Review: SSX 3 (XB)

It had the distinction of being one of the first games I played upon my re-introduction to the console gaming world. I had taken a bit of a sabbatical from consoles in the late 90’s/early 00’s. Most of my gaming was done on the PC and, having a girlfriend/fiancée/wife, I wasn’t terribly eager to give myself yet ANOTHER idle distraction that would take away from time spent with her (awwwww). That’s not to say I was boycotting consoles. Three of my friends had N64’s and most of our get-togethers degenerated into games of Goldeneye, No Mercy, MarioKart 64, or 1080. (I would also occasionally borrow one of the N64s so that I could play something specific, namely Zelda titles.)

1080, in particular, was a house favorite. It was one of the only games Veronica enjoyed playing since it didn’t require a terrible amount of skill to race competitively. That, more than anything else I suppose, led me to rent SSX: Tricky on my first trip to the video store after I received my PS2. We were instantly glad that I did. The beautiful graphics, the playful soundtrack, and the tight-yet-forgiving controls made it a must-have for us very quickly. Veronica is not a huge gamer, so any time she asks for a game by name, you know she’s into it.

On top of that, I was impressed by the variety of courses, the attention paid to the personalities of the characters, and I was blown away by the voice work. How many video games get voice talent like Lucy Liu, David Arquette, Billy Zane, and Oliver Platt? Moreover, how many games get voice talent like that and don’t feel they have to shill the hell out of that fact? It added real depth of character to a game that would normally be just another racer.

So when I heard SSX3 was coming out, I knew I had to review it. Not because I wanted to suck up to EA Big, but because I wanted to see how they would deal with success. Would they fowl it up with unnecessary changes to a great game, or would they just take their existing great game and make it EVEN BETTER?

Game: SSX3
Platform: Xbox
Developer:
Distributor: EA Sports – Big

STORY

Gone are the days of the SSX World Tour, I’m afraid, but they’ve actually replaced it with something a bit more compelling. Now all of the action takes place on one mountain. Right, I know. One mountain. How lame is that? Actually, not at all. The mountain is broken up into three areas, represented by the three peaks of said mountain. Low peak = Level one, mid peak = 2, summit = 3. Each peak has its own set of races and freestyle events, but they also have new non-linear goals like the Freerides and the BIG Challenges. Also, each peak has a top dog of sorts to beat at both racing and freestyling, and that character will show up in cut-scenes after certain events to jaw at you. It adds a little more drama to the whole thing.

I thought the goal system on Tricky was pretty deep, what with the amount of ability points you won being connected to how well you placed in events. SSX3 makes that look positively stimulus-response in comparison. The goals are several layers deep, and there are different ways to unlock new peaks. The unlockables have just exploded bigger this time around. It’s not just wholesale outfits, boards, and ability points anymore. Everything is cost-based, giving you more freedom as to where you want to put the results of your hard play. You can now change everything from your character’s hairstyle to their pants to, in some cases, their HEADS. Imagine Psymon riding around with a Jack-O’-Lantern head. Cool, ain’t it?

I’m a little disappointed at the demise of the practice mode and the trick notebook. True, some of those tricks were insanely hard to land, but it also taught you to move away from pushing down one directional button to spin and then just holding down some random buttons. I especially loved the ones where you’d go from a grab with a twist and flip into another grab with just a twist, so you’d have to move your thumb from two directional pad keys to one while switching grab keys. That and it forced you to learn what some of the moves look like. For the rest of my life, I’ll be able to recognize a “flying squirrel” when I see it. But I’m a sucker for unlockables, and the added game modes make up for ones they jettisoned.
Story Rating: 7/10

GRAPHICS

A little give-and-take went on here, I can tell. Overall, the graphics are better. When I say that, I mean the environments are more detailed. The painted snow smears when you board over it. There’s snow. The boulders and stalactites you see falling at some times don’t look like they came out of a tutorial for 3DStudio. All-in-all, the game looked better.

So why were me and my wife complaining about the graphics?

There were two big problems with the new graphics, which I found. The first was periodic frame rate drop when you play multiplayer. It’s not horrible, but it’s there, and that’s automatically worse than Tricky. Second was that, to show off all of this great environmental goodness in multiplayer, it seems as though they’ve moved the camera back further behind the player. This led me and Veronica, experienced SSX:Tricky players both of us, to squint continuously at the screen. Now, the camera is adjustable, and you can pull it in a little bit, but it’s really not much.

Single player, I’ve got no complaints whatsoever. I was marveling at the game the entire time I played it solo. The background looks like terrain instead of a matte painting (Aloha Jam, anyone?). The trees and rails and snow and everything else looks just a little bit sharper, and that comes out without issue playing solo. Multiplayer, however, it bogs things down visually.

