10 Thoughts on… the SSX Demo (Microsoft Xbox 360)

SSX is a curious franchise to push out into the world for a comeback; while its heyday, during the big “extreme sports” gaming boom inspired by the Tony Hawk franchise, saw that the franchise had a lot of potential, that boom period is long past. The Tony Hawk franchise itself has almost completely petered out in popularity for numerous reasons and franchises like Skate and anything with Shaun White on it are doing okay, but not bringing in the kinds of numbers the games were generating just a decade earlier. That said, though, the market also isn’t over-saturated with games either, and the SSX name has enough recognition to it that a really good game could bring the franchise back to prominence, so there’s merit to the idea, anyway. Well, SSX launches in a week, but EA has provided a demo to check out prior to the actual release, and since I have both an interest in the game and some free time, I figured we could take a look at it and see how it’s coming along.

1.) So the demo starts off, after an unskippable two minute promo about the game (which was annoying and starts every time you start the demo) with a simple tutorial on aerial tricks. The controls for pulling off tricks are actually pretty user friendly right out of the box, as you can use either the right stick or the face buttons by default to perform basic tricks, with each direction corresponding to its position on the snowboard. As such, press up or Y to grab the front of the board, left or X to grab the left side, and so on. The game also allows you to modify tricks by tapping either Left/X, Up/Y or Right/B and then one of the four buttons/directions to choose a “hand” to grab the board with, either left, both, or right, respectively. You can also hold the Right Trigger to further modify tricks in the air, giving you a lot of variety so you can switch it up for higher scores with little effort. The aerial controls in general feel responsive enough to turn motions and button presses and you don’t feel like you’re committed to an action to an extent where you have to judge several seconds in advance if your timing is off, which is good to see right off the bat.

2.) The other thing of note that’s introduced in this freefall demo is the Tricky system. Basically, as you pull off tricks and chain them together, a meter at the bottom of the screen fills, and when it fills completely, it spells “TRICKY” in blue. At this point, your tricks change animation a bit and you’ll score higher for trick combos as you fill the meter a second time, turning the word TRICKY orange. At THAT point you basically go into the zone, your tricks change animation AGAIN and you can pull off a specialty trick by pulling both triggers and pressing a direction/button to do a trick. You can only stay in TRICKY status as long as you’re stringing tricks together, however, so it’s in your best interest to keep your tricks going together as long as possible to keep the meter as full as you can. This is a fine system, and while it’s hardly original, it works well and keeps the game tense when timing and speed are of the essence.

3.) Once you finish the freefall tutorial you’re dropped onto a hill to take on the actual basics of snowboarding. These also are pretty simple to get the hang of: the left stick moves your boarder around the hill, A/Down sets up jumps, and X/Left and B/Right allow you to perform basic tricks on the ground to keep your combo going. You’ll basically get a good feel for the concepts of how the game works in the tutorial: try to launch yourself off of things, pull off tricks, and return to neutral before landing so you don’t crash and lose your combo, repeat as you go until you finish. It’s nice here that you don’t actually HAVE to reposition yourself for landing, however; unlike older games in the genre where you were responsible for getting yourself back to neutral, SSX only asks that you release the stick and buttons, and it will take care of the rest. This makes it easier to focus on racing and pulling off tricks for everyone, and it’s a great addition.

4.) There are also some more involved concepts that pop up during the tutorial, and as you play the two competitions, that also add to the depth a bit. There are various rails around the tracks you can grind on just by riding up or landing on them, but you can also grind trees and pipes and other “grindable, but not by default” environmental bits by holding Left Trigger to do so. You can also press the Left Bumper to rewind a bit if you accidentally wipe out, though this still costs time, which can be problematic in races and such. You can also hold the right trigger to engage Boost, which is your standard turbo boost to move faster, though this burns energy from the TRICKY bar if TRICKY isn’t displaying on screen; if TRICKY is on screen, though, you can use Boost infinitely, so you can balance the two together to boost forever if you’re good. The Right Bumper allows you to use oxygen on the ground (which doesn’t come into play in the demo) and deploy your wingsuit in the air (which, aside from in freefall, doesn’t have an obvious purpose), but you won’t likely use it much in the demo. You can also swap over to the classic SSX controls if those are more your speed, though the modern controls are pretty solid, so, to each their own.

