Review: SSX (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Genre: Sports
Release Date: 02/28/12

The SSX franchise has been dormant for five years now, almost to the day, with the last game in the series being SSX Blur, a Wii-exclusive that was well received critically but, by all indications, failed to set the world on fire. Since then, extreme sports games have continued to generate decent sales, and while developers of said games still likely long for the halcyon days when the Tony Hawk franchise was tearing up sales charts, there was always potential in bringing back SSX for another go. Never one to leave money on the table, EA seems to have taken that idea to heart, as SSX is back for another go-round with this rebooted, self-titled release for the modern console generation. Originally titled SSX: Deadly Descents during its initial announcement, the game may have discarded the somewhat imposing subtitle, but the game retains the core concept of surviving the harshest elements while pulling off crazy tricks, eschewing the wackiness of the original games for a somewhat more mature take on the concept. For the most part, fortunately, this concept does work out fairly well, thanks to some well implemented mechanics, a strong racing engine and a fairly robust and open environment for players to race in. Unfortunately, not everything works the way the developers likely wanted, and the end result is somewhat bi-polar in execution and will likely be polarizing for players, for a number of reasons.

There’s actually something of a plot to SSX, and as the game is based around snowboarding competitions, in this storyline, competition is the name of the game. The concept here is that the majority of the characters in the game have broken off from a huge competitive organization known as The Tour to form their own league, dubbed SSX, and they’re looking to make a name for themselves. As the game begins, Griff Simmons, their main cash cow, has broken away from SSX and opted to go solo at taking on the nine deadliest drops (snowboarding runs) the world has ever seen, leaving the SSX crew strapped for cash and support. In response, the SSX crew, lead by Zoe Payne, decides to use social media as a way to generate interest (and, hopefully, funding), and the team decides that the best way to do so is to beat Griff at his own game and take the deadly drops out before he does. The story is kind of odd on consideration, if you stop to think about it, since we’re supposed to hate Griff for being an egotist… but he’s taking on all nine drops by himself, while SSX is using specialized members of the team to do so, so… technically, Griff is pretty awesome and probably deserves the hype. Still, if you can turn your brain off, the plot is fine, and for the most part the narrative isn’t a big part of the experience anyway so it’s not a huge issue. Insofar as the game modes go, the game offers you three modes to play around with: World Tour, which is the front end for the story and is all about the Deadly Descents; Explore, which is all about taking on Race It, Trick It and Survive It tracks against the CPU or rival ghosts to get the best times and earn credits; and Global Events, which are huge competitions that feature players trying to score the best times to rank the best in their brackets and earn the most credits from the pot.

As was noted when looking over the demo, SSX is nothing if it’s not a visually impressive piece of work. The first thing you’re likely to notice is that the environments look absolutely fantastic, from the various snow-covered locales to the different environmentally specific decorative elements, like icy hills, Asian buildings, damaged airplane parts and more. The characters are also very distinct and well animated, from their simple idle animations when at the start to the more complex trick and injury animations they display as you race and crash around the tracks. The game makes excellent use of special effects as well, using some well implemented lighting effects to set off the courses and bright, colorful special effects to highlight the more impressive tricks you can perform. The audio is also pretty solid, starting with the soundtrack, which features a wide variety of tracks from various electronic artists, including Skrillex and, of course, Run DMC, as their track “It’s Tricky” pops up here and there, which is just as amusing as you’d expect, given the context. The game is also populated with a decent amount of voice work from the different characters, from the cutscenes that come up during the World Tour mode to the little bits of smack talk and groans of injury the characters make when going through the races, and it’s all generally pretty good. The sound effects combine the sort of noises you’d expect from a snowboarding game with some more impressive effects when meters fill up or impressive tricks are pulled off, and these come together nicely and add a lot to the experience during the different races you’ll go through as you play.

