- EA Canada
Made2Game SSX Review score: 7/10
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360
Format Reviewed: PS3
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Reviewer: Dave Harrison
It was Oscar Wilde who wrote “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”; in that people often take more meaning from what they see and read, forming their lives around the creative interpretation of events, rather than art reflecting the struggle of human endeavour and recreating it upon the written page. Clearly, Oscar Wilde had never played videogames (since he was from the 1800’s) but never had anything rang so hollow as when – as a 15 year old with a head filled with the daring stunts of Amped and that scene the Vin Diesel classic xXx – I first took to the fearsome slopes of Austria with nothing but a big duffel coat and a plank of carbon fibre strapped to my feet. What happened next had nothing to do with pulling tricks on massive halfpipes or outrunning avalanches as my somewhat literal interpretation of Oscar’s words had suggested, but instead it consisted of three days sliding down a big hill on my bum.
Luckily though, all my Wildean-inspired avalanche-outrunning needs have been resolved not through intensive therapy, but through the deadly descents in SSX, the first next-generation iteration of the popular snowboarding series from EA Sports. Taking control of longstanding characters from the series, you are tasked with conquering each of the 9 descents before your arch rival Griff does, resulting in fame and huge metaphorical television ratings. Each of these descents is situated in one of the many mountain ranges throughout the world, with a series of events leading up to each perilous precipice in order to unlock characters and try out the gear you will need to succeed.
The structure is surprisingly linear for a game of this type, with each mountain range funnelling you down a pre-described route of races and high score challenges before the deadly descent challenge. It’s a slightly strange decision but works reasonably well, especially as at any one time there will be 2-3 mountains available to conquer. By holding back content, it also gives the game a decent learning curve.
After a brief but informative tutorial that allows you to adapt to the well thought out controls that rather smartly blend the button mashing thrills of early Tony Hawks games and the more tactile analogue stick grabs of Skate, you’re put in control of series stalwart Zoe Payne and sent hurtling down a mountain side.
The first thing that really grabbed me was the sheer sense of speed that SSX creates – well detailed scenery whooshes past you at what seems like a thousand miles per hour. Unfortunately, the second thing that grabbed me was just how loose the controls were for manoeuvring young Zoe down the snow-covered mountainy thing. Whilst it is acceptable for the first few levels as they are designed to be very wide and forgiving, it soon becomes much more frustrating as your pinpoint jumps can become a largely hit and miss affair; the difference between pulling off some sweet tricks and getting a nose bleed from face-planting a deciduous tree becomes increasingly indistinct.
Still, control niggles aside, what SSX does very well is the sense of scale and spectacle – every jump reveals a vista of beautiful natural peaks and troughs, glistening white snow enveloping the discarded plane hulls and abandoned outposts as nature takes back what is rightfully its own. EA Canada has made a big deal of how the terrain is detailed from NASA geotagging technology with the SSX playground painted on top, and the effort really shows, with natural caverns and peaks linking together seamlessly. However, I would argue that occasionally the level design gets a bit clumsy because of this method, with some crevices in the landscapes causing the player to get stuck.
There are also an awful lot of what I’ve come to term “drops of death”, where your character falls into the abyss – whilst some are understandable, such as huge canyons, others are hideously unfair, coming just beyond jumps or even looking like alternative paths in some cases. Luckily, EA Canada have seen fit to include a rewind function (which indeed can prove to be very useful when messing up the end of a trick run), but you can’t help but feel that it’s inclusion came from a necessity to save the player from needlessly frustrating level design rather than as a learning tool for the player to rewind mistakes of their own.
It’s infuriating that SSX appears to have such clear and avoidable faults because when everything comes together, there’s a lot of fun to be had. In addition to the survival showpieces are the two main types of event: Race It and Trick It. Each mode does what it says on the tin, with races focussing on barrelling down a mountain as fast as possible and tricks instead focussing on barrelling down a mountain slightly more slowly but with more pizzazz.
In particular, the race mode features a very well implemented Risk/Reward mechanic, in that in order to ride with any pace you need to keep your boost meter filled – the catch being that you can only gain boost through pulling off tricks; the more dangerous the trick, the more boost you’ll gain. With the ground being the fastest way to travel but boost only available in the air, it gives races a frantic, perilous edge that keeps you making constant decisions to either risk a dangerous looking jump or hold off that bit longer for a more comfortable ledge to launch yourself off.
Trick mode is slightly less successful in its implementation, albeit still a lot of fun. In particular, the feeling of empowerment it gives after pulling off a flurry of linked tricks is second to none, while Run DMC bellowing at you in elation is fantastic. The tricks themselves also look visually stunning, especially with your hands glowing gold upon entering super-tricky mode and the board spinning wildly around your characters head like a psychedelic helicopter. However, the way the tricks are scored is strangely unpredictable, with two very similar runs often ending in vastly different final scores. The system uses multipliers that rise up to x20 along with Tricky and Super-Tricky modes, which each unlock higher scoring special moves. However, it can be difficult to judge when you’re going to hit a tricky multiplier and it never seems clear enough what the actual multiplier is in this mode. For a game type based around score attacks, it seems peculiar when compared to games with the genre such as Tony Hawks 3 and Skate which have such predictable score systems that SSX has such a haphazard interpretation- at times, it threatens to make a valid game mode become all style but no substance.
Despite the lengthy Career and Explore modes (the latter having over 150 stages to compete in and score medals from bronze to gold in) SSX does appear to lack substance and direction. The po-faced deadly descents seem in direct contrast to the wild shenanigans of the rest of the game, as if it started out as a new serious direction to the game, before the developer crumbled to fan pressure and attempted to paint the classic SSX gameplay on top. From the pointless use of the staple SSX characters for each mountain range instead of allowing the player to create their own avatar to stretch the entirety of the campaign, to the inane customisation of characters you know you will only use for a handful of events, the entire game smacks of compromise.
Ultimately then, SSX doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be – a bold new direction or a throwback to a glorious past. By straddling this divide, it does make me wonder who SSX will actually appeal to – it’s not as pure as the classic Tony Hawks games of the last generation, but with a dearth of competitors in the current gaming climate, is there even a market for this kind of extreme sports frivolity? Whilst there has been a positive reception for the recent announcement of the HD edition of the original Tony Hawks Pro Skater, does this signal a real desire for more extreme sports games, or just bring up nostalgic memories of a gaming youth? No matter, in what appears to be a recurring theme in modern game development, we have Art imitating other Art; a game which, instead of forging its own path, has decided to copy the past, perhaps to its own detriment. I wonder what Oscar Wilde would have to say about that…
Something insightful and witty, no doubt.
Words by Dave Harrison (Twitter: @sealofmadness)
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