet are ever above my head is when I wipeout. And thatís what I love about video games Ė the way they can let you live out your fantasies from behind the relative safety of your controller. The only injury I have after 30+ hours of SSX is a blister on my turbo finger and believe me Ė the bunnies at the ski lodge are not impressed.
SSX (Iím still not sure if I should be using the Deadly Descents subtitle) is the next-gen reboot of perhaps one of the most beloved franchises ever seen on the PS2. This is without a doubt one of the most highly-anticipated games of the year Ė perhaps of this generation of console. People have been starving for an SSX game since 2005ís SSX On Tour (or 2007ís SSX Blur on the Wii if you want to count that one), and EA has heard your cries and it is once again time to hit the slopes for some extreme boarding.
Set aside all your speculation and doubts and dive right in to one of the most complete snowboarding adventures ever created. Gone are all those fantasy locations (yes Ė even the cool pinball machine slope is gone but there is always DLC) and this time our team of familiar boarders are traveling the globe to nine exotic high-altitude locations for some of the most treacherous slopes you can imagine, let alone slide, carve, grind, fly, and fall down.
SSX sets up a paper-thin story about Griff departing from the SSX team and trying to beat all the nine Deadly Descents himself. Zoe sets out to stop him, acquiring the rest of the team during her travels, who she must first beat in an initial race on the mountains, thus unlocking that character for play in future events. Youíll travel everywhere from the Rockies, Alaska, Antarctica, Africa, China, Switzerland, and a few others, all leading up to the epic finale in New Zealand. Each new location delivers a new environmental challenge that will require you to change up your tactics with each new slope.
Each mountain follows the same procedure. You must first beat the local SSX team member in either a Race or a Trick event. Once unlocked you can then race or trick on a few other slopes before tackling a training slope that will prepare you for the final Deadly Descent. Hazards like ice, rocks, trees, gravity, extreme cold, darkness, and even a lack of oxygen can all be overcome by equipping special gear like ice picks, body armor, a wing suit, O2 tanks, a headlamp or special solar-powered heat-suit. You can master this gear on the training slope before tackling the Deadly Descent where your only goal is simply to survive to the finish. Of course if you want to prove just how EXTREME you really are, try conquering the Deadly Descent without using the recommended gear. With only a 4% survival rate, youíre going to need some real skills to earn some very special Achievements.
Racing is all about speed while the trick competitions are all about pulling off the most insane tricks possible and chaining them together in crazy high-scoring combos. Tricks also play an important part in racing as they fuel your turbo meter, and of course, once you reach Tricky status you get that infinite turbo. The game demands originality, making a clear note when you repeat a trick, so you have to really mix up your flips, spins, grinds, and grabs. Racing also requires an almost intimate knowledge of the mountain, assuming that is even possible. Lewis and Clark would be hard-pressed to map out every nook and cranny and secret shortcut on these slopes. Finding a hidden tunnel or sticking to a lengthy grind rail can take you from last place to first in seconds.
Naturally, EA had to revamp the controls. They seem to be on a mission to eliminate buttons from as many of their games as possible Ė everything from Tiger Woods to Skate, to the recently released Grand Slam Tennis 2 Ė but at least they included a button control option as well as the classic controls from the original games, so franchise veterans could hit the slopes with minimal learning curve. For those looking to make the game unnecessarily more difficult you are welcome to play around with the new analog stick controls that have you flicking to grab and swirling to spin. I tried the sticks for the opening tutorial and the first few slopes and ultimately reverted to button controls for the best and most reliable trick scores. The sticks just donít feel right, and they certainly arenít as intuitive or immersive as EA would have you believe. I actually found the DualShock 3 on the PS3 to offer slightly better controls versus the 360 gamepad or perhaps it was just muscle memory from the hundreds of hours I spent playing with the DualShock 2 on the PS2.
One thing I learned about snowboarding in real-life is that it can be a very social experience. Even back in 2003 on the original Xbox I remember the social aspects of playing Amped 2, with the ability to chat and even get into snowball fights with other gamers on the mountain. Sadly, SSX doesnít have any real-time multiplayer interaction, so donít expect to be racing down these mountains with your friendsÖat least not in the flesh. Instead, you can race against their ghosts Ė a transparent recording of their best performance in whatever challenge you are taking part. Given the problematic nature of fast-paced multiplayer games on the PS3, this type of online plays actually works better on this console.
RiderNet is the snowboarding equivalent to Autolog in Need for Speed; a self-contained social network of SSX gamers and your gateway to a variety of challenges known as Global Events. Personally, I enjoyed this approach to multiplayer more than traditional online modes. With RiderNet I can play when I want. I can get on at 3am and see that somebody beat my time and now I must defend my honor, or I can go into any of the Global Events and play and replay them all the way up until they expire. The game tracks my best times and scores,so imagine my delight when I logged in a day later and found I had won a Platinum award and 76,000 credits while I was sleeping.