SSX has been simplified from its predecessors to a level where practically anyone can pick it up and get into it fine, as the mechanics are very easy to grasp. By default, the left stick controls your rider, while the right stick and face buttons can be used to pull off various tricks as needed. When on the ground, X and B or left and right on the right stick allow you to perform ground tricks, while A or up on the right stick allows you to take air with a jump, allowing you to pull off air tricks. You can also grind rails naturally by riding up to them, or grind obstacles that don’t count as actual rails by holding the left trigger, and press Y, X, B, or left, down and right on the right stick to perform tricks on the rails, or press A or up on the right stick to jump. You can also kick in a turbo boost with the right trigger for when you need that extra speed boost, though it drains energy from your Tricky meter if you’re not in Tricky status, so be aware. While in the air, pressing any of the face buttons or directions on the right stick allows you to pull off various simple tricks, though you can modify those tricks by tapping different buttons/directions in sequence, or by holding the right trigger to tweak the trick. Should you wipe out or fall off the environment, you can also hold the left bumper to engage Rewind, allowing you to bring yourself back a bit in time to try again, though there are penalties for doing so depending on the type of event you’re playing. You can also change up the controls to the classic SSX style controls if you’re a fan of the prior games, though either way, the controls are very simple to learn, and more complex activities like balancing on rails have been eschewed in favor of a streamlined, simplified control system that anyone can learn in minutes.

Which is not at all to say that the game doesn’t have its challenges, mechanically, as it most certainly does. For one, as you perform tricks, you’ll build up the Trick meter at the bottom of the screen, as well as a modifier that appears directly above it. The modifier, as you’d expect, dictates the modifier against which your earned points will be graded when you pull off a combo, but the Tricky meter is a little more complex. Basically, when it fills up, the word TRICKY appears in its place, at which point, any tricks you perform are worth more points, your boost becomes unlimited in use, and you’ll begin filling the meter to a second level. If you can manage to turn the Tricky meter orange, you enter Super Tricky mode; at this point, you get big bonuses for tricks and can pull off a character specific trick by pulling both triggers and pressing one of the face buttons, by default. In both Tricky modes, you’ll also see that your default and tweaked tricks change in animation, and as such, count as new tricks, so you can expand your trick arsenal across all three levels of Tricky meter to pull off a variety of stunts. Eventually, Tricky mode will expire if you don’t pull off any tricks for a long enough period of time, and you’ll see all of the points you’ve earned, plus the modifier associated, paid out into your score, so the longer you can keep your tricks going, the better your score will be. Should you wipe out, however, you’ll fall out of Tricky status if you were in it, you won’t gain any modifier bonuses for your score, and you’ll lose about half your Tricky meter overall, so making sure you stick that landing is critical. Fans of the franchise will be happy to see that this system works as well as it ever did, though changes have been made, and newcomers will find it friendly enough to understand, but complex to use in a way that allows them to keep Tricky active for as long as possible.

There are three kinds of events you’ll find yourself facing, regardless of the play mode you’re in, and while two of them will likely be familiar to genre fans, the third requires a bit of explanation. “Race It” is the catch-all term for general races, where you’ll be pitted up against other riders with the expectation being for you to get from the top of the hill to the bottom as fast as you can. “Trick It” is a catch-all term for trick competitions, where keeping your trick combinations going for as long as possible and earning the highest score is the order of the day. “Survive It,” however, is its own animal entirely, as instead of trying to earn points or make fast times, you’re simply trying to live to see the bottom. In these environments, the game will throw different hazards at you, including heavy tree and obstacle population, ice, wide gaps, thin air, intense cold, avalanches, darkness and more, and your only goal will be to survive these traps and make it to the bottom. To accomplish this task, you’ll be able to pick up gear of different sorts to combat the environmental hazards, such as body armor, ice axes, oxygen tanks, solar heating systems, wing suits and more to give you a fair chance at making it to the bottom. The terrain in these environments is often dangerous to an extreme level, and many of the different gear components you can use have a limited shelf life, making it a challenge to complete these events, and your skills will be put to the test going through these sequences. When playing through survival drops in World Tour mode, you’ll only need to make it to the bottom once to complete the trial, but in the other modes, you will be dropped back at the top once you make it to the bottom, and your score will be determined by how many times you can survive a course.