Graphics Rating: 7/10

SOUND

I have two major complaints about the sound for SSX3 “¦ well “¦ one mior-ish complaint one major complaint. First is that they didn’t include Run-DMC’s “Tricky” on the soundtrack. Call it a personal preference, but I really would like to have heard it in the mix with the other songs, if just for nostalgia’s sake. The major problem is the removal of all that great voice talent that Tricky sported. Bif Naked is still voicing Zoe (and how I love Zoe) but that’s pretty much it for the continuity. Not that you’d notice with the new, less-prominent character speech. Tricky seemed to feature the characters more prominently, and the speech you’d get during races and the character selection screen really filled out some of those characters. They’d even talk to themselves when they screwed up during an event. Now, you barely hear them say anything at all. As a result, the characters come off with less personality, even the established ones.

Even without Run-DMC, the soundtrack is large and well put-together. It’s mostly in the techno/hip-hop vein but everything seems to jibe well with snowboarding.

The in-game sounds were solid, but didn’t blow me away. It’s all pretty much the same noises from Tricky, which isn’t a bad thing, but isn’t going to garner you too many points for effort.

The one thing that I really did like from this version was the D.J. news reports while sledding in free form mode. It was very organic, provided some background for the principle characters indirectly, talked about the mode you were about to play and even did a little scene-setting for your eventual show-down with the peak’s top dog. I think I still would’ve rather had the more prominent character voices, but if they’d have had both, it would have been awesome. As it is, it’s slightly above average.

I should give it another point for the removal of Rozelle, but I won’t.

Sound Rating: 6/10

CONTROL

Part of the problem with this is that I was adjusting from the PS2 control system to the Xbox control system for this review. Having that one less grab button makes things seem weird to me. In fact, I’ll start with my biggest complaint about the control. The lack of a trick notebook mode means that you’re less connected with the moves you pull off. You no longer know how to perform a Rocket Booster versus a Japan. Sometimes it seemed to degenerate into “how many Uber-Tricks can you pull off in a row” more than actual creativity and style. This is especially true of the Big Air contests.

There. Now that I’ve got THAT out of the way “¦

The new additions more than make up for the shortcomings. I’m especially big on the Uber-Grinds. One of my little issues with Tricky was the lack of things to do while grinding; you could spin in place and fall off, or jump and do a trick and fall off, or just slide along and eventually fall off. Not much variety. Now, you’ve got something to do while you’re grinding away, although it’s really easy to mistime it and run right off the end of the rail mid-Uber-Grind and faceplant in the snow, but such is life. The two-tiered Uber-Tricks are an interesting, if not totally desired change for me. Maybe I’m just too used to busting out an Uber-Trick within the first hundred yards of a course. It really is more of a special occurrence when it happens now, but you’ve got to get a lot of those special occurrences to get a gold medal in some modes.

Then there is the new Board Press control, which is so subtle it may get overlooked by the majority of SSX3 players. What it amounts to is that you can pull on the RIGHT stick and shift your weight in different directions over the board. I haven’t done much with it myself other than the occasional ground loop, but I feel there’s a lot more that can be exploited with it with practice. Anybody who becomes really proficient with it, please let me know what cool stuff you can do with it, please.

The controls were smooth and, obvious changes aside, transparent with the controls for Tricky. Spinning, flipping, grabs, tweaks, Ubers, all of it the same as before. The steering is solid but forgiving; just like Tricky. Maybe the BIG guys need to talk to the EA non-BIG guys about that concept of steering for some of it’s other racing franchises.

Control Rating: 8/10

REPLAYABILITY

I miss Brody. Gah, just like all of Billy Zane’s work; horribly under-appreciated. What made Tricky so replayable wasn’t just the multiplayer racing fun or the obsessive/compulsive desire to unlock absolutely everything in the game, but the characters themselves. Okay, so you ran through everybody’s available phrases within three matches. So what? It still gave just a little bit of connection with the game that, unfortunately, is missing from SSX3.

The good news is that everything else that was in Tricky is augmented by even more modes to compete in. Tired of racing? Freestyle. Tired of freestyle? Big Air. Nada on the Big Air? How about a BIG Challenge? I suppose new modes beat compelling characters in this type of genre. Suppose? Hell, I know that.

And since the stats you pump up for each character stick around in all other modes, the obsessive/compulsive factor is once again satisfied. It’s not as compelling as it could be, but for a “fun” racer, it’s far more compelling than most.

Replayability Rating: 7/10

BALANCE

I like games that give you an option, you know? There’s something to be said for completing a certain task with a certain stat level. It requires skill and it does yield a stronger sense of accomplishment than most of my forays into sports games (QB: Cory Laflin, Overall: 99, Salary: $147 Million, Salary Cap: OFF). However, there is also something to be said for being able to pump up your stats somewhat. Cripes, your thumbs get sore eventually, and if the goal vs. skill ratio is too high, you start alienating people from the game. That’s why having the choice is so important.

