Riding the penultimate wave of early 2000 "extreme sports fanaticism," Electronic Arts (EA) formed a studio called EA Sports Big to take advantage of the insanity. This was a time before refined lads took up the civilised pursuits of parkour, or spent their time in shopping malls wearing scarves and fedoras. In fact, we were all "X-treme," and we wanted to be Tony Hawk, kick-flipping the Man in the teeth.
Where Tony Hawk captured the skateboarding crowd, and Dave Mirra gave his likeness to BMX games, EA Sports Big became the leaders in over-the-top arcade snowboarding with the SSX franchise. The only problem was that the extreme sports craze burnt as rapidly and brightly as you'd expect from a flaming ball of testosterone-covered madness. Within a few years it was thoroughly spent, and the fad presumably committed suicide after trying to swallow a two-litre bottle of coke with a packet of Mentos. I should probably add that neither were opened - that's how "X-treme" it was.
Therefore, it's completely understandable that I felt slightly uneasy when I heard that EA Canada was rebooting the SSX series, a good seven years after the last real SSX title (SSX On Tour) was released. My first thought was: "How on Earth will they modernise the game, and still keep the nostalgic few entertained?" It was clear that a SSX reboot was going to face an uphill battle, because let's face it, seven years is an eternity for video games. Technology changes and even gamer attitudes evolve. Nowadays, every game has to have online multiplayer, and only a rogue few keep the "single-player only" banner flying. Developers have also changed with the times, and before the Kinect phase, there was a push towards including the casual majority, with "accessibility" becoming the latest industry buzz word. For all those reasons, I was practically on the edge of my seat as I slid the game into the disc tray. I expected the worst, and dreaded the thought of having to bury an old friend in bile.
The good news then, is that while SSX isn't perfect, it doesn't distract from the fact that it's a genuinely fun game. More importantly, it oozes personality. There are a few missteps along the way, like the single-player story, which is paper thin and easily forgettable. However, the simple truth is that the single-player mode is merely a convenient way to unlock additional characters and mountain ranges. In fact, it really doesn't matter why the gang are hitting the slopes, suffice to say, the real-world mountains are incredible, and the tricks are out of this world. This is definitely not a snowboarding sim, nor a realistic take on the sport of snowboarding (like Skate attempted with skateboarding). SSX is all pure and unadulterated arcade fun.
It's hard not to cast a nostalgic eye over SSX, and one of the areas that SSX does struggle with is the characters. The reboot fails to capture the astronomical-sized craziness of the characters from the previous games, and while SSX originals like Elise Riggs, Psymon Stark, Griff Simmons and a few others rejoin the cast, the characters feel muted, toned down and - dare I say it - bland. A realistic approach just doesn't fit well within the SSX mould, and it's in stark contrast to rocketing down a snowy mountain side while unleashing all manner of gravity-defying and mind-blowing tricks. The other issue relates to the characters themselves; there's very little to distinguish between the various riders. They do have their strengths and weaknesses, but more often then not you'll stick to a select few. In case you're wondering why I haven't mentioned Eddie Wachowski, the mighty Afro is sadly missing from the retail version and only available to those who have pre-ordered from certain vendors in the States. However, chances are Eddie will probably be released as DLC in the near future.
SSX has always been about the pursuit for the highest trick score, however, unlike other games that require a severe case of finger gymnastics, tricks flow with ease in the 'Trick It' mode. The real test is maintaining your combo, and not bailing or wrapping yourself around trees or other objects. If you do fall, your combo count gets reset to zero, and the points are lost to the snow, but if you can fill up your tricks bar you'll be rewarded with even more mind-blowing trick combinations. Simple tricks evolve to Uber-tricks until finally you can perform high-scoring Super-Uber Tricks, or even unleash a character-specific signature trick (that will leave your character blazing through the skies). For those feeling a little anxious about getting to grips with the controls, SSX allows for some flexibility in its control schemes, so it's possible to either use button or stick controls (or even a combination of both), and there's even a classic control scheme for the SSX veterans.
In addition to the 'Trick It' mode, there's also a racing mode, with the emphasis less on soaring through the skies and stringing together combos and more on finding the quickest route down the mountain side. To be an effective racer it becomes critical to search for hidden paths or tunnels because SSX loves to throw in multiple branching paths, or the odd ill-placed boulder. However, if you do run into trouble there's also a convenient rewind button, but at the cost of your reward points.
New to the franchise is the Survival mode, which throws all manner of dangerous scenarios at you. These may include evading avalanches, or trying to complete a circuit in areas with thin air, or even merely dodging trees. Fortunately, the Survival challenges are mitigated through a number of level-upgradeable gear. If you're facing a particularly dangerous slope, perhaps it's time to equip body armour, or a wingsuit, or even an oxygen tank. Or, alternatively, if you require a nerve-wrecking challenge, the option always exists to take on a Survival challenge without the appropriate gear. Gear is important in SSX though, so it helps to upgrade to newer gear (snowboards and survival gear) as soon as possible. It's not just Survival mode that benefits from new gear, but also the “Trick it” and racing modes.
While the single-player story leaves much to be desired, SSX crowns itself "King of the Mountain" through online play. It's not multiplayer in the classic sense, but rather a system based on tracking time-trial data and trick scores. The added benefit is that SSX doesn't feature a lobby system. Instead, it allows global challenges and events to occur organically. Some events are free, and others require credits, however, they all work on a simple premise: the more players in an event, the bigger the prize pool. As long as you place in the standings, the credits will be paid out to those worthy. A definite plus is that there is no need to wait for other players, or even to worry about the persistent issue of host migration. Instead, global competitions are constantly happening, and you can even create events for yourself or your Xbox LIVE friends. In case you're wondering, the winnings come in handy for customising the gear of your favourite snowboarder.
The glue that holds online play together is Ridernet. All manner of information is tracked and uploaded for all to see, including time-trial data, "Trick It" scores, and even progress in the form of badges and other unlockables. It's also a convenient way to keep track of your friends, and to find new rivals on your quest to outscore all. Ridernet can also recommend multiplayer challenges for those brave enough. Additionally, all the mountain ranges, race modes and characters from the single-player mode are available (to be concurrently unlocked) in the two main multiplayer modes: Explore and Global Events.
Another hallmark of the SSX series has always been the music. In this regard, the reboot does not fail to impress, however, there is a heavy emphasis on drum & bass (and even dub step). Fortunately, if you're of the opinion that the music selection is too esoteric, there is an option to add a custom playlist to the game. Who would have thought System of a Down compliments the act of carving my name on a snowy mountain slope?!
SSX bursts with content, and it's undeniably a return to form for EA's snowboarding title. While it may not capture the sheer zaniness and intensity of past SSX titles, it carves its own path down the mountain side. The future looks rosy for SSX, and if handled with care, EA has a future money-spinner on their hands. Fans of the old games can seamlessly ease themselves into the current game, and new fans can delight in the craziness. The learning curve may be a little steep, but through patience and practice, even a beginner can post a decent score.
- SSX tops the FUN-meter
- Multiplayer absolutely shines
- Survival mode
- Over-the-top tricks
- Custom soundtrack
- What Story?
- Bland characters
- Lack of a Sandbox "Free Ride" mode