SSX Gamescom 2011 Preview -- The Competitive Side of Globetrotting Mountain GhostsBy Sinan Kubba - Posted Aug 19, 2011
The technology going into the upcoming revamp of the flamboyant snowboarding franchise SSX is absolutely insane. The new game is using NASA satellite data in a program that EA Burnaby call Mountain Man to visualize around 150 real-life snowboarding ranges, including ones in Africa, the Rockies, and Alaska. If that’s not enough, the interface to select which range you want to ride down isn’t your typical menu-scrolling affair as that would not be enough for the developers. Instead, you navigate a globe powered by Google Earth. If that’s not abuse of privilege, then I don’t know what is.
We’ve known in rough outlines about the mapping tech going into SSX, but this week during its Gamescom 2011 press conference, EA revealed a new online system for the game called RiderNet. The comprehensive-looking system promises a whole range of features including global events with potentially massive numbers of participants. That really piqued what was an already sky-high interest in the game on my part, so it was inevitable that I would track down EA Burnaby’s creative director Todd Batty to find out more about how RiderNet was going to work in practice.
First, though, he takes me through a hands-on with the Explore Mode, and riding down Silverthrone Mountain in Alaska takes me right back to SSX 3 and SSX Tricky. The core rhythm of tricking to earn boost, boosting to speed up into jumps, and then using those big jumps to pull off crazy tricks and get big points is very much intact. Even the controls essentially map to the previous games, and fans of the series will have no problem acclimatizing to how the game feels. Pull enough big tricks in a row and the multiplier ramps up until you reach all the way to Tricky Mode, and while in Tricky Mode, you can pull off the big impossible poser grabs and jumps that make SSX what it is.
It’s also good to see the unrealism within the realism of the mountain range. Even though the game does use that NASA technology, EA Burnaby has sprinkled some creative license over each one of the game’s ranges, so this Alaskan range has some nice think Alaskan pipes to grind on. Another great example: Chinese mountain ranges will have bits of the Great Wall of China – presumably stolen bits.
Batty is quick, though, to not undersell the core mechanics as mere reiteration. “We built a physics engine that truly delivers on next-generation style SSX gameplay. Everything you see in the world is 100 percent ride-able; if you can see it then you can ride it. If it has any kind of a sharp edge to it then you can grind it and do grind tricks. It basically means that while we still have big kickers and ramps to point you towards some big air opportunities, you can just ride off the walls of the world and do some really cool things on stuff that was never even put into your path or intended to be jumped.”
I try to do some of that, but I’ll admit it’s been a couple of years since I last put SSX 3 into my PS2 and I’m ring rusty, so I’m struggling to really land anything I’m doing on the regular jumps let alone with experimenting with the environment. Thankfully, the game has a handy rewind feature, and with a single button press, I can travel back through time and remedy one of many errors. Having said that, nothing really gets in the way of me in the environment, and I’m able to pull some crazy jumps off walls and rocks that didn’t seem likely initially. On the rare occurrence that I do pull off a big trick like a Super Über Indy Grab - a close arm grab with far too many twirls to be sane - it produces a neat visual effect of a ripple running through the snow ahead of me.
A few facefuls of snow later and I’m ready to move on to seeing how RiderNet plays out. As Batty explains to me, it’s an online system which builds up from the very basic idea of wanting to beat a friend’s score. Each time you post a personal best in the game that uploads a ghost to the RiderNet server, and one that you can see yourself when you ride the mountain. On a side note, the ghost has a very long tail that is useful for remembering routes and, when looking at other players’ ghosts, for working out the routes they take to rack up the big scores down various mountains.
So, RiderNet will also alert friends to your personal best, and they can then take on a challenge to beat your score and race against a ghost of your PB. If they win, then they earn a monetary reward that can be used to upgrade and customize gear, but if they fail, then that’s more money in your bank. Either way, you’ll be notified of the outcome over RiderNet, immediately if you’re online or whenever you next log back into the game.
If they do challenge and beat your PB, then they become a rival of yours, and you can continue your rivalry by trying to beat their new PB, until the battle is going back and forth between you. The battle can even run on while you’re offline, so that the next time you log into the game, you might find that a friend has failed to beat your awesome score despite tens of tries – that means big money. It’s this idea of multiplayer without the hassle of scheduling everyone to meet at the same time in an online lobby that really pervades through RiderNet, and no more so than in the Global Events mode.
Here players can create and take part in trick, race, and deadly descent events that take place over minutes, hours, or even days. You can hop in and out of these events, posting a top score at your leisure and trying to rank as high on the event leaderboard. These events can be between friends, or even friends of friends, or against absolutely everyone. That means there’s no cap on these events, and no-one would love it more than EA Burnaby if they could pull together events with hundreds of thousands of people taking part, all keeping up with the big global events through RiderNet’s social network integration in things like Twitter, Facebook, and so on. At the moment, this is just a vision.
Regardless, it lends itself to the idea of even grander vision. I ask Batty if the team has considered the idea of events with real-life rewards, similar to what’s expected of the Call of Duty Elite system, and a wry smile accompanying a “Nothing can be said at this time” suggests the idea has most certainly crossed the minds at EA Burnaby. It’s a definite watch-this-space on that.
RiderNet will sound like heaven to the busy gamers who’d love to play online multiplayer but don’t have the time, but is there enough there to wow the more frequent flyers looking for more direct, one-on-one online gaming? That remains to be seen, as does how the third part of the new SSX triforce of “Play it. Trick it. Survive it” will play out in practice. While the Deadly Descent side of SSX didn’t get the warmest of receptions, I’m still keen to see how it’s going to fit in to the game.
Maybe it’s because based on my time with the game here at GamesCom I have a sense of the old SSX very much alive in the new game, and it’s not just down to how the game feels. There’s that SSX personality in there in little touches like the helicopter that drops you off, a kind of ramshackle chopper with an old movie poster on it and cardboard boxes on the sides. It’s that quirky personality which makes SSX what it is as much as the ridiculously impossible tricks do, at least for me.