Review: SSX (Sony Playstation 3)

SSX
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Genre: Sports
Released: 02/28/12

SSX was an interesting franchise back on the old Playstation 2 and Gamecube. I never bothered with the first and honestly, I would not have tried Tricky except for the fact I received it as a gift one Christmas. In those long days between the Fall and Winter semester that Christmas break so nicely separated, I had nothing to do but plunge headlong into the world of snowboards, absurdly high jumps and crazy tricks. It didn’t take long to make me a fan either. Tricky had style and it had a finesse to it. It also didn’t take itself as seriously as the other snowboarding games did. The follow up to Tricky was SSX 3, which took place all on a single glorious mountain. It was possible to start at the very tip of the mountain and work your way down through every other track in the game. Accomplishing this felt awesome. After 3, SSX and I parted ways for a bit. Gameplay tastes changed, some games were released on systems I didn’t have, and basically the genre sort of petered out. Now it’s back, and more realistic than ever! Did you see that trailer they chose to announce the game with? It was all dark and brooding! Exactly what is needed to infuse confidence in an old school shredder! Yeah, that went over like lead balloon, and suddenly SSX: Deadly Descents became simply “SSX.” Lets see what EA have done with the brand shall we?

Story:

SSX games need a story like fish need wings. So to find that this SSX game has a story mode was mildly disappointing. And that is then furthered by the underwhelming discovery that the story is told via “Comic Book” pages in a manner similar to inFamous or Sly Cooper. Except there is no voice over reading the text, and the videos play too quickly for anyone but a speed reader to finish. So we’re off to a rough start.

Basically the story goes as follows. Zoe Payne decides to form team SSX, which now stands for Surfing Snowboarding and Motorcross for some reason, to fight reality and other jingoistic crap. Basically there are nine mountain ranges out there that have Deadly Descents, and Zoe wants team SSX to conquer them and broadcast this to the world via the Internet, and make loads of money. Except before they can begin this assault on reality, one of the founding members, Griff, decides to break off and do it all himself. So now its a race for glory and sponsorship dollars.

The story is about as shallow as a fighting game, and frankly I would have preferred it if they hadn’t bothered at all, but it’s only one mode of the three available to gamers, and it does do a nice job of introducing the game play types and characters for players to unlock.

Audio:

I felt the music in SSX Tricky was perfect. It had the right combo of genres and musicians. Since then every game has been forced to live up to that standard, and they haven’t always succeeded. Sadly SSX is a game that fails miserably in its choice of music. Thankfully EA is aware that there are curmudgeons like me out there and they have taken the opportunity to let you use your own songs which are stored on your PS3’s hard drive as a custom sound track replacement. Your music won’t always take precedence, and be sure to give yourself a large selection of music unless you want to run a song in to the ground, but I like that EA have decided to let PS3 users see what Xbox gamers have grown used to.

Whether on disc or customized, the music is very well integrated into the game. When riding down a hill things sound as they should, but if you take a huge jump the sound fades out a bit. I imagine this might happen if your heart rate explodes and your focus is taken up by the fact that you are now airborne. Riding through tunnels and chasms is also amazing, as your music will start to reverberate off the walls. Exit the tunnel, exit the reverb. Very well thought out sound design. Often while grinding on some ledge, the music will drop into a loop and then exit once you have completed playing the MMO. Err…that is when you have finished the grind. This will happen even when you are using your own music as well. It can get a little irritating if its a part of the song which really shouldn’t be looped, but I think overall its an excellent use of interactive audio, not seen since the days of LucasArts and iMuse.

Unfortunately you are forced to endure the game’s music during the Deadly Descent events. This is not a good thing. One Descent was just an alarm siren sounding at different intensities for the entire run. Or else it was dubstep. And it just sounded like a siren. I don’t know. I do know I didn’t enjoy it.

Lastly DJ Atomica makes a return appearance in the game, but only to move the story along after you unlock new mountains. And it sounds so bad I can’t help but feel like they just got him to literally phone in his lines. So depending on how you feel about the Encyclopedia Atomica, that will either be sad news or something you could care less about. I just pass things along as I see em.

