By Jason Van Horn
Extreme sports have never been a sports game sub-genre that I've ever really
cared about before. I've dabbled and played some demos before, but never really
cared to go out and own any of them. The one exception was a previous entry in
the SSX series, which I loved the absurdity of back during the days of the
original Xbox. The series is back with a new installment - simply titled SSX -
and it's like the developers haven't missed a beat or lost what made the
previous games so fun.
One of the game's main modes is Deadly Descents, which acts as the story mode of
the game. In it, you'll take on the roll of various SSX teammates as you cross
the globe, taking part in challenges, and ultimately trying to not only tackle
nine of the most deadly descents in the world, but also beat your rival Griff
who is attempting to do the same. The story mode is very lite, but at least some
effort was put into one. You race the character who you're going to be using for
that mountain, win, and then use them to complete a few initial trials before
heading to a new mountain, where you'll compete several more trials, though
these actually pertain to what makes these descents deadly. Finally you'll go to
the "deadly descent," survive it, and then move on and rinse and repeat.
Otherwise the only story elements come from pre-drops on your helicopter and
extreme news stories whenever a new series of mountains are opened up.
Deadly Descents is a fun mode, but one that feels more like an extended
training/tutorial mode more than anything else and a way to get a feeling for
these wide, open courses. The biggest draw is the "deadly descents" and their
inherent challenges, which are extreme, tough, frustrating, and yet fun and
fulfilling once one is completed. It starts off easily enough with the "deadly"
coming in the forms of trees, gaps you need to clear by using a wingsuit to fly,
and trying to land on snow rather than the rocky ground that plagues that
mountain. The further you go through the game the more challenging the obstacles
become, as suddenly you'll be trying to outrun an avalanche, stay in the sun for
risk of freezing, and having to take a hit of oxygen to keep you from blacking
out because the altitude is so high.
The controls are for the most part wonderful, as my only real complaint comes
from the steering of your board, as it feels a little too sensitive and what
felt like a slight adjustment on my end often led to a sharp turn off a mountain
path instead. The trick controls, however, are pitch perfect as you can either
use the face buttons or the right control stick to perform moves and grabs,
tweak them with the right trigger, and you can spin using the left thumbstick.
You can also ready a jump by holding down on the right control stick and it
feels immensely satisfy to prime a trick right before a big jump and then
unleash a twirling dervish of tricking delight. Doing tricks will earn you boost
to help rocket down the mountain faster, but it also helps build up your
"Tricky" meter, which allows you to perform wilder, crazy tricks and even give
you unlimited boost for a certain amount of time once fully "tricked" out.
You'll also find the new rewind feature extremely helpful, though it never feels
as if you're cheating; you might rewind time back so you don't fall off that
mountain or either do it so you have a second chance of landing that jump right,
but when you're in rewind everyone else is moving regularly, plus as you're
rewinding you're constantly losing points from your score.
The meat of SSX is unquestionably the Explore and Global Events challenges, as
these are essentially the multiplayer component of the game without being direct
multiplayer; it's a hard idea to initially get but easy to understand once you
start playing. In Explore, you can not only race to beat the ghosts of your
friends (who will appear and race with you down the mountain as if they were
doing it in person and show the lines and paths they took), but race computer AI
opponents that will net you gold, silver and bronze medals depending on who you
can beat; so you not only have all the races of Deadly Descents to complete, but
there are a ton of challenges in these modes too for you to try and perfect and
medal in. Explore is more about you beating people directly on your friend list,
but Global Events are challenges that everyone with the game can play. You won't
see everyone racing at once, but you'll see a handful of ghost data playing
alongside you on your run, so it feels like you're actually racing people even
though you're not; well, you're actually racing people, just not live. It's like
being able to compete against friends whenever you want as everything is stored
and happens on your own time instead of having to make time to get friends
together or wait in a lobby until a race starts. Since so many people are
competing in the Global Events, the rewards for doing well are that much more
important, as the better you do the higher up the bracket you go, and the higher
you place in the bracket the more money you will earn for new equipment.
Equipment actually plays a huge part in the game, especially when it comes to
doing well at Global Events or simply trying to beat your friend's best time on
a race (choosing the right character too as some have higher speed than others,
better boost, armor, tricking ability, etc). You can buy outfits that "mostly"
only change the look of your character, but you can also buy boards that might
be perfect for a race though not a trick competition (the stats on a board are
Speed, Boost and Trick), gear like wingsuits and armor, and one race mods that
help improve things like your speed and boost. Generally speaking the idea is
always to use the best equipment for each match type, but some have restrictions
on them such as not allowing you to use any equipment greater than level three.
As for the actual matches, the game has three: Race, Trick and Survival. Each
match is pretty self-explanatory and easy to understand. Race = be the first
down the mountain. Trick = have the most trick points before you cross the
finish line. Survival = get down the mountain, take the helicopter back up, and
repeat until you run out of armor and basically die from losing all your health.
Survival mode is tricky, however, as it throws different obstacles at you as you
make subsequent trips down the mountain. The first time going down a mountain
will be as always, but if you make it through your first run, the second time
down you'll often find whiteout conditions blurring your vision and making it
hard to see where you are going.
Another multiplayer component is the idea of Geotags, which are hovering globes
that you place in the environment using the rewind feature of the game. By
buying these from the store, you're basically betting on the fact that nobody
will be able to reach and touch your chip (or Geotag in this case). Geotags are
worth different amounts of money depending on which one is purchased and some
need to remain untouched for several days before you're able to profit from
them. You can place Geotags in out of the way places where you don't think
anyone would find them, but most people seem to place them off of mountains as
they're rewinding from a lethal fall they took.
SSX is a spectacle when it comes to the technical side of the game, as it's both
a beauty to behold and an auditory overload. On the graphical side the
courses/mountain/terrain is where the soul of this game really is, as the
designers found a great way to make each area unique and not have each area
merely be yet another zone of white snow with different jump placements. You'll
have to navigate through forests of downed trees, through the inside of a
volcano, alongside icy crevices, and grind down everything from the Great Wall
of China to power plants and telephone wiring. The mountains are so
well-designed and with so many branching paths and routes to take that it never
felt like a chore retrying anything multiple times over as no run ever felt 100%
the same as there were always different jumps to try, new ways to approach an
obstacle, or a different branch to take altogether. Meanwhile when it comes to
the audio, you have respectable (though nothing amazing) voice acting, but the
sound effects of things such as your board carving through snow or skidding on
ice are fantastic, as is the game's soundtrack that runs the gamut from somewhat
techno music to rap to alternative.
SSX is a game that's all about fun and having lots of it in wide variety of
ways. Most of the other games I'm playing right now have deep, dark storylines
or fighting combo chains that require exact timing and memorization, but SSX is
that game I just love to pop into my system and lose myself in for a while. It's
not hard to jump into the game, grab some air, perform some tricks, and feel
satisfied and content; plus if you want to go serious and try to complete all
challenges, beat the ghost times/scores of all your friends, and try to be the
best in the world, you can approach the game in a hardcore manner and have a lot
of fun as well. After this latest installment, I can only wait and hope it
doesn't take as long for the next one.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5