Like Sir Edmund Hillary attempting a half-pipe, the SSX snowboarding series has always brought exploration and extreme sports together in an entertainingly unsafe mix. There’s a freedom here that can only be found outside the multi-coloured stockades of man-made ski runs; one that begins beyond the point where even the ‘Danger’ signs give up in futility. It delivers a high that has nothing to do with the low oxygen levels, an addictive and elusive fluency of motion that’s otherwise impossible to achieve. Unless, of course, you’re one of those spritely ladies in the Bodyform adverts.
There was a time a few years back, when it seemed like they’d be gritting the roads in hell long before there was flurry of activity around the SSX name again. Videogames had apparently grown tired of adventure sports. The awesomeness had become omnipresent. The dudes, dull. The extreme had become routine. And when Electronic Arts originally hinted that their big idea for a reboot was an SSX meets Modern Warfare mash-up, a kind of Call-of-Duty-does-Klosters, the reception was appropriately hypothermic.
Thankfully, EA have managed to dig themselves out from under this initial avalanche of apathy by revising their plans wholesale. Gone is the FPS fixation, replaced by a piste offering that will rekindle fans excitement with its dedication to the series’ exuberant exaggerations of the feats possible on a snowboard. At the same time, the new SSX also successfully incorporates fresh ideas that have sprung up since the series went into hibernation, adding a clever touch of modernism that drags the franchise out of the gaming ice age whilst still preserving its cool.
While the SSX and Burnout games have always shared a similar ethos, there are also nods here to Motorstorm, along with a hugely flattering cribbing of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit’s notes on how to do asynchronous online play. The new duel stick movement and trick system also seems directly inspired by the one in SSX’s stable-mate Skate, although classic button controls are still an alternative option for all those c-old skool SSX players.
It’s that same pursuit of freedom and flow that still remains the key ingredient, though. Something the game makes abundantly and tantalisingly clear during its opening skyboarding tutorial in which you’re released into the heavens to go twisting and turning, pirouetting and plummeting like a snowflake caught in a blizzard. In a way, it’s the ultimate tease, as finding such unfettered enjoyment on the ground can be both an infuriating and infatuating challenge that requires its fair share of dedication.
The mountains themselves are the star names from nine distinctly different regions across the planet. From the Rockies to the Himalayas, if they were to make a Mount Rushmore of mountains you’d find almost all of the potential contenders here. Every single one is based on precision NASA satellite modelling, which the developers have then spent months altering and accentuating to make the natural and manmade features as entertaining as possible to pilot a plank of wood down. It’s a thoroughly intelligent division of labour. Not so much a case of pimp my ride as pimp my mountainside.
The Google Earth-style world map hovers on the menu screen like a giant snow globe, just waiting for you to jump in and shake things up. And after a helicopter-assisted pilgrimage to a peak, the slopes are wide enough to allow you to cut a dashing figure through the deep powder, gridding on rocks and rails, flipping off snow cornices, shooting through ice tunnels and soaring across crevasses. All the while accompanied by a cleverly orchestrated soundtrack whose beats fade out every time you take off, before dropping back in again at the exact moment you do.
The single player World Tour mode consists of a trio of different event types, each of which carves out its own niche of specific skill requirements. Addictive and enraging trick events demand calculated craziness and consistency to build score and maintaining your multiplier by chaining together regular, Tricky and Super Tricky moves into runs that resemble episodes of Got to Dance staged on downhill courses. Race events are slightly easier and less engrossing, but with tricks equalling extra boost, they still require a balance between sprinting and showing off to be the first over the finish line.
The Deadly Descents should be the Tour’s signature moments. Billed as the ultimate survival runs, the only objective here is to make it to the bottom of the mountain as a murderous Mother Nature attacks you with the likes of avalanches and altitude sickness. Defeating them all requires the kind of equipment list – ice axes, oxygen tank, wingsuit – that would make you customer of the year down at your local Millets, but sadly, the grandeur of the ideas behind the Descents isn’t matched by equal amounts of fun, and they end up being the game’s most novel, but weakest, components.
It’s not just on the Deadly Descents where having the right kit is key, however, and the SSX shop consistently coughs up a random selection of boards and other apparel for purchase. Even with the correct gear, there will still be times that you find yourself disappearing down a seemingly bottomless ravine, and for just such situations, SSX provides a rewind feature that, for a points and time penalty, helps you avoid après ski that involves having your dinner fed to you through a tube whilst your doctor and family discuss whether it would be kinder to let you slip off to that big board meeting in the sky.
There is a story binding all the World Tour action together involving Team SSX going head-to-head with a former member whose gone rogue, but it’s annoying and largely irrelevant and full of stupid exaggerations of snowboarding stereotypes. On the Shaun White Irritation Scale these guys, rather appropriately, crank things up to X-treme. One, for example, is known as The Chamonix Assassin, which is about as intimidatingly posh a nickname as The Eton Ninja.
Once the World Tour is in the books, the game’s Explore mode allows you to revisit any of the game’s 153 different drops any time you wish. But SSX’s real killer longevity hook comes in its online offerings.
RiderNet, is basically Need for Speed’s Autolog perfectly adapted to tackle Alpine terrain. By collating and curating the fastest race time and highest trick scores of you and your friends and serving them up to you in one easily digestible feed, it stimulates competition almost effortlessly. More impressive still, however, are the Global Events that require you to put your money where your mouth is, paying an entrance fee to take part and receiving a bigger or smaller share of the total pot when the contest closes depending on your performance.
The absence of traditional multiplayer events is a disappointment, but they would have only been the icing on what is already a mountainous cake. As it is, the new SSX is an appropriately extreme, surprisingly strategic game filled with the kind of freedom that makes you feel like a force of nature sweeping down a mountainside. The chairman of the board is back, and he’s never been more exciting.
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