Graphics:

The initial fears of SSX being turned into some horrible concoction of Medal of Honor and Tony Hawk can at last be assuaged. The game, while certainly a little bit darker than past SSX iterations is not filled with nothing but shades of brown and gray. There are certainly levels where the sky is gray, even black, but the characters are full of color, the boards are wonderfully artistic and the tricks are as flashy as ever.

The levels are varied, and each mountain range offers a unique take on local flavor. The Alps level is sprinkled with Chateaus and Chalets, while the Antarctic level is completely devoid of all but a few bits of civilization. Siberia looks like something you might find in the nightmare of a survivor of the USSR, while the PS3 exclusive board Mt Fuji in Japan looks best of all, featuring a mountain that is snowy at the top but green country side off in the distance. I have no idea how accurate these mountains look, in fact I fear for air travel in Chile if the Andes mountains are as full of crashed airliners as that would make things appear, but I’m guessing things have been tweaked more than a a bit for the sake of increasing the arcade feel.

Many of the Deadly Descents use a graphical trick to impart on you what is going on. One has the edges of the screen become covered in ice as as your internal heat falls, while another takes place in the dark except for where the flashlight on your character’s head is pointing. Still another has you blacking out due to a lack of oxygen until you take a breath from your oxygen tank. I liked how they used the user interface to make you feel more involved in the game. I know it’s been done before, in fact many of these very effects reminded me of Battlefield Bad Company‘s story mode, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t use them effectively here.

Controls/Gameplay:

It’s clearly been a while since I’ve played a SSX, because while the developers included the classic control scheme, I had no problems at all playing the game using the standard button arrangement. You can also choose to play the game using the right analog stick in a fashion similar to SKATE, but that is a control scheme I have never been able to wrap my head around. Give me buttons to press any day. Still, the option is there if you are a heathen and prefer to play that way.

The game has a few different gameplay types. First and foremost you have the returning Race and Trick modes. These should both be familiar to anyone who has played an SSX game, or any game requiring winning races or hitting high scores to win. You perform tricks to earn boost, which you can then apply towards doing more tricks and earning still more boost, and the cycle continues. In Trick runs the objective is to score as highly as possible, so as to shame your friends with your massive polygon wrangling skills.

SSX substitutes the more typical reset racer option when you crash or fall off the mountain with a rewind function that effects only you. So if in the course of a race you wipe out you can rewind until you get back to a point where you can make a more informed decision. This will not effect the other racers however, so if you are forced to rewind 10 seconds that will mean the other racers are now 10 seconds ahead of you. In Trick events instead of time it is points that are deducted from your score as you rewind. This can be costly but when in Tricky or Super Tricky mode the cost of the rewind is often worth it to save the combo and continue racking up the points. I have to say I wish they had stuck a reset racer option into the game. The rewind function isn’t as good as that seen in other games which have it. An example that springs to mind immediately would be Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which got it perfect. But then to be fair to EA here, the Prince isn’t moving at 80 MPH or more, whereas SSX must deal with a high rate of speed and also with how your character is pointing when you exit the rewind.

New to the game is Survival mode. These are runs where the only requirement is for you to get to the bottom of the mountain in one piece. In World Tour mode towards the end of the story you have to also defeat an opponent who is racing you down the same mountain. These mountains might force you to wear the new wing suits to cross vast gaps on the mountain, high altitude low oxygen maps, maps with numerous obstructions and maps where you must deal with avalanches.

The maps where you must deal with an avalanche must be singled out, as they go beyond merely changing what you see on screen or putting rocks in your way. These mountains must be ridden from an entirely different perspective, as the camera angle changes completely to one of the helicopter that drops you on top of the mountain. I don’t think that’s ever officially acknowledged in game, but it makes sense. Either way, it’s not the over your shoulder camera that every other mountain is played with. The mountains where you have to out run an avalanche feel so alien, so different that they seem like they should be in a different game. They almost feel like they belong in a portable version of the game, and I was pleased that there were so few of them included in the game.

Replayability:

The biggest thing in SSX‘s favor when it comes to how many times you’ll want to replay the game is Ridernet. This feature keeps track of your high scores in any event you compete in, and then tells your friends who have the game about it. This then allows your friends to try and defeat your high scores, and if they do Ridernet will inform you, shaming you and your manhood (or womanhood, to be fair) until you go forth and reverse this grave injustice. Which then prompts your friend’s Ridernet to do the same to them. I think this is how Mutually Assured Destruction came about, with the Cold War adversaries each having their own version of Ridernet.

