The “X,” She Is Back
Remember the 90s when everything was “Xtreme?” A time when you were a more intense person who lived on the edge simply because you drank Mountain Dew instead of Coke or Pepsi? Are you pining for a return to that youthful time when all that mattered was doing crazy stunts and stickin’ it to The Man? If you are, then you’re in good company with EA Canada, because after a long hiatus, they’ve come back with a new SSX game, and while that rebellious attitude has the unmistakeable sheen of calculated, corporate polish, it still feels mostly like the same old anarchist on a board trying out some new tricks, only one of which doesn’t work very well.
I Can See My House From Here
EA Canada and SSX have never been in any kind of competition with their relative, BioWare, so don’t expect any kind of engaging plot here. Zoe Payne, one of the original characters from the series, has decided that the SSX event has been dormant long enough, and gathers the snow boarders back to tackle nine treacherous mountain rangers in order to impress their crowd source investors with an event known as “The Deadly Descents.” Unfortunately, former wunderkind Griff Simmons is now all grown up and angry at the original SSX crew, determined to beat them to the Deadly Descents for reasons that don’t seem particularly mature or sensible. With that extremely loose conflict set in place, the rest of the crew—including old favorites like Elise Riggs and Mac Fraser.
Moving onto the presentation, the one thing that everyone expects in an SSX game—particularly from a studio based in Canada—is that they damn well better get the snow right. They do. SSX makes the transition to HD consoles in good shape. It’s not going to turn heads in the same way that a Gears of War or Uncharted game will, but it’s a definite step up from the previous generation in scope and detail. The mountains—as famously quoted endlessly by EA themselves—are based off actual satellite topographical data that is then heavily ignored and abused by the level designers as they put in all manner of pipe, train wreck and random parts of the Great Wall of China to make them fun to board through. Colors are bright and vibrant and keep the freewheeling, fun attitude of the series intact. The characters have also gotten retouched, though here they definitely err on the more realistic side compared to past iterations of the series. Don’t expect thin, cartoony anatomy anymore, they all look like they could be real people now, though they don’t have a lot of high texture or polygonal detail when you see them up close in the chopper before each level begins. Since most of the time you see their back as they swoop, jump and plummet off mountain cliffs, that’s not exactly a surprise. The most important graphical note however, is that this is one of those games where the emphasis was put on what’s under the hood rather than the paint job, as it were. It might not stack up against the graphical heavy hitters of this generation, but you’re also getting super smooth frame rates that never drop, zero screen tearing, and no draw-in or pop-up whatsoever. Sure, you can’t see freckles and scratches on boards, but you get absolutely phenomenal technical performance in exchange. I’d say that’s a more than fair trade.The sound will, to some, be a minor point of contention. There’s the absence of DJ Atomikia as your constant companion. The former SSX commentator has been relegated to cut scenes, while three new chopper pilots act as your eyes and advisors during the run across the globe. The music, as always, is an eclectic mix of tunes ranging from fast beats, to slower more methodical club tunes and the unavoidable dip into the dubstep genre that’s currently all the rage. This is also where some may cry foul, as there’s an almost too self-conscious inclusion of the original “Tricky” sample here, given the dub step treatment. As with previous games, all the riders are voiced to some degree, randomly throwing out comments during the course of a drop, with Kaori still babbling Japanese phrases while Zoe occasionally bursts forth with “I’M THE QUEEN OF THE WORLD!” after particularly impressive trick combos. It still all feels SSX-y, though to some it may feel a bit too forced in its SSX-iness. There is no denying however, that this is a game that will give your speakers a workout in surprising ways. SSX has played quite a bit with sound over the years, such as with little aural touches like the music fading down as your boarder took to the air, and that same playfulness is still on show here. Subwoofers nearly explode when your boarder is at the height of a trick combo and then finally returns to the earth, causing the ground to literally swell around them with an appropriate, earthquake-like tremor. Music still gets distorted as you travel in and out of tunnels, and an array of audio cues play out to give you an indication of how well you’re tricking. It is a noisy game, but in a good way that escapes the barrage of explosions that usually pass as standard game fare in audio soundscapes.
Tricking For 2012
As to be expected from a game that hasn’t been subjected to an annual release schedule, there are a lot of changes made to the old formula. Fortunately, the old formula is still largely intact. You’ll pick your character, go through one of three modes, World Tour, Explore and Global Events and level yourself up. World Tour is the single player campaign that takes you through all the mountains in linear fashion, re-familiarizing yourself with the SSX play mechanics as well as learning the new systems. Skill points have been eliminated in favor of piling all attributes into gear, which can be purchased with SSX credits acquired through participating in events.
