SSX walks that fine line between nostalgic reverence and modernization to create a game that feels both classic and new.
SSXPublisher: EA Sports
Players: 1 player
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3
Developer: EA Canada
Release Date: 2012-02-28
A lot has changed in the gaming industry in the seven years since the last SSX game came out (Blur is best forgotten): Accessibility is everything, online multiplayer is expected, and the whole extreme sports genre has petered out. What’s a franchise reboot to do? Well, SSX walks that fine line between nostalgic reverence and modernization to create a game that feels both classic and new.
This is most apparent in the controls. The SSX games have always had weird controls (i.e., having to “wind up” before a jump to spin) that surely turned some players away. For those that stayed, that control scheme became so ingrained in muscle memory that we can pick up a controller seven years later and still know what to do. SSX still lets you use these classic controls, so old fans have nothing to complain about, but it defaults to a more modern and a more intuitive scheme.
You perform tricks with either the face buttons or the right control stick. Each direction corresponds to an arm and a side of the board: Hold X to grab the left side with your left hand or flick the stick left to do the same. You can then combo those moves into something fancier. Hit X then hold B to grab the right side with your left hand or flick the stick left then right. It’s a scheme that quickly becomes second nature. Since the tricks mirror your actions on the controller, you no longer have to worry about button combinations when you’re flying through the air with a dozen other things on your mind (height, speed, position of other players, current points, current boost, distance to the end, etc). The simple directional gestures allow you to act without thinking. Also, your characters will automatically right themselves as they near they ground, so to land a trick you just have to (literally and mentally): let go. It’s all exceptionally intuitive and allows all players to look like experts within a half hour.
There are three modes: World Tour, Explore, and Global Events. The World Tour is essentially an introduction to the game. You get to visit each mountain peak, play with each character, and try out all the special equipment. There’s a story that ties everything together, but it’s slight at best.
The equipment is the most essential thing to learn, since the various tools are necessary for the new “Survive It” events (these in addition to the “Race It” and "Trick It” events, which should be self-explanatory). These tracks are not competitions per se, though when playing online you do compete with others to see who can survive the longest. They’re mostly about just getting to the end, but that’s easier said than done. There are nine unique hazards, and they start off as pretty mundane. For example, a track full of trees or slippery ice. But the game quickly escalates things into crazier and more exciting territory: massive gaps that require a wingsuit to cross, thin air that requires you to breathe from an oxygen tank, extreme cold that slowly kills you if you enter shade, and more.
Each hazard forces you to play a little differently. It’s a good idea to take it slow when dodging trees or rocks, but you’ll want to haul ass when there’s an avalanche behind you or a chasm in front of you. Riding on ice demands you learn the proper line, letting the mountain’s curves guide you instead of cutting your own path. Riding in thin air forces you to manage a limited resource (your oxygen) while also trying to race and perform tricks. These bits of variety can be extremely refreshing after just racing and tricking for hours.
Like every other game that is coming out in 2012, your character levels up the more that you play, allowing you to buy better and better equipment. This progression could have easily been a tacked on system, a cheap and dirty way to suck the player’s time away, but thankfully SSX realizes that with a system of progression you need the challenge to ramp up accordingly. And ramp up it does.
In Explore mode, some “Survive It” tracks throw two hazards at you, and if you’re not properly equipped and properly skilled, you simply won’t be able to finish. There are even some Trick and Race events that get so tough that you’ll just have to resign yourself to the bronze medal until you’ve leveled up a faster character. The advertisements for SSX make a point of mentioning the 150 “unique drops,” mostly because that sounds like a nice big number, but the game actually takes advantage of that big number by offering a variety of tracks for all difficulty levels. SSX has more than enough content to appeal to players just looking for a quick bit of fun and those looking for an insane challenge.
Equipment isn’t the only thing that you need to take into account when starting a run. Your snowboard also has stats that matter: speed, boost, and tricks. Some boards are better for racing, some are better for tricks, and you can browse a small shop before every run to buy a new board if you don’t like any that you currently own. This need to outfit the rider adds a nice element of strategy to the game, and preparation really does pay off. There’s a major difference between low level boards and higher ones, and you can see this when racing ghosts of other players: Sometimes their board is just faster than yours.
So these RPG elements bring some nice depth to the game, but in the interests of accessibility, there’s also an “Optimize” button that you can hit that automatically outfits you with the best equipment that you own. You can still buy something better, and sometimes you’ll disagree with what the game thinks is optimal. Personally, when racing, I prefer a board with high speed rather than high boost. But what’s important is that the game strikes a nice balance between accessibility and depth.
There’s no actual live competitive multiplayer, but you’d be forgiven for thinking there was since you’re always racing against other people. The Global Events mode passes for multiplayer, and here you compete in various custom challenges against dozens -- or even hundreds -- of other players. Only, you don’t race the other players in real-time, you race their ghost. This is actually preferable to live competition, at least within the context of a racing game, since you get all the challenge of competing against actual human beings but none of the hassle, like waiting for players to join a game or getting disconnected because your opponent quit..
Each global event has a pot of winnings, and depending on how well you do, you’ll be ranked in a specific tier. When the challenge ends, you win the credits associated with your tier. This potential reward adds a desire to rank up to the next tier, not just because of some transient sense of online pride, but because there’s an actual (virtual) monetary reward for doing so. It’s a great system that manages to encourage heavy competition among strangers.
The characters are the only disappointment. Their design looks very realistic, which means they all look the same from a distance -- like a human in a snowsuit. They’re also severely lacking their old over-the-top personalities -- or much personality at all. However, there are stat differences that go a long way in differentiating each character. Elise is my go-to racer and Mac is my go-to trickster because of their stat bonuses. They stand out from the pack, as do the others depending on the circumstances of the track. Regardless, qualms about character design are quickly forgotten once your board hits the snow. The core of what makes SSX great is still here -- in abundance.
SSX does the seemingly impossible. It actually innovates with online multiplayer, and it revitalizes a seven year old franchise with modern ideas, making it more accessible than it’s ever been, while also making it hard as hell and not betraying the nostalgia of older fans. It succeeds in appealing to all players. A novice can have fun looking like an expert thanks to the intuitive controls, performing 360 degree spins while twirling the snowboard between their legs, and veterans can test their mettle doing the same thing, while dodging chasms and shade on the peak of Mount Everest. And that’s not to mention the awesome soundtrack, a mix of dubstep electronica and indie rock that consistently evokes a sense of snowy wonder and intense competition.
SSX is mechanically perfect, the kind of game you want play over and over again because it just feels great to play. And aside from my quibbles over character design, it’s that rare kind of game that shouldn’t have a sequel -- at least not for another seven years -- because, honestly, what more could they possibly do? This is the pinnacle of extreme sports games.