Should you mess up in any of these event types, you’ll be able to Rewind to avoid this and keep things going, though each event type has a different penalty for doing so. In races, rewinding doesn’t reset the other racers, so doing so can put you further behind than you’d like. In trick competitions, rewinding costs you a set amount of points depending on how far back you go, which can also cost you valuable time and position placement. In survival events, however, there is no penalty for rewinding, but you’re limited in how often you can do so, which prevents you from rewinding every time you mess up, and makes the Rewind feature a tool to be used sparingly and only when necessary. You can also acquire better gear to improve your chances in the events by spending your credits between races across five categories. Suits are simply snow suits that mostly only impart cosmetic changes, but can also come equipped with some minor stat boosts if they’re rare enough. Boards are graded based on their overall speed, their boost performance and their trick performance, allowing you to pick the board with the right stats for the competition you’re entering to give you the best edge. Gear is rated depending on the type, and the better the stats, the more likely you’ll be to survive when using it. Mods allow you a one-time boost for the given race when equipped, which can be useful when you want to perform at your absolute peak, but they’re burned once the track is over. Geotags are collectibles that rely on other players to be of benefit; upon placing one in the race world, a green globe (white when looking at your own) will appear at that spot, and if a player collects it, both of you earn credits, and the longer the tag sits there, the more it’s worth, so while they’re not necessary, they are interesting enough to consider. Even if you don’t place Geotags, you’ll still see them around the game world, as well as snowflakes that also impart nice bonuses if collected, so even if you’re not playing along with placement, it never hurts to try and grab them for a boost. As you complete races, you’ll earn experience points, which dictate how high of a level of gear you can acquire, and credits, which allow you to buy gear when you see it, though you can also buy credits from EA for relatively cheap if you just want to buy stuff and be done with it.

Once you go through (or skip) the introductory tutorial and get a feel for the game, you’ll be dumped out into the game’s main front end, at which point you can experiment with the different options available to you. World Tour mode serves as the storyline front end, allowing you to play through the nine deadly descents available, which involve a few different introductory races to test your mettle and get you used to your gear before you head down the main drop. Explore is a free selection environment that allows you to choose from numerous different locations and take on various events to rack up high scores and earn credits and experience for the different riders. Global Events allow you to drop into massive tournaments, which may or may not have a drop fee (credit cost) to join. Joining the tournament allows you to race it multiple times to try and improve your bracket ranking, and at the end of the tournament time period, high ranking players earn a part of the payout for the tournament. You can also create your own tournaments here, which allows you to challenge others with your own competitions, either by inviting friends, friends of friends (IE friends and people one friend away) or all connected friends (IE basically everybody) to take you on. You can also jump onto RiderNet, which allows you to review your rivals (connected friends) and their performances, check badges you’ve earned, customize the in-game soundtrack and set favorite tracks, among other things. The game lacks a traditional multiplayer experience, but instead allows you to see ghosts of your rivals on the track, so you can see how they’ve pulled off the scores they have and attempt to beat them for the best possible scores and times. It bears noting that SSX does have an Online Pass, as do most EA games, but this doesn’t prevent you from doing anything but collecting rewards in Global Events, by all indications, so the online functionality of the game is basically left intact otherwise. Further, should you opt to participate in a Global Event without an Online Pass, any winnings you earn are retained for you, allowing you to claim them if you decide to get the Online Pass later, which is neat, if nothing else.

You can plow through the World Tour mode in around five hours, give or take, as the game allows you the option to skip tracks should you have too much trouble and the mode itself isn’t that lengthy. Doing so gives you a decent idea of what you’re up against in the other modes, and allows you to unlock the different playable characters, level them up a bit and earn some credits before you take on the other two modes. Once you’re finished with World Tour mode, you can jump into Explore mode to race the different tracks to earn more upgrade options and take on the best times of your friends, and if you have the Online Pass, you can jump into the Global Events for huge competitions and cash prizes. Each character you unlock also has an expansive amount of custom equipment available to them that you can purchase to trick them out as you see fit, and you could spend hours just leveling up each character and tricking them out alone. The game also offers a fairly decent amount of Achievements to unlock and a good amount of content to go through on its own, even beyond the challenging of other players online, giving the game a solid amount of long term value if you’re interested in seeing and collecting everything there is to offer in the game.

