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PLATFORM: 360, PS3
ESRB RATING: E
DEVELOPER: EA Canada
PUBLISHER: EA Sports
I remember going home from a Blockbuster used sale back in ’03 with Splinter Cell and SSX Tricky, based on good word about both from G4, back when it was actually a gaming network and not Spike 2. One of these games had guns, stealth, neck snapping, and espionage. The other was some goofy ass snowboarding game with David Arquette and Macy Gray doing voice work.
The latter game is the one still sitting on my shelf.
SSX Tricky and SSX 3 did for snowboarding what NBA Jam did for basketball, what Mutant League did for football and hockey. It made a pastime I have little to no regard for whatsoever, and made it the coolest thing on the planet. And it did so in the exact same way: Injecting it with a good healthy dose of the crazy. Jumps and tricks might take a character hundreds of feet in the air, doing a gymnastic pommel horse routine in the air, and landing without a scratch, while Run-DMC rocks a rhyme. This was a charm that the series would lose with the two entries after, leading to 5 years of silence.
I’m happy to say, with this new title, the magic is back. Not quite better than ever, but certainly more than worthy of its pedigree for the first time in too long.
Team SSX announces their comeback with an insane challenge: Their best riders will attempt to snowboard the 9 deadliest mountains on the planet. However, when OG SSX member and world class douchebag, Griff Simmons, leaves the group to conquer the mountains on his own, the brutal challenge becomes a race against time to beat Griff to the goal.
Usually, when a publisher says they want to make their game accessible, they’re talking about dumbing down the difficulty, or going easy on backstory. SSX gets it right out of the gate: A tutorial level introduces the gameplay mechanics to the newbies, throws in a few new tweaks and turns to boot, and then promptly offers old-school players option to chuck all of that madness out a window and go back to the good old, all-shoulder-button control scheme of SSX games past. Anyone who’s played Tricky or 3, outside of that tutorial, no training is required. The game will give you the extra button presses you need during the load screens as needed.
For newbs and the patient, however, the new control scheme does make perfect sense, and feels right in its own way. Either way you do it, unlike the Wii abomination, SSX is very much a pick-up-and-play game again in terms of sheer logistics.
That is until you get past the first stages and realize that, in terms of difficulty, the new SSX is a harsh, unforgiving bitch.
See, where the previous games had a focus strictly on fun-factor, this new game eases back on the wackiness of the track design (in a lot of areas, really, but we’ll get to that) and grounds the game deep in heightened realism. Mountain layouts are actually ripped from NASA topography, for fuck’s sake. That isn’t to say they don’t take some extreme liberties–good luck trying to snowboard across a Russian pipeline in real life without getting your face shot off from 57 miles away—but the track design is a unyielding as nature itself. Trick courses are just as accessible as always, but Race and Survival courses are now far more a game of strategy, split-second timing, even platforming, than ever before.
On top of that, the game’s big gimmick is the 9 Deadly Descents, each with its own particular Fuck You from Mother Earth. Everything from fallen trees, to rock solid ice, to pitch black caves, to massive chasms. And each one requires a specific piece of equipment to survive–Body Armor, oxygen masks, ice picks, headlamps, wingsuits–each with its own unique gimmick.
Is all that fun, however? I’m gonna vote yes, but admittedly, I fucking LOVE challenges. Not necessarily Hard mode challenges, where the difficulty is artificially ratcheted up by adding more and harder enemies earlier on. I mean, the kind of challenge where if you fuck up, you have no one to blame but yourself, and this game is in that former category. The tracks are diabolical, but never impossible, given enough perseverance. On top of that, the new Rewind function takes the Select button exploits from the previous games out of the equation. They do require more forethought and patience than usual, but the tension is constant, satisfying, and if completed, utterly rewarding. If getting your ass handed you several times in the span of minutes in pursuit of man’s ultimate snowboarding glory is appealing, you should own this sucker NOW. If you’re just in it to fuck around with a snowboard for a while, well, you can do that, but you’re in for a shock later.
That said, of course, besides all these, trick courses are back. The new tricks aren’t as blatantly insane as before, especially not with complete lunatics screaming about French Toast and Syrup all the way down, but they remain fun, with hundreds of ways to fly down the mountain in style, and tons of little out-of-the-ordinary shortcuts and obstacles. The first time you find yourself tricking off of your drop-off helicopter and getting an instant full Tricky bar, you’ll find yourself scratching your veins for it every time. And as long as that mode exists, there’s a place in this game that welcomes all players with open arms.
On its own terms, SSX is damn pretty. You won’t always get to admire it flying down at 100 miles an hour, but it is. The frozen tundra has been reproduced beautifully, and meshes well with the stripey rails and warning flare route markers scattered about.
The problem is….that’s it. Remember when once in a time, you could have a Zoe Payne with bat wings on fire flying down the mountain and dedicating her win to the Ramones? Or Psymon riding the gondola ON THE OUTSIDE during loading screens? Or when you could reach out, punch someone’s lights out, and have them gunning for you in the next race? Therein lies my biggest gripe with the game: The dialing back of the crazy means we lose a lot of the series’ goofy charm. In its place, the characters are generic snowboarding ciphers, just determined to be the best, waxing spiritual about the glory of the sport in cringingly awful comic book cutscenes. The kind of thing you’d see on the bottom of your tray when you went to McDonalds as a kid. On top of that, where you could once unlock seriously cool, imaginative clothes and boards, you’re pretty much relegated to palette swapped clothing, and upgraded stats on boards. The fun factor isn’t entirely dead and gone–The helicopter pilots each rider gets add some much needed snark to the proceedings–but it’s taken a major hit. Having a favorite rider was once a pure personality choice. Now you could pick from a dartboard and have roughly the same experience.
ADDENDUM: As of this writing, EA is teasing Tricky DLC, adding characters, costumes, and stages from that game. They make good on this, my main complaint will be a thing of the past, and I’ll gladly give this an edit.
Bad news: The in-game soundtrack is a few insanely catchy electro-pop tracks, a few decent indie bands, and an elephantine humpload of dubstep. Good news: EA doesn’t just offer you a custom soundtrack option, but does something that I thought went the way of all flesh after the OG XBox. There’s an option that allows any music loaded on your system to be remixed by the game depending on how and what you’re doing onscreen. Unfortunately, if you’re like me and use an iPod for your custom soundtrack needs, the soundtrack is unaffected, but the fact that the forethought was there is a godsend, and no matter what, including avalanches as an environmental hazard, and not having Hatebreed’s I Will Be Heard blasting during that shit is a criminal act, and this feature gives players no excuse. Now, if Rockstar would only give us that option again….
The main Deadly Descents can be conquered in a few hours, maybe more if you really suck. Once the main game’s over, however, you still have a truly robust set of online options, ripped from the same cloth as Rock Band 2 and 3, where the community both creates the challenges, and participates on ones set by the developers. On top of that is a neat Geotag system, allowing you to place little swirly markers in hard-to-reach places which accrue in value the longer they remain unfound. The game fosters your rivalries with your friends list and the rewards for besting them are great. There’s also a metric ton of badges to obtain which, when an entire list has been knocked out, grants achievements. For the obsessive, there’s enough to keep the game alive for months.
I may bitch that the series isn’t as animated as its forebears, but fact is, boiled down, the same game I loved is still here, given a shot in the arm by all the tools and expectations of modern gameplay. It’s a perfect little reset button to get the series off the dark, esoteric path the series almost flew down on the Wii.
SSX has hit the next gen. Go tell your momma how great it is.
8.0 out of 10