I never played the SSX games. Well, I should say that I played a little of each demo and decided they just weren’t for me. The series’ arcade-y controls and presentation just couldn’t hook me. As an Xbox guy, what really turned me onto snowboarding games, when I’d never played them before, was Amped’s open mountains and more accurately modeled controls. While SSX sold bajillions of copies, Microsoft’s series did not, leading developer Indie Built to tone down the hardcore approach a bit for the overly-comical Amped 3, a launch title for the Xbox 360. Well, that was six years ago and the snowboarding genre has been bone dry since, so how does EA’s SSX fare all those years later for an Amped fan?
Really well, actually.
SSX takes place in seven mountain ranges around the world, starting you off with the (local for us) Rockies and eventually sending you off to Antarctica and Mount Everest. As you topple each local hero, from a world of snowboarding, motocross, and surfing elites, you find yourself with seven boarders to develop. As someone used to building a single customizable boarder in my own image, this was a little off-putting, but when you realize that it’s setting you up for the specific hazards in each range, it starts to make sense. (You also get a motion comic intro for each new character that seems adequate here when it feels lacking in most any other game.) Each mountain chain is only loaded with a handful of events before ushering you off to its final Deadly Descent run, which can be downright devilish at times. Y’see, each range has a specific deadly theme. In Siberia, it’s ice: you need to have ice picks on hand to anchor your turns so you don’t fly off into a variety of nearby chasms. In Antarctica, you’ll need to stay in the sun-drenched portions of the course or you’ll freeze.
While Electronic Arts has been quick to explain that each range is modeled off real satellite imagery, it doesn’t take much time down the hills before you realize they’ve taken some drastic creative freedoms. These are sadly not the open swaths of mountain that Amped brought us, but you also don’t have side objectives that those games had. You’re not going out to find camera points or fulfill secondary point meters, you have one goal: get to the bottom of the course with a large amount of points. (This seems ‘oh, duh’ for SSX fans, but it’s new for me. SO LEAVE ME ALONE.). Runs are built with crazy tunnels, Seuss-ian rails that spiral off unsupported in crazy directions. These aren’t recreated ski parks or even conservative estimations of them, they are purely fantasy, which ticks off a bit of credibility on their original claim.
Those handful of mostly racing events per range serve as the bread and butter of the game, but you’ll find that no matter what the backdrop is, they really amount to score-heists. You see, it doesn’t really matter how fast you get down the mountain, the AI rubber-bands to your position and will, if you haven’t scored enough points proportionately, mow you down easily. The courses aren’t open enough for an open race as-is, so the mode’s a bit of a misnomer. Fortunately, the mode doesn’t really need to mix it up too much with the wide variety of course you’re going to sail down. You’ll also have plenty of space to have different lines each time down. Unfortunately, it doesn’t address the fact that the core game is too easy.
SSX has added a few wrinkles to the gameplay to make it easier compared to previous games. Your rider will automatically snap to rails when in range, removing a key toggle or trigger hold as well as the necessity to balance while grinding. It feels like Jet Set Radio Future. The game also adds a rewind ability that can bring you back from a tragic fall with little more than a score penalty (they’re limited in the Deadly Descent runs, natch). Like its addition in Forza 3, I’m still not sure about it. Sure, it saves you a little hassle when you make one terrible mistake that would otherwise ruin a perfect run, but it’s ripe for abuse and honestly, just like in Forza, feels a bit like cheating to assuage easily-frustrated players. Your mileage will vary.
The trick system itself is also very simple with a very gentle learning curve. I’m used to Amped’s more proportional controls. Again, being a total nub to the series, runs boiled down to: do lots of tricks super fast, get the Tricky bar, then do more tricks faster so you can then pull of your signature move. It’s all about momentum and tricks are executed with subsequent jabs of the right stick in random directions, tweaked with the right trigger. Not to brag (cough) but having only played the game three days, I was able to chalk up a Top 5 score within twenty minutes on a Himalayas map, out of nearly twenty-seven thousand players that had previously attempted it. With such an easily-mastered trick system, it never feels like you ‘grow’ into the game and certainly never develop much with the individual riders. Maybe I miss how Amped would batter and bruise me, like some kind of Ninja Gaiden on snowboards, until I learned how to be a better rider. I guess I just want something that doesn’t exist. That’s fine, I suppose.
The game has a somewhat proprietary multi-player system called RiderNet, which is a fork of the Autolog used in EA’s racing games. It lets you pick other players out as rivals and things with scoreboards and blah blah blah. The system not only feels like an unnecessary social layer to something even the bare-boned PSN version could handle adequately by itself, but a frilly addition to something I’ll only play sporadically online. Multi-player rounds seem fine enough: you can create your own custom matches, but if you’re not up for the work, you’ll try to score best runs on the game’s galaxy of courses. If you happen to score high and maintain it through the end of the period, you’ll get bonus points that can be carried over to your single-player progress.
While the single-player levels provided plenty of challenge, I sailed through most of the Deadly Descents in two days of playing. Between that and the simplistic snowboarding that keeps my boarder wigging out in the air like an orange fireball, it looks like my otherwise enjoyable time with the game is quickly coming to an end. SSX is hard to recommend at $59.99, but it’s easily the best snowboarding game since Amped 2 landed.