SSX makes use of EA's Online Pass, but does so in a rather clever way. Rather than simply preventing you from playing or competing online, you are free to participate in any of the Global Events, even without activating an Online Pass; however, any credits you might have earned for placing in the top spots will not be awarded, but they will be logged, and if and when you do activate an Online Pass you will retroactively get those rewards.
And then you have Geo Tags; the collectibles in SSX, but unlike traditional pick-ups it is the SSX population that is dropping these glowing spheres all over the mountains. Some geo tags are built into the game and reward you with credits or a geo tag of your own that you can place somewhere in the world during the free roaming Explore mode. You can even purchase special geo tags that will reward you with various amounts of income for every day they stay on the mountain unclaimed. My only complaint with the whole geo tagging system is that people are dropping them as they plummet to their deaths, so unless you want to follow them into the abyss, some tags might never be claimed.
The more you ride the more XP you earn which all goes toward your character levels, and naturally there are trophies for leveling up all your crew to various milestone markers. Youíll also earn credits which can be spent on hundreds of items in the store including character-specific snowsuits, goggles, headlamps, heat suits, ice picks, body armor, wing suits, and of course a huge variety of snowboards specializing in speed or tricks. Youíll quickly amass a huge inventory of items so if you are ever unsure of how to equip for a certain event, just hit the Optimize button and the best owned item in each category specific to that event will be chosen for you and your chance of survival will be updated.
SSX looks amazing with all the flash and flair weíve come to expect from an EA Sports title, only this time itís been ramped up to the EXTREME! From the opening globe that you can spin around to pick your destination to the slick visualizations as you enter each area and learn about the deadly forces of nature you will be facing; the whole game is super-polished. Even when you hit the slopes the sweeping vistas, the powdered snowpack, the gleaming ice, the treacherous rocks, the sinister darkness, and the gnarly trees all combine to create a very hyper-realistic experience. The only thing that deters from complete immersion are the insanely impossible stunts and the stylized character models that remain firmly rooted in their PS2 ancestors. I even enjoyed the comic book panels that introduce each of the unlocked characters.
Sadly, the PS3 has a few issues with graphics. First, being limited to 720p, the game has some jaggies along various edges, most noticeably, curved pipes, and even more surprising, there is the occasional hiccup in framrate when things get crazy, which is often. Textures were also slightly less defined, even blurred at times, and there was a weird greenish tint to some of the graphics. The Xbox 360 just seems to look much more natural and "feels" colder.
You can choose from a few camera angles that zoom in or out on your rider, but other than that the camera does a fairly awesome and consistent job of tracking you and the action no matter how crazy things gets, and things can get pretty crazy when you are racing into the screen from a reverse camera angle with a thundering avalanche chasing you down the mountain. I did have an issue with not being able to look below me when gliding with the wing suit, which led to several unnecessary deaths. Thankfully, there is a Rewind feature you can use to undo a fatal mishap, although even while you are rewinding other players are moving forward, and the clock is still ticking, so you can really hurt yourself in a race. There is also a severe and increasing point penalty for using rewind during trick runs, so this feature is not one to be abused.
DJ Atomika is back spinning the hits (I forgot how much I missed that guy) but he isnít as verbose as in previous games. He pops up only three or four times leaving the rest of the story and any in-game updates left to text boxes, reports from your chopper pilot, or those aforementioned comics. There is no character-driven story and the only dialogue youíll hear are the grunts, groans, cheers, yells, and other emotional outbursts as you fly down the mountains. Your board makes the appropriate noise based on snow, ice, metal pipe, or whatever surface you are riding or grinding, leaving most of the sound experience open to the fantastic soundtrack. Dozens of popular artists are contributing some great licensed tracks including some serious remixes of Run DMCís ďItís TrickyĒ theme. SSX somehow manages to mix the music in real-time while you race and can do the same with your own custom soundtracks. How cool is that? Plus, the PS3 maximizes your sound experience with a DTS Digital Surround mix, or a standard Dolby Digital offering.
You can finish off the story mode's nine Deadly Descents in about 6-8 hours, but you'll spend a lifetime battling back and forth with your friends for high scores and fastest race times. Plus with insane trophies and hundreds of badges to collect, you'll be playing SSX well into next winter. And we always have the hope of some awesome DLC. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing a next-gen remake of a certain pinball slope...hint hint... PS3 gamers will also get the added bonus of the exclusive Mt. Fuji slopes in Japan...exclusive until they appear as DLC on the 360 later this year. So if you can deal with the slightly inferior graphics you can enjoy exclusive content, slightly better controls, and a more dynamic sound experience on your PS3.
There have been a lot of imposters trying to corner the snowboarding market these past years, most of them going for realism over fun, but SSX is back and EA Sports continues to prove that if you want the most insane, over-the-top racing and death-defying stunts on the planet (or at least in nine locations on the planet) then you need look no further than SSX. This is snowboarding for the next-generation!