Many of us have grown accustomed to seeing reboots, remakes, and updates of franchises we grew up with in the 80’s and 90s, so it makes many of us feel that much older when properties born this century are starting to get their own revivals. You can at least justify the excitement and anticipation when you have a relatively dormant property like SSX, a series that has not even graced the HD consoles. That changes next year when EA’s Burnaby studio revives the series in a re-imaging that also attempts to stick to SSX’s roots. Producer and creative director Todd Batty visited San Francisco to give members of the media a thorough update on SSX: Deadly Descents, which he says has now entered into the proper production phase.
In the same way some game developers like to use successful movie sequels for inspiration on how to approach their own sequels, Todd made mention of the latest Star Trek film and The Dark Knight as reboot reference points to craft Deadly Descents. If this 30-minute overview was a close indicator of the final product, you can expect an unsurprising, yet still compelling, approach; one that is clearly not the SSX you played ten years ago but still will pull at the nostalgia strings when it comes to the gameplay.
While the latter half of the presentation showed an ambitious project that is taking a number of risks, it was assuring that EA Burnaby started things off by delving into the fundamentals and the elements that made the original game such a hit. Todd showed this by presenting one of the tracks from the original game and striping it down to its basic terrain. If you can imagine how much game physics have improved since 2000, then you can picture how that could be applied to a track from SSX. Not only was there the unsurprisingly improvement in character fluidity, but I also got to see how the new physics can take the player beyond the half-pipe and linear track design. Todd also illustrated how barriers in past SSX tracks--barriers that would not stop snowboarders in real life--will be essentially nonexistent in Deadly Descents. That’s not to say the game will be too open for you to lose track of the finish line; just look forward to multiple ways to get down the hill.
Impressed enough with this prospect of evolved physics, I was wondering if equal time and attention would be afforded to the course offerings. Todd briefly waxed about the common approach many racing game developers experience, where a studio ambitiously plans for, say, 30 tracks but time constraints force them to whittle that number down to 26, then 20, then 16. So when Todd said that his goal was to have 300 tracks in SSX: Deadly Descents, there really wasn’t much of a reaction from the crowd of attending journalists, because I suppose we were waiting for a punch line. Well, there wasn’t one because 300 is what they plan to have, and the frightening thing is that they just might pull it off. How? By collaborating with our very own planet Earth as well as NASA, SSX: Deadly Descents will use real life mountain ranges for the courses.
Using satellite maps in games is nothing new, and certainly doesn’t automatically equate to success, especially if a studio loses sight of the fun element in getting caught up with a quest for realism. In EA Burnaby’s case, combing through countless 3D models of terrain would take an enormous amount of time when it comes to finding paths that would translate into an experience worthy of the SSX name. So by entering a series of variables and algorithms--some based off track segments and concepts that made past SSX tracks compelling--a program came up with over 2 million possible routes across all the mountains. So by comparison, 300 doesn’t seem like that high of a number.
As a way to accentuate how determined EA Burnaby is in pulling this off, Todd went on to present the track selection screen. It’s a familiar and slick interface where the globe rotates based on the various mountain ranges on the planet, as well as the player’s completion rate of each region. Expect to take your board down the slopes of Mont Blanc, the Japanese Alps, Fitzsimmons Range (home of Whistler), and many other famous and unfamiliar locales. I could already hear myself cursing at the likelyhood that EA will have trophies and achievement based on the completion all 300 tracks.
Again, all this would be wasted of the played couldn’t stay engaged. So along with the familiar gameplay of racing and tricks, SSX earns the “deadly” in its title with a third pillar called survival. While the aforementioned wide design of the tracks will be refreshing, EA manages to keep linearity relevant in this survival section. This is done by using the craggy tops of the mountain ranges themselves as another set of tracks. While linear, these courses will be stripped away of any security and judging by the video I saw, will often have cliffs on both sides and extreme environmental hazards like like dense fog and intense whiteouts.
With such conditions comes proper gear to help you survive. The game doesn’t plan to sensationalize the experience with vehicle chases and avoiding missiles, but there will be well-placed helicopters you’ll be able to grab on to, which will take you to the next death-defying slope. SSX: Deadly Descents will offer another way to leap confidently over cliffs and into areas that would be inaccessible set decoration in other snowboarding games, namely with a flight suit that lets you briefly glide.
Todd wrapped up the presentation by bringing up another feature that, like the core gameplay, connects Deadly Descents to previous installments: the characters. The only formally announced character is series mainstay Elise Riggs who, judging by the still images shown, is as serious-looking as ever. We can expect a mix of new challengers as well as other familiar ones, the latter of which will be decided later, some with the help of community feedback.
As SSX: Deadly Descents only recently exited pre-production, it was somewhat surprising to hear that EA Burnaby is shooting for a January 2012 release date. Based on everything the game has going for it with the track count, survival, and the potential of a physics-intensive playground, I definitely wouldn’t mind waiting another six months if it meant Deadly Descents gets everything right, not the least of which includes sufficient polish time.