SSX Hands-On Preview -- Can the Reboot Soar Above Its Ambitious Goals?By Miguel Concepcion - Posted Oct 04, 2011
One often used naming convention for many ambitious reboots is to go with the simplified title approach. Star Trek. Ninja Gaiden. Wolfenstein. Tomb Raider. Then there’s SSX, a game that has so far been following the reboot playbook: create something that will resonate with the fans of the franchise while establishing its own identity. It appears to continue down that often-challenging path based off our most recent hands-on session with the game.
When I first learned that the latest SSX would use actual mountains mapped through satellites, it seemed like a solid basis to indeed set itself apart from the past installments. EA Burnaby essentially fed a computer millions of downhill mountain routes and asked it, “What would be the ‘funnest’ downhill paths?” Then the studio took liberties with those paths and gave them liberal amounts of half pipes, jumps, and tons of grinding opportunities.
This kind of creative license also extends to the decorative touches that tell you what part of the world you’re in. One Asian course has its share of imagery that’s meant to evoke the Great Wall of China with the addition of at least one Buddha head. There’s a Cold War vibe with the Russian setting as you’ll come across a number of nuclear plants, which happen to have an unsurprising amount of grinding opportunities along buildings and small cooling towers. It’s somewhat cliched, though at least it doesn’t reach the level of Disneyland ‘It’s A Small World’ cartoony excess. This brings to mind the game’s pervasive gritty look when compared to the vibrant color palate of the past SSX titles. It’s fitting that the one aesthetic thread that connects SSX to the previous installments are the designs for familiar characters like Kaori and Elise.
EA’s latest build offered us three courses, none of which had multiplayer or races against AI. It was a solo affair that allowed me to experiment with tricks without worrying about being first to the bottom. Those scoring possibilities felt endless in the scheme of the relatively open courses. As designed, there is no right way to make it to the bottom and this sense of exploration seems to benefit the game’s tricking system the most. More than anything, I was immensely pleased that EA Burnary didn’t toy around much with the classic SSX controls that I dare say has the familiarity of riding a bike after not having done so for five years. It speaks to how much the original game got so much right the first time.
The gravity-based mode that utilizes the wingsuit is an understandably more narrow experience. While this specific track didn’t have the heart-racing tension of having to escape an avalanche (as seen in some trailers), there were more than enough cliffs and crevices to overcome. The wingsuit can be activated using the same button used for jumping. Overall I found the gliding to be a welcome change of pace over the more traditional downhill modes of the sport. It’s both thrilling to defy death a couple dozen times in a single route and deal with the challenge of flying your intended path in the face of winds that want to push you off course. This mode was so focused on gliding that it was an added challenge just to fit in a handful of tricks. This was compounded by the fact that some of the landing areas were small enough that I was too busy mentally preparing for the next jump-and-glide to even think about pulling off a high scoring trick.
With so many back-to-back-to-back jumps, I started to wonder: Could I possibly skip some of the landing areas and just fly over two crevices in a single jump? After about a dozen attempts, it didn’t seem like SSX was designed for that. I only pulled off this daredevil jump once, and there wasn’t any special recognition for doing so.
Inspired by its own Autolog platform (used most notably in last year’s Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit), EA has suddenly become one of the biggest advocates of asynchronous multiplayer on consoles, adding a similar feature to SSX. Aptly titled RiderNet, this feature makes for a fine complement to the classic online multiplayer. Like Autolog, this is a dynamic and evolved version of leaderboards, where you’re notified of friends’ high scores and hopefully find incentives to beat those scores beyond sheer bragging rights.
Of the various Q1 2012 titles I’ve tried, SSX is the one I’ve found to be the roughest out of all of those games. It’s somewhat unsurprising considering the ambition that has gone into the level design. Creating levels based on satellite mapping is one thing, but that would go to waste if the game wasn’t enjoyable. Considering what EA managed to carve out with the snowboarding genre over ten years ago, I want to continue to have high hopes for the game, so much so that I wouldn’t mind if a delay meant we get a polished snowboarding game worthy of the SSX name.