After a relatively long absence (not counting a Wii pit stop), the SSX series is back and brings with it a sense of evolution for snowboarding games. The 32-bit ones were all about attempting to execute the concept with limited technology, while the last-gen ones started as executing the concept and making it look good before evolving into a glitzy affair. Then the genre just kind of died off. There was Amped 3 at the 360’s launch, but that was six years ago. In that tame, EA’s racing games have been re-energized with the never-ending leader board of the Auto Log system that allows you to track how your friends are doing in real-time and accept their challenges whenever you’d like.
It carries over here as RiderNet, and helps to really keep you on your toes. Instead of traditional online multi-player, you can race against ghosts of either your friends’ or rivals’ races, and try to beat them at your leisure. There’s also a global events section that gives you developer-crafted challenges and instead of just spanning a handful of friends, actually span the globe and last a predetermined amount of time, with your position in the leader board always vulnerable until the last second. While it would be nice to have direct online multi-player, I really don’t mind the different approach taken here since there’s still a heavy emphasis on competition and there’s always something to do to challenge yourself.
Online can be a time sink, and it’s also easy to spend a few hours on the main campaign, going from trick tracks to races, then trying to conquer the game’s toughest tests - the Deadly Descent stages the game was originally named after. These stages aren’t about getting the most tricks or coming in first - they’re about sheer survival. The very first one pits you against a tree-filled mountain, in relative darkness, with only flares to guide your path and they only get crazier from there. These stages are incredibly tough, at times frustrating, but incredibly rewarding to conquer. The game gives you a survival rate before every stage - it’s high in trick and races stages, so you wonder why it’s there, and then you see these areas, notice that if you’re lucky, your rating is in the teens, and then learn pretty quickly that you’re in for something completely different.
Better yet, there’s an even greater challenge offered up to players - defeating these courses without any equipment, truly pitting the player against the harsh elements. When the game was first announced, these were the things that most intrigued me about the game since they seemed to truly test player skill, and sure enough, in execution, they manage to do just that. Each one offers up a different kind of white-knuckle thrill ride, but also forces you to become a better player on the fly. They’re tough, but actually pretty fair, especially with the rewind function. The deadly descent sections are about the only areas where that ability is really useful because in trick mode, you suffer a point penalty, and in races, rivals zoom forward in real-time while you’re taking yourself back to a point where you didn’t screw up. While I definitely understand not wanting players to abuse the feature, this execution of it just feels a bit cruel and winds up causing more frustration because you basically always have to restart the course you’re on if you make one significant mistake.
The controls have also undergone some changes, with the shoulder buttons still being used for tricks, but only when used in conjunction with the right stick, which I find works wonderfully. I’ve always enjoyed trick-heavy games to some degree, but have rarely been good at pulling off fancy tricks - that isn’t the case here. They’ve got a system worked out that is easy to learn, and drilled into your head from the beginning of how to not only use these things in theory by showing you, but making you do them before you do ANYTHING in the game.
If you’ve always wanted to like the series or genre more than you have, this is the game to get because it teaches you all the tools you’ll need to succeed right away. I absolutely love how organic the new control scheme feels, and a large part of that is due to your right stick movements correlating with the movement of your player, so it’s much easier to remember. I enjoyed the original SSX series, but felt their controls setups were a bit unwieldy - this feels perfect and someone who is far from an expert at the genre should become acclimated to it fairly quickly. Those who prefer the classic setup have that option, but after using the new one, I really can’t imagine going back to the old one on a regular basis.
Visually, SSX is quite impressive. Heck, it BEGINS with you hopping out a plane into the sky to learn tricks and when that’s done blowing you away, you get to take part in a ground course that allows you to take in the sights you only saw from high above in an up-close manner. The character models are finely-detailed, with their riding and racing gear looking very good. There’s also an incredible sense of speed when racing down the mountains and flying through the air for tricks. The latter is particularly thrilling since you know you’ve got a limited window to nail everything and you see the snow rush by you at a fast clip - adding to the intensity of your own button presses and stick movements. Daytime courses allow you to see the sheer beauty of what’s around you, while night time courses largely strip that away and force you to navigate using only flares - reminding me a lot of trying to navigate in the old Night Driver game. It’s very minimalist in a sense, but still beautiful. Some night stages give you a headlamp, which acts as a combination of the most beautiful aspects of both the day and night-time courses and also adds some strategy since you’ve got to weigh the advantage of having the light show you your path versus the risk of doing tricks and causing the light to move around wildly.
The SSX series has always had great soundtracks with a lot of fast-paced music that got your blood pumping. That trend continues here, but has evolved to now included slower, more serene songs that fit the gorgeous backdrops you compete on. There’s also an incredible custom soundtrack feature that not only lets you swap out the licensed music for your own selections, but remixes is it on the fly to suit how you’re playing the game. I tried this out with a play list consisting of the Offspring, Jimi Hendrix, and Living Colour and was blown away at just how well-done the remixing was. When “Purple Haze” slowed down during a big jump, I was sold on this being a new gold standard for custom soundtracks.
Beyond the music, you’ve also got incredible sound effects - especially for smashing into stuff. Slamming into a tree or part of the mountain itself always sound brutal. The only part of the audio I didn’t like was the voice acting. While there is some useful banter, like having the helicopter pilot radio you with info on upcoming hazards, the voice acting never rises beyond playing a stereotypical role, and just becomes annoying after a while. It’s the one real blemish on the audio, and can be remedied with some audio slider tinkering, so it isn’t something you have to subject yourself to.
SSX is a must for long-time fans of the series and also those who enjoyed them, but didn’t quite love them because of how much better the controls are and how much more balanced the game as a whole feels with it teaching you the essentials right away. The RiderNet setup may not please those craving direct multi-player, but should satisfy those wanting a challenge, and the thrills the game provides raise the bar for the genre as a whole. Many snowboarding games have been released over the years, but I don’t think any of them quite top this new incarnation of SSX.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 version of SSX provided by Electronic Arts.