This game does a great job of walking that fine line. You can use the money you earn to pump up your stats or buy new items, a la the Tiger Woods franchise. I usually pump up my stats first, and after I rule the world, then I buy the clothes and accessories to make my character look like the pimp daddy I really am.

Another point for the balance is the pseudo-free-form flow of the game. You can do what races you want when you want them. You can even head back down to a lower (easier) slope to make some dough if you want to, but if you want to press forward to beating all three peaks, the difficulty increase isn’t horrific. You will definitely be challenged if you try to take the direct route to the top, but it’s not prohibitively difficult.

Balance Rating: 8/10

ORIGINALITY

The originality here isn’t in the gameplay, snowboarding/skating games have been around for years, but in the particular implementation. The “Three Peaks” (with apologies to David Lynch) story mode makes this deeper than almost all “fun” racers or extreme sports games, the lone exception I can think of being Tony Hawk’s Underground.

Still, it’s a racing game, or at best an extreme sports game. There really isn’t any RPG aspect to it like THU. They’ve even taken out (or just severely de-emphasized) the friend/enemy engine that was so prevalent in Tricky. There’s only so high this score can go without a radical rethinking of the game flow.

Originality Rating: 7/10

ADDICTIVENESS

Here’s a lesson on making games addictive. Having a restart option on your events is a great way to keep people in front of your game for long periods of time. I don’t know how many times I restarted the Big Air Challenges. I don’t WANT to know. All I know is that I KNEW I could pull out a Gold medal, if I could JUST LAND ANOTHER UBER-TRICK!

Welcome to Addiction. Population: Me.

Go back and re-read all of the less than complimentary things I’ve written about this game so far, and know that despite all of them, I found myself STILL on the couch at 3 in the morning trying to get that one more Uber-Trick to get a Gold medal in Big Air. It all seems so damn easy, you KNOW you’ll be able to hit that move NEXT TIME, so you keep trying and trying and then you hit it and you think that you’re ready to destroy the next mode you come across so you start it and it’s got its own little slice of hell that you just can’t get your fingers to maneuver around so you try it again and again KNOWING that you’ll get it NEXT TIME and your gaming patterns end up a lot like this sentence, only a lot longer.

Combine the just-beyond-reach goals with multiple characters and somebody who likes snowboarding games and you have a case for government funding against game addiction.

Multiplayer, it may not be as addictive as Tricky (see: Graphics) but it should hold its own against other “fun” racers out there. The new modes may compensate for the degraded visuals.

Addictiveness Rating: 9/10

APPEAL FACTOR

The great thing about “fun” racers is just that; they’re fun. There aren’t many games I can get Veronica to play with me, not for lack of trying. The two dead, solid locks are SSX:Tricky and anything with Mario Kart in the title.

Single-player snowboarding fans will eat this game up with a spoon and then lick the bowl clean. They have done nothing if they have not just increased they’re stranglehold on this niche with SSX3; and I’ve always said that all games have their niche. If you can sell to your niche, that’s average. If you can own your niche, that’s good. If you can go mainstream, that is actually break out of your niche and into mass acceptance, that’s exceptional. Of course, with racers, the key to going mainstream is a kick-ass multiplayer mode, and we’ve already beat that horse. It will own the snowboarding niche for a while, but nothing more.

Appeal Factor Rating: 7/10

MISCELLANEOUS

I really liked the Psymon pumpkin head. Call me Hawthorne, but it worked for me.

I really got the feeling that they keyed this game more for the single player experience than the multiplayer experience. Of course, I come to that conclusion any time I see frame rate drops in multiplayer races. The graphics are stunning; the modes are interesting; and the characters, while losing some of their voice, are still well defined. It’s a fabulous sequel to Tricky. So why don’t I feel the absolute NEED to buy it like I did Tricky? Because before I had several people clamoring for the game whenever they came over. Now, I can’t even get Veronica behind the game. Something’s just different in the multiplayer experience. It’s not as good. Whether it’s the visual problems or the lack of character voice or the disconnect between the player and the tricks you perform or a combination of all three, something is different. Something isn’t as good.

But I can’t stand to give this a bad rating. The unlockables, the new modes, the story mode, it’s all better; and significantly so. This isn’t just an update to Tricky, SSX3 is it’s own game, and it’s a good game. Single-player, it’s an absolutely fantastic game. You’ll lose so much sleep playing this game it won’t be funny.

Miscellaneous Rating: 7/10

Story: 7/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 6/10
Control: 8/10
Replayability: 7/10
Balance: 8/10
Originality: 7/10
Addictiveness: 9/10
Appeal Factor: 7/10
Miscellaneous: 7/10
Average Rating: 7/10