In addition to just your friends Ridernet also has events going on that involve the entire userbase of the platform. Each mountain may have an event going on, and the higher you score on these events the more money you may win. I say may win because these events last for a set period of time, and if you take part in them early enough you may finish with a Diamond ranking and log back in to find you actually finished with a Bronze ranking. This is an excellent feature and I hope to see more games make use of it.

Balance:

Portions of the game bring back that arcade feeling of flying through the air, spinning like a madman and landing tricks just in time to extend your combos. But then you get to the gimmicky mountain runs and the difficulty fluctuates wildly. Almost all of them are fairly easy if you’ve ever played an SSX game before, using either boost or the various rails strategically placed around the mountains. I was beginning to wonder what the fuss was about. Only the avalanche had given me any kind of trouble at all. And then I ran into the ninth and final descent. Which was beyond absurd. Snowboarding in a white out, with only sonar glasses to help you, with blind jumps and death pits around every corner. Talk about a map that demands memorization through trial and error.

Otherwise, the only balance issue is the way you balance while grinding. That is to say you don’t. Once you have managed to convince the game that you want to grind on something, which isn’t always an easy task, the game just keeps your balance for you. That’s a change from past games where you had to maintain your balance or fall to your doom. Here the hardest part of grinding is not jumping off too soon.

Originality:

I love the wing suit. I wish they had given you a way to automatically orient yourself facing forwards, but aside from that I love controlling the character and making those huge jumps.

The Deadly Descents, with all of their various added gameplay elements, are a valid attempt by EA to energize a game type that had gotten a little bit stale. Not all of them work, but I like that EA was willing to try while not throwing away the stuff that does work.

Addictiveness:

The most addicting thing here is Ridernet. Finding out that your friend has beaten your score on a Trick run just gets the competitive juices flowing in a way not seen since the days of arcade games and their high scores.

The “normal” mountain runs are also fairly addictive. The newer runs with their fancy toys can be a take it or leave it affair, but doing a Trick run down Serenity in the Himalayas is as close to a perfect gameplay experience as I’ve seen in a long time.

Appeal Factor:

Do the lyrics “It’s Tricky. It’s Tricky” immediately make you long for a half pipe full of snow, colorful arrows in the snow and absurd tricks in the air? If so, know that SSX will fill those longings. You don’t have to play World Tour mode. You can completely ignore it if you like, unlocking characters by earning credits in Explore mode. As such you don’t even have to acknowledge the Deadly Descents If you want something new then that is here too.

Miscellaneous:

SSX also allows you to customize your chosen character. The more you play with a character the more the points you earn with them will be directed to their XP level. As you gain ranks you can use your points earned to purchase new outfits, new boards and new special items, such as ice hooks or wing suits or thermal packs. There are also Geotags and special mods you can purchase for use in events.

Geotags are a nifty little feature that allows gamers to be rewarded for reaching crazy places. The idea being you manage to get to some point on the map that you think will never be reached again, you plop your Geotag down and earn an immediate XP reward. Following that you sit and wait for a second reward. The longer a Geotag goes without being found and picked up by another player, the more you XP you earn. It’s a clever idea. I just wish that you didn’t have to equip them before an event, and that it wasn’t so open to people gaming the system. I found that most of the Geotags I run into during the game can be found at the bottom of a crevice in the mountain that would require rewinding to escape from. It would also be nice if you didn’t have to deploy it while rewinding.

EA even did the online pass thing right this time, if such a thing is possible. Instead of not allowing you to play without having an online pass, they simply keep any winnings you might earn while playing the game online in trust until you decide that yes you are willing to spend the extra money to get the online pass. I think it would be nifty of them to perhaps allow gamers to earn their online pass with the earnings they can’t collect, but I understand how they might feel differently about the subject.

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Good
Sound: Classic
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Unparallelled
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Great
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:

SSX is a great game that is slightly hobbled by some design flaws. But since you can completely ignore those flaws I can’t help but recommend the game to anyone who wants to strap a board to their feet and get to bodacious while shredding. Suddenly I wish there was a Ninja Turtle in the game for some reason.

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