Shredding snow and owning the cold has never been so cool! From EA Sports and EA Canada comes a "renovation" of the classic action sports franchise known for over-the-top characters, tricks, and speed. Couple this pedigree of stylish fun on a multitude of real mountain ranges with a definite "final challenge" structure, and you have the most complete winter excursion from this series to date.
Anyone who is a fan of the SSX games understands what it brings to the "extreme" landscape of sports titles. Sure, since it's initial release, we have seen a number of titles replicate the "crank it to 11, realism be damned!" style (Pure, Freekstyle, so on). But there's just some secret EA ingredient that they dash in with the recipe for these games that puts it at the top of the heap. Which, in turn, creates a loyal, but expecting group of followers. Last year, we got a preview into the new project with the ominous "Deadly Descents" subtitle. While most were just excited to see the franchise's return, many questioned the new approach. What is there to gain by completely abandoning the "horse that got you here?" Why the new, drastic facelift to something that works so well in the first place? It seems that the same inquiries were raised within the project team. Because this "freshness" is but a component of the new package.
There are three basic "skeletons" of play utilized in the shiny new SSX: Race It, Trick It, and Survive It. Race It has you barreling down the raised, snow and ice covered Earth trying to beat others down the hill, or beat designated time "targets." Most of these events feature your character and three other participants to try and find the quickest path. This point introduces one of the "grand" features of this installment. The mountains have a very "huge" scope to them, and each different run, or "drop" is almost overwhelming in the amount of ways you can make your way down. Because of this, a solid amount of trial and error will me necessary on more intricate drops to grab a hold of that checkered flag! I love this mode. It adds a welcome measure of "frenetic" action to the proceedings. A sort of desperation that isn't prevalent in the next base.
Every reputable franchise has a "fan favorite" version. The one that was played by people that aren't necessarily followers of the lineage as a whole. Resident Evil 4, San Andreas, and Rainbow Six 3 are examples of titles that bear this ranking in their respective groups. For SSX, Tricky is definitely the pinnacle of popularity. So much so, in fact, that a lot of people I talked to after the initial trailer was released said "what the hell is this? I want to do tricks!!" Fear not, that aspect is back in full force. The incredibly fast "speed" of the game does make this part a bit different from the beloved aforementioned game, but it's familiar enough to impress. Flinging from jumps, grinding on rails, and chaining these together racks up the points needed to get a stamp of approval on each session.
The last section, Survive It, is where one can find the new "direction" that was shown to us last year. Each mountain range has with it "deadly descent" of some sort. These can be looked at as boss challenges which carries with it specific "theme" depending on where on Earth it is. EA Canada used "geotagging" tech from NASA to try and replicate the overall presence of each location. While they have artificially designed many more potential pitfalls to prevent success, the gist of each place is mapped as the real. This design decision enabled them to develop unique, and more difficult drops that only ask that you finish down the mountain. I know this explanation is vague, but it's full details are best suited for discussing alongside the main game selection.
World Tour is the much needed single player "campaign" of SSX. You'll be introduced to Team SSX, a band of the sickest action sports stars in the world striving to be the top squad. This will be achieved by each of them taking on one of the nine Deadly Descents to be found around the globe in places like the Himalayas, Siberia, The Alps, New Zealand, ect. Your mission (should you choose to accept it) will be racing and tricking against other riders for the opportunity for a 1v1 with the mountain. Each location has with it a character you will use for the area. They all have a certain Gear preference that makes them better suited for the final challenge that awaits. Many of the race and trick events will feature this gear selection in spurts to get you acquainted on how to use it as the advantage that will make the region ending "Descent" possible.
For example, Patagonia's mountains are designed with huge drop-offs and extended gaps. To this, the dangerous feature here is Gravity. So, Elise is here to save the day with her (flying squirrel style) wingsuit. The smaller drops have moments where wingsuit deployment is a must to reach the finish. Other include: the Thin Air of the Himalayas and Kaori's oxygen tank, the extreme cold of Antarctica and Moby's solar panel suit, and so forth. If you take advantage of these practices, and find the best way to utilize the gear, the final stage will be challenging without overly frustrating.
This whole deal sounds a little "odd" I'll admit, but in practice, it's just awesome. This side of the game really adds the "fresh air" that is expected from a reboot. It sticks to its old guns with "tricky-racing," then raises the bar to the next gen level with the nine major hurdles . I have to admit that when I saw the supposed new direction the game was going towards, I got pretty excited. If I really want to play Tricky, I'll just find a cheap copy on, say, Amazon, wipe the dust off the PS2 or original Xbox, and have at it. Why not experience something new? Having said that, the best way is to compromise, and it really seems as though the have satisfied all potential wants from the player base. New and old.
