EA Sports has itself one expertly designed and well put together game with SSX. The huge, multi-path runs and silky smooth controls more than offset any minor stumbles.
- SSX is still the best extreme snowboarding game on the planet
- New control mechanics work very well, and classic controls are still available
- Merit-based multiplayer keeps things competitive even when your friends aren't online
- The in-game store is neither explained nor designed very well
- No good pre-event indicator of what to expect from a given run
Your clenched knuckles turn the same shade of white as the powdered snow on the ground as you lean your entire body into each twitch of the thumbstick. Your lead on the three other snowboarders racing down the mountain isn't enough to protect you from even the slightest mistake.
And then it happens: you go left when you should have gone right, sailing headfirst into a yawning chasm of ice, cloud vapors and nothingness. Your scream is loud enough to trigger an avalanche, or it would be if you were still in the race. You can rewind the action, but it's a futile gesture. The other racers have blown past you and are already closing in on the finish line. Your lead is blown, and there's nothing for it except a race restart.
Welcome to SSX.
EA Sports' much-loved, long-lived snowboarding franchise is finally a current-generation contender on high-def TVs. Not that it has much to contend with. This is no Shaun White game. SSX is all over-the-top physics and a too-cool-for-school soundtrack. It's a style of downhill snowboarding game that we just haven't seen much of in the last six or so years, with the exception of the Wii-exclusive SSX Blur.
SSX isn't without its new features, as you'll learn soon enough, but the epic runs and insane trick lines remain. You'll frequently find yourself sailing through open air for many seconds at a time, only to land in a grind along the edge of an abandoned factory's roof, which in turn drops you directly into yet another mile-high launch. The sort of thrill that comes from nailing a multi-million point combo can't be faked; if you're doing it right, there's almost a sense that you've become one with the game.
The backdrop for all of the game's many point sprees is, fittingly enough, the official return of the SSX team. The band gets back together for a globe-spanning tour down the world's nine "Deadly Descents," along the slopes of death-dealing mountains like Everest and Killimanjaro. Before you can tackle each location's marquee mountain, essentially a "boss" slope, you'll need to compete in a variety of trick and race events against fellow SSX team members as well as Griff, the former SSXer who is now on a quest to one-up his former fellows by besting their Deadly Descent performances.
The so-called Deadly Descents introduce a new wrinkle into the SSX universe: Survive It! challenges. Each range's marquee mountain features some kind of environmental hazard that requires you to have a specific type of gear equipped. It could be straight-up armor for tree-filled or rocky environments, a breathing mask for extreme high altitudes or a wingsuit for getting yourself across otherwise un-jumpable expanses. Finish the Survive It! run on each range and you finish out the range.
That's the framework for the single player portion of the game, though it hardly encapsulates the complete experience. In truth, this latest SSX is built for the online generation. Once you've gone through the training motions, the game's Explore and Global Events modes become unlocked. Along with them are the game's 150+ drops, only a fraction of which are part of the story mode. Your online performance is tracked and shared with friends and rivals in RiderNet, which is basically the SSX equivalent of EA's Autolog and Battlelog online communities.
Some New Tricks For This Old Dog
The biggest change in SSX for fans of the series is an entirely new control scheme built on -- what else? -- right analog stick-based board tricks. The stick essentially doubles as your chosen rider's hands; push in any direction to grab your board on the equivalent side. You can also twirl the stick or double back to modify your move or grab one side of the board with the opposite hand while the right trigger can be held down to apply an additional modifier.
The classic button-based controls are still available to keep the purists happy, but the default analog scheme actually works very well and is easy to get used to. This is largely because it flat-out makes sense; one stick manages your hand movements for grabs and the other handles your mid-air spins and flips. There's also no need to carefully right yourself as you come in for a landing; simply let go of the stick and triggers, and your boarder will automatically level out. That alone is a huge change, one that keeps the game's flow moving at a magically breakneck pace.
The online integration is a real revelation as well. The story is definitely a well-developed beast on its own, offering six to eight hours of game as it gives you a feel for each of the nine mountain ranges while comic book-style sequences introduce you to the various characters. The Explore and Global Events modes are the real meat of the game, however.
Explore is technically not just an online mode. Really, it's just a more complete offering of the game's various runs than the sampler platter story offers. Everything you do is hooked in with RiderNet, so your downhill times and scores are recorded for others to try to beat. You can still jump in and ride every one of the game's runs even if you're not on a web-connected console.
The traditional style of linking up with other riders in a multiplayer lobby and then hitting the slopes isn't how things are built in SSX. You can create custom events and join your friends on the slopes, but the online play for the most part is built more around the idea of improving your personal bests and setting milestones for your friends and rivals to try to top. If you're familiar with Autolog then you already have a sense of how this works: the game will tell you for each run how your friends or marked rivals are faring and who's waiting to be beaten.
The concept of pushing for better and better scores is carried over into the more multiplayer-focused Global Events mode. While all of the competitive RiderNet trappings remain in this mode, each run is also home to a medal-based challenge, with the goal being to earn a score or land a better time than each tier (bronze, silver, gold, platinum, diamond).
The tier milestones are constantly in flux based on the number of players participating and hitting those marks. There's also a prize pot, with credits doled out to placeholders in each tier when the time on the challenge runs out. Once the timer hits zero, a new challenge is created and the process begins all over again. Some events are free to enter while others cost some credits, in turn making for a larger prize pot as more people join.
Managing Your SSX Team
Earned credits are good for more than just buying access to additional runs in Explore mode and Global Events competitions. There's a persistent progression system in place for all unlocked riders. You can pay to unlock them or simply play the story mode from beginning to end. Each rider has different specialties, realized in-game as point boosts in specific skill categories. As they level up, each rider will be able to purchase better and better gear.
It's here that we find one of the bigger missteps in SSX. The in-game store is not very well realized. Before each event you're presented with an equipment screen where you get to set up which suit, board and gear your chosen rider will use, as well as Geotags and mods. The latter two are more useful in online play. Geotags can be dropped anywhere in the environment for others to find and collect; the longer they sit out in the world, the more experience and credits you earn when they're eventually collected. Mods are single-use items that give you a boost in one stat or another for as long as you're on a particular run.
Suits, boards and gear come in many different flavors. You have a selection of four to buy in each category for any given run. If you buy one item, its vacated spot is immediately filled with another item from the game's hundreds-large selection. The problem is that there's no master store where you can go to shop for specific items. It's completely randomized. This makes room for more expensive rare items (and their improved stats) to occasionally appear, but there's little explanation in the game as to how it all works, which makes it easy to waste credits on dumb purchases early on.
There's also no real sense from the map screen of what you're supposed to expect from a given run. Story mode helps you get acquainted with the hazards in each location, but it's a lot of information to keep track of. Even something as simple as real-world green circle, blue square and black diamond designations would be a big help in figuring out which runs are the right fit for different skill levels.
The challenge level overall can feel a little extreme at times, especially with some of the runs you encounter later on in the story. Really though, it's all built around the idea of learning the environments and finding the runs that suit your skills. You'll even be prompted to skip to the next event in story mode if you fail more than a handful of times.
It's a tough puzzle to piece together at times as a result, but it's important to remember that all of the pieces do fit. EA Sports has itself one expertly designed and well put together game here. The huge, multi-path runs and silky smooth controls more than offset any minor stumbles. Whether you're a fan of the series or a newcomer looking for some thrilling downhill extreme sports action, you can rest assured that SSX is once again the king of all hills.
Want more information on how we score reviews? Read the "How G4 Reviews Work" article here.
Editor's Note: SSX was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game; however, we also played the PS3 version, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.