The first thing SSX vets might notice right off the bat is the new control scheme. For the staunch traditionalists, the classic control scheme is still available, but thanks to EA’s Skate series, a new twin analog stick system is in place that in many ways is easier, faster and more responsive to use compared to the traditional control system. SSX also once again returns to discrete mountain ranges, a total of nine in all, with different tracks that all fall under the three spectrums of tricking for the highest score, racing for the qualifying position, and finally “Deadly Descents” which was the name EA was originally going to give to this latest iteration before—wisely—deciding that this feature shouldn’t get top billing. The mechanics and controls still work well, with some truly inspired level design that takes a great many liberties with the initial foundation of satellite mapping for the nine mountain ranges. The Great Wall of China may not actually be anywhere up in the lofty ranges of the Himalayas, but it’s almost a crime to not have some of it lying around for massive grind sessions. The trick system is also identical to past mechanics of the series, with a series of tricks turning into a combo, and a sufficient number of combos increasing your multiplier, which in turn cranks up the audacity of your tricks, in a positive feedback loop that encourages you to get crazier and crazier for larger scores. This is the essence of SSX, and this has retained the fun that fans of the series will remember.
Unfortunately, once you start getting into the meat of the game, it becomes apparent that of the three modes, World Tour is probably the weakest link in the chain, and that’s because of the “boss mountains;” the Deadly Descents. World Tour plays out in a way most fans will be familiar with, as the events require either a top placing in terms of race position or trick score. It’s only as you near the end of each of the nine mountain ranges that a Deadly Descent pops up as the final hurdle before moving onto the next region. This is where SSX goes all pear shaped. The fun of experimentation and exploration that rest of the game banks on is thrown out the window in favor of a much more punishing memorization based game with repeated restarts. A Deadly Descent is essentially a race down the mountain with a serious mechanical limitation, such as dark surroundings with only a head lamp, or ice sheets where tight turns are nearly impossible without judicious use of an ice pick. These courses are usually littered with bottomless pits and a limited number of “rewinds”—a Prince of Persia style mechanic to turn back time and try again—so players are pretty much guaranteed to spend their first encounter with a Deadly Descent starting the mountain over and over again until they commit it to memory.
This is in absolute contrast to the rest of the game, where the challenge comes not from the mountain itself, but in bettering your own performance. Races are about finding the best line down the mountain, and tricking is about improving your own skill. Only in the Deadly Descents does the game become reduced to finishing the level at all, and only here are you punished for experimentation. It’s the newest addition to the franchise, but in many ways it’s also one that needs to go. The latest Twisted Metal game also suffered from the same lack of confidence in its core mechanics, straying away from its winning, central formula in order to try and provide something different. While World Tour is not as badly paced as Twisted Metal’s single player campaign, the Deadly Descents do create dramatic difficulty spikes so out of whack with the rest of the game’s difficulty curve that it can be problematic.
Fortunately, the other two modes pick up any slack left behind by World Tour. Explore is simply all nine mountain ranges unlocked, with a variety of tracks and events, free for players to explore at their leisure. “Ridernet,” the SSX equivalent of Need for Speed’s “Autolog” keeps tabs on the progress of friends on your list that also own the game, constantly informing you of their progress and whether or not their personal bests have beaten any of yours on these different tracks. Explore is, in some ways, the way SSX is meant to be played—at least in single player—with its freedom, openness, and encouragement to simply try your luck, see what you can do, and find the method and style that work for you. In keeping with this, there’s also a new feature known as “Geotag” that allows players to place these tags anywhere in the game world that they can reach. Once placed, the Geotags slowly collect credits until another player manages to reach the same spot and collect it. This creates an interesting new game of “hide and seek” with players attempting to get extra credits by placing tags in out the way places that no one would think to look, or simply being so skilled, and getting enough air that they place the tag in an area that only the very best have a chance of reaching.
Then there is Global Events, which is the “asynchronous multiplayer” that EA Canada has conceived for this game. SSX in some ways, has a spiritual relative in this month’s super arty release Journey. In both cases, all lobbies and methods of communication have been completely disabled. You just start to play and you may or may not end up playing with others. Global Events works by running events—either provided by EA or created by players themselves—with a “pot” for total grand prize money of SSX credits, that may or may not have an entry fee. As player participate, their scores or times are tracked and when the event is over, prizes are awarded based on your final placement at the close. These events can run for days, so there’s no schedule or appointment keeping to worry about, and as you jump in, you can see other players simultaneously competing. It’s an unorthodox way to maintain a multiplayer system, but it also—combined with Ridernet—completely eliminates the need for players to coordinate schedules if want to compete with each other. For those players that want a traditional multiplayer experience where they play together, it’s still possible to set up a private event and invite friends to it, it’s just not the way SSX prefers you to play.
Combined, both Explore and Global Events have enough content going to theoretically keep players going forever. And that’s not considering the inevitable DLC that EA is going to supplement the game with. As it is, they’ve already made it possible for players to purchase additional in game SSX credits with real money if they’re too impatient to win them the legit way. It’s a foregone conclusion that this game will enjoy more tracks and other kinds of possible expansions as time passes.
This is, for fans of the SSX franchise, a safe buy. The Deadly Descents and unconventional multiplayer may disappoint some, but the basic foundation of racing and tricking has made a graceful, high powered transition to HD consoles. If you were on the fence about this game but had fond memories of SSX 3 or SSX Tricky, you will likely be pretty happy with this latest addition to the series. If you were even mildly curious and open about this franchise, this is a great place to start.