Since the olden days of Cool Boarders, the snowboarding genre has held a special place in the hearts of many for its slick moves and over-the-top swagger, but new titles in the genre are few and far between these days.
It therefore must come as some relief to old-school shredders and grommets alike that the franchise has finally resurfaced.
SSX isn’t a ground-breaking departure from previous titles in any particular sense. Gameplay remains the same; there's plenty of sliding down steep valleys at speed utilising conveniently placed jumps and rails for sweet point and speed bonuses, and it's all set to some funky beats.
Though there’s plenty of the tried and true on offer, EA have twisted some of SSX’s essential elements around a notch in a bid to bring the franchise into the modern world, or at least differentiate it somewhat from its antecedents.
The first fresh taste of powder comes in World Tour mode, where players must guide Team SSX to glory against their derivative arch-rival “Griff” by being the first to claim the nine Deadly Descents of the world. Each of the nine regions contains two mountains with several runs each, all of which must be completed before players can take on the local deadly descent.
All of the nine deadly descents have a unique hazard to overcome with the assistance of various technological aids. Some of these aids – such as the wing suit used to soar over gaping crevasses – are fun. Others, such as the oxygen tanks, can occasionally be an exercise in frustration. The hazards run a gauntlet from the obvious, to the frustratingly weird. In Alaska, the camera is reversed for some slopes where the aim is to avoid getting caught in an avalanche, while in Africa players are required to navigate winding volcanic passages with the aid of a minuscule headlight.
As the World Tour progresses, new characters are unlocked for each region, and the game allows the purchase of new gear with credits players have earned from successful runs. Entitled with RPG-esque names like “Rare All-Around Board” and “Legendary Protective Armour”, these items offer statistical improvements to give a bit of edge, and can be paired with various mods that provide further boost or trick bonuses.
The mountains are purportedly mapped by satellite data from NASA, but it’s kind of hard to notice that in the middle of a BS 720 Switch Uber Squirrel Tweak. It’s also debatable as to whether or not there’s even a passing resemblance to their real-life counterparts given the conveniently placed grind rails and sculptured jumps, but on the whole there’s enough variety in the level design to keep boarders amused whether they’re cruising the jagged spires of Patagonia, or the breathless heights of Mt. Everest. Aoraki Mt. Cook features as one of the Deadly Descents, although the presence of trees above the New Zealand snowline in SSX is just a little jarring.
There are a healthy number of tracks to conquer, but World Tour mode takes the player’s hand by requiring them to be completed linearly, which contrasts markedly with the sense of autonomy, or freedom espoused by previous titles and the wider genre. After earning a few more credits, yet-to-be unlocked tracks can be purchased through Explore mode. This allows those who refuse to be lead the ability to familiarise themselves with all slopes in the game while completing some of the 100 challenges on offer, before eventually testing their skills online.
RiderNet is SSX’s social network, allowing players to track their online rivals’ activity as well as their latest achievements. RiderNet is also able to recommend on-going races and challenges to compete in through the interactive globe featured on the main menu screen. A welcome relief from the stale lobbies of traditional multiplayer gaming, the simplicity of the globe is one example where EA’s tweaking has been on the money. RiderNet can also be accessed through an iPhone app, so Global Events and stats can be kept track of any time, anywhere.
Global Events give thousands of players the opportunity to compete with each other tournament-style on the same slope for glory and credits within a specific time frame, which can last from hours to days. The higher the bracket placing, the bigger the pay-out, the sweeter the gear. Some events require a cover charge before they drop, so it pays to do well, or at least test the waters in free events before moving on to the big leagues.
Geotags are another new feature to SSX, and take the form of markers that can be earned, bought and placed. Once dropped, they’ll stay in that location for 24 hours, increasing in worth the longer they go unnoticed with a sizeable pay out for the placer if not picked up. This leads some crafty souls to deposit theirs in unlikely locations, such as the bottom of a crevasse. With some dedication these can be spotted and duly collected, but it’s all the more gratifying to accidentally pick up somebody’s hard-placed tag in the midst of trying out a new route.
The difficulty curve in SSX is really only constrained to unorthodox slopes such as the Alaskan avalanche runs and the volcanic caverns in Africa. In every other way SSX holds to the arcade traditions of its predecessors. Barring direct collisions with rocks and trees in which the player can sometimes find themselves irreversibly stuck, it’s pretty difficult to wipe out as long as death-defying board spins are finished before board meets ground.
It’s not all a cake walk however, cliff faces and crevasses are often hard to identify until it’s too late, so practice is required for the perfect run. These pitfalls can be avoided with liberal use of the new rewind feature that allows lines to be retraced up to a certain point, but it’s the smoother, less dangerous tracks where the SSX of yore really shines.
In spite of the most obvious missteps, SSX is a reasonably good high-definition successor to previous titles. The key ingredients of speed and steeze are here, but rather than polishing those features to a fine modern finish, the developers have thrown in some new toys to varying effect. Multiplayer is accessible from the get-go and suits casual players as well as it does zealous point hoarders. Some of the attempts at innovation are more of a sideshow than anything else, and detract from the gameplay experience that made SSX and its genre contemporaries so compelling. Wing suit excluded, naturally.
SSX’s first foray since 2008 is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the core game is as addictive as it ever was. In lieu of any other serious contenders on the horizon, there’s enough of it here to keep the groms happy until the next run.