Having said that, the two biggest issues with SSX are, interestingly enough, its two biggest changes: “Survive It” events and the lack of any sort of traditional multiplayer component. The entire survival concept puts a very specific “you will die” spin on the majority of the races you’ll face, as most courses seem to have lethal obstacles and pitfalls sprinkled somewhere throughout them, making many races risky on top of everything else. This becomes problematic because often, the survival gimmicks take away from the whole “race and trick” element of the experience when you’re going down hills filled with clustered debris or you need to monitor your oxygen to survive. Frankly, this concept can be very annoying, and the fact that normal tracks can be peppered with pitfalls and lethal obstacles only adds to the frustration, which can be off-putting off the bat. The game also has no normal multiplayer component to speak of, local or online, which is fine if you have lots of friends who own the game or don’t mind making friends with strangers, but becomes a hassle if no one you know (and no one they know) owns the game. The ability to compete against online ghosts is a nice option, but it’s not a replacement for normal multiplayer, and anyone who actually wants to play against a friend simultaneously is going to be left out, which is disappointing. This is further disappointing because the end result is a game that feels limited in what it offers to the player. If you have lots of online friends, you can compete against their times, and if you want to get into the community you’re able, certainly, but otherwise you’ll be left with a game that just has you racing against the CPU forever, and this isn’t going to be an appealing option for everyone. Finally, the tracks aren’t always designed very well, not from a challenge perspective, but from a “Why did I just get stuck in the environment?” perspective; in a total of ten hours I ended up getting stuck in the game world nine times, either because the location offered no way out or because the character got stuck on the game geometry. Having to restart a race or burn Rewind to fix something that should have been found in playtesting is never fun, but having to do so multiple times is just disappointing.

In short, SSX has plenty of interesting ideas and does some things other games in the genre haven’t done before, and if you’re into what it does it’s easily going to spend a lot of time in your console, but its changes are divisive and really aren’t going to be for everyone. The storyline and presentation eschew the goofy elements of the prior games for a more serious tone and manage to do so effectively, the game looks and sounds fantastic, and the gameplay is very simple to pick up and learn for players of all skillsets. There’s a good amount of depth built into that simplistic control scheme, however, when dealing with the tracks and survival runs, and there’s an extensive amount of variety to the game in the different unlockable items you can acquire, as well as a good amount of fun to be had competing with others online if your friends get into the game or you get into the community. However, the survival runs aren’t likely to please everyone due to their introduction of the concept of “death equals race over” into the mix and the overall frustration this induces, especially when it tends to reduce the focus on the core elements of the gameplay. Beyond that, the game also offers no multiplayer options outside of ghost-based time trials, essentially, meaning that anyone who is interested in direct competitions or has no online friends playing and isn’t interested in joining the community will be playing against the CPU, essentially, and the tracks really could have used some more evaluation before the game came out, as some of them are simply not as polished as they could have been. The bottom line is that if you know a few people who will be investing in the game or you’re willing to join the community, SSX definitely has its good points, and can be well worth the asking price, even with its frustrations, but otherwise, there’s going to be little to interest you to begin with, let alone enough to bring you back for more.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: GOOD
Graphics: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE


Short Attention Span Summary:
As the final score implies, SSX is an enjoyable game if you can get past its quirks and get into the online competition aspects of the game, but for some, that’s going to be a tall order thanks to some less than universally acceptable design choices. The game discards the quirky presentation of the original games to tell a somewhat more serious story that works well enough for what it is, the game looks and sounds absolutely amazing as you’re tearing through the different runs, and the gameplay is simple enough to grasp entirely by the end of the tutorial. The game adds in plenty of depth with the different types of events you can take on, challenging you in multiple different ways, and also offers plenty of unlockable content to buy and competitive options for those who are looking for the ability to challenge the top performances of others for recognition and prizes. However, the survival runs that have been added into the game change the dynamic in a way that can prove frustrating, both in the races themselves and in the additions that affect virtually all of the races, which can be problematic from the start. The game also offers no multiplayer options outside of racing to beat the times of other rivals, which is fine if you have lots of friends playing or want to be in the community, but annoying if you don’t, and the course design could have used a bit more work in places to reduce the possibilities of getting stuck before the final release. If you’re interested in the competitive aspects of trying to have the best times and winning massive competitions for cash prizes, SSX will definitely have something to offer you, but if you’re looking for something more diverse or you can’t look past the more frustrating elements of the game, you’ll find that this offering isn’t going to keep you coming back.



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3 responses to “Review: SSX (Microsoft Xbox 360)”

  1. Vim Diesel Avatar

    there’s an ssx video game social network at gamers post gamertags and psns compete against each other

  2. Patrick William Clemenger Avatar

    BS, “traditional multiplayer” is wholly unnecessary in the genre if you ask me. It gives the player MORE options because you can race and trick against your friends WHENEVER! You aren’t limited temporally! :P

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