Much like the gameplay itself, SSX takes pages from the Need For Speed playbook and uses its own form of AUTOLOG. Inspired by "social interaction in today's world," Explore has you chose one of the 150+ drops from within the nine regions and either set a fast time in a race or a trick point accumulation benchmark. Then your friends can fire up their copies, see that you are now reigning supreme on their favorite spots, and get after that new top time/score. Global Events takes this a step further by using a "real time" element. Not that you will be sharing actual mountain space with others, but "sessions" may be dropped in on at any time in their duration, which opens up the comp to anyone and everyone on the planet simultaneously with a mixed bag of the three bases (Race, Trick, Survive) available at each location.
Speaking frankly, I think the online formula chosen leaves something to be desired. The modes here are good, but there is just no substitute for actual, shared "rounds" complete with a lobby, rotating guidelines and maps (or "drops" in this case) and a good number of players to boot. The amazing Amped 2 had this going for it, and was a major component not only to its success, but the strong replay value. This is an area that action sports games can fall short on. And SSX doesn't necessarily fail, but I feel EA squandered the opportunity to have a third option with this style. Even if it's no more than, say, four people at a time, Explore and Global Events cannot replace the attachment one gets with seeing another character and knowing it is being controlled by someone else in the instant. Most other online games offer this, so why not throw it in as well?
Going back to the positive, the gameplay here is really, really good. As EA stated, they want players to feel like they are playing Need For Speed on snow. They succeeded. This SSX feels much faster than the others. So, controlling you character is of critical importance, and is helped with a pretty "loose" report in the left stick. There will be times that you'll go careening into a gap of some sort, and will be forced to use the point/time penalizing rewind feature to continue the drop. But with practice sessions, you'll have a good enough grasp of the territory that this will rarely occur. Pulling off tricks is even better. You can go with classic controls (face button trick inputs) or kick it with the right thumbstick. This makes gestures the key, where moving into a basic direction produces a basic trick. A movement-then-sweep enables a more dedicated grab, thus more points. All grabs can be amplified with spin/flips and "tweaked" by pulling the right trigger. Put these elements together over and over again, and the points will continuously pile from maneuvers of the MASSIVE, UBER, and SUPER UBER variety to send that TRICKY meter into overdrive!
Grinds are a major part of the new game. Rails are all over the place. But these aren't your "Palm-Daddy" Shaun Palmer iron tubes, no. Instead, they are intricately weaved "tracks" that extend over large parts of each landscape. Fallen trees, old lift cart cables, and even ice ridges can be slid on. These are the run defining edge. Not only are they sure points (because you won't be balancing yourself a la Tony Hawk), but most of them feature a high transfer, which gives you a shot at an aerial assault. Moral of the story: don't pass up a rail in favor of another jump. And with the multitude of lines present in each of the 150 some drops, it's possible to blaze your own trails and hit the right amount of trick opportunities to put your point total well within the multi-millions.
A few minor gameplay things should be addressed that aren't exactly "peaches and creme." First, the level design on some mountains tends to narrow. This alone is fine, but these features can also play host to big ramps. If you don't take these jumps perfectly, you'll have what I'm calling a "halted jump." Meaning, you won't bail, rather just "slide" into the ice or cave wall which kills all forward momentum. Perhaps this design is intentional, but it's still annoying. Also, the whole "over 150 drops" is a bit skewed. Most runs are an extension or condensed thread of another. This system is okay, and makes sense in terms of the locales being soaked in reality. Just don't think you're getting all "unique" experiences.
Lastly, the presentation is nice and clean. The snow and ice effects are pretty good, as is the rendering done to other things in the visual department (pipe lines, rails, rail cars, houses, ect.). And the character models are on par with the rest of the package. But I will reserve that everything seems like it's lacking a coat of detailed "polish." Doesn't look bad, just doesn't "wow" like you might expect. The sound department is really sweet. The normal snowboard effects have an authentic edge to them. The voice of your helicopter pilot is a very welcome aid through runs and chimes in enough to be beneficial, but not to the point of exasperating. And the soundtrack offers up a good rhythmic heartbeat to the whole thing, with tracks from Noisia, DJ Shadow, The Hives, Skillrex, and even a remix of RUN DMC's "It's Tricky" by Pretty Lights.