5.) One thing you’ll definitely notice about SSX if you spend time with the demo is that it looks and sounds fantastic. Visually the game is very clean and moves quickly and with no noticeable technical issues or flaws. Racing down the side of a snowy hill looks great at pretty much all times, and the game makes great use of lighting effects and such to give the game a real visual flair that’s hard not to like. Aurally, the little bits of voice work that pop up here and there are just fine, as are the different effects you hear whole going down the mountain. The music seems to be a mix-up of electronic tunes, from your more standard dance style music to dubstep, and while it likely won’t appeal to everyone, it fits the theme of the game just fine. Plus the game actually plays a bit of “It’s Tricky” when you go into full TRICKY mode, and if you don’t know why that’s hilarious and awesome I feel very bad for you.

6.) Once you get through the tutorial, the game drops you into the “SSX HOME” menu, which allows you, in the full game, to go through the World Tour (which seems to be some kind of story mode), Explore the globe and take on various challenges, jump into Global Events (which isn’t active at this point), review videos under “Online Features”, and jump on RiderNet, which allows you to see your rivals, badges, and other such things. The only things accessible in the demo are RiderNet, which shows you rivals and friends of rivals, game settings and the credits, Online Features, which shows you a couple of videos for training purposes, “Refer a Friend”, which unlocks another character if you tell someone to download the demo, and Explore, which allows you to demo two competitions across the globe. RiderNet seems like it’ll be neat for tracking competition against others, and Online Features may be useful if more videos are added to it, but otherwise it’s hard to know how things will turn out in the other modes, so off to Explore we go.

7.) Explore lets you circle around the globe, looking at different mountain locations across the world while also pointing out recent competition achievements you and your rivals have earned. Only two competitions are available here: JT2 on Whitehorn in the Rockies, which is a race competition, and Bulldog, which is a trick competition on Mount Wakefield in New Zealand. There are several different mountains shown from the global map, however, each presumably containing multiple different race types, though only Race and Trick competitions are shown as available at this point. When you highlight an available race the game shows you the ideal times to beat to get the best medals (IE how the CPU will perform), as well as your rankings against other rivals, so you can see your objectives before you even jump into race.

8.) Once you pick a race, you can choose from one of up to ten characters, though only Zoe is available by default, and Mac can be unlocked if you invite friends to play the demo. Each character has levels associated to them that are upgraded by snowboarding, though this isn’t implemented in the demo, and its effects aren’t on display at this point. Each character also has a perk associated to them that improves their stats to a certain degree, so Zoe has body armor that improves all her stats a little, while Mac has a head lamp that gives him a plus to head lamp and jacks his trick performance a lot. The characters play functionally the same, though, so your preference will come down more to the character and boosts than anything. Each character can also equip new suits, boards and gear to improve your abilities, as well as one-time use Mods that give you an edge and Geotags that you can hide on courses for bonuses. You’re also given a “survival probability” for the course, which implies you could die (which may play into night courses and oxygen supplies and such), and you can press X if the rating isn’t 100% to customize the character to get as close to 100% as possible. There are no options to change your inventory in the demo, nor items to purchase, but the fact that they’re there is pretty neat, and should add some interesting dimensions to the main game.

9.) The two available competition types in Explore mode, Race and Trick, are functionally identical: you jump out of a helicopter onto the hill and snowboard down to the bottom, trying to perform better than your opposition all the way to the bottom. How the modes are scored, however, is what sets them apart. Races are simple “get to the bottom as fast as you can” competitions, where you’re trying to be faster and race better than everyone else on the hill. In this case, tricks are merely a means to an end (more turbo), and strong track knowledge and proper use of your Boost is key to making good time. Trick competitions, on the other hand, aren’t about getting anywhere fast; instead, your goal is to have the best trick chains to build the highest possible score in order to win the hill, by earning the most points before you reach the end. In both cases, you’ll see the CPU opponents that represent the best possible scores on the hill as you compete, as well as ghost replays of your rivals, so you can see exactly what you have to beat… and possibly formulate strategies to compete against them.

10.) SSX is looking mighty impressive at this point; the game mechanics are simple but offer a great amount of challenge once you get out onto the slopes, the game looks and sounds pretty good, and there really does seem like there’s going to be a good amount of content in the game. It would have been nice to see EA do something like toss in a character creation option or something similar, but if the final product matches up to the promise the demo is showing, extreme sports fans, franchise fans and anyone looking for something fun will likely find this to be a game to keep their eye on. We’ll look into it further once it releases.

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