The wildest snowboarding series in gaming is back. But has the wait been worth it?
I have to admit something. For some reason, largely unknown to even myself, I absolutely love snow. Take any game, put a snow level in it and I'm inclined to like it more than I otherwise would have - almost without any exception. It could come from my unabashed love for the winter season, or maybe it's just a Canadian thing. Cool Boarders still ranks up as one of my top gaming experiences ever, but I'd argue that's because it was the first game to get snowboarding right. So imagine my sadness during this console generation, which almost totally glossed over snowboarding games. Sure, there was Amped, but it was a past generation game with past generation aspirations. There was also Stoked (and Stoked: Big Air Edition), which is a grossly underrated criminally underplayed snowboarding game that you should go find and buy - right now! But aside from those titles there really hasn't been anything and all people have clamored for is a brand new SSX. And now, we have it.
Action sports titles have never done too well with storylines and EA's 2012's SSX is a perfect example of why. You're enlisted to recruit snowboarders to join with you to beat an ex-teammate who turned-coat and went out alone. As a story this gets next to no play, except for when you recruit a new boarder after completing one of the games nine Deadly Descents. You also don't pick which boarder you go out with during the story, which ends up feeling like a useless contrivance when you realize you can just head over to Explore Mode and pick whoever you want. And while I appreciate the eclectic mix of players I still can't understand why SSX won't let you create and customize your own boarder, especially in the context of a story about you recruiting a team.
Indeed, the flimsy setup blows apart the second you lose interest in Deadly Descents meager offerings - just 9 mountains of various contests. It's the Explore Mode that opens up access to all the boarders and mountains from the get-go, and it also gives you the most credits and experience to level up and improve them. In hindsight, EA's move to drop Deadly Descents from the title altogether was probably a smart one. But that doesn't mean you totally get away from the premise that the story lays out. Whichever mode you're in you'll still be battling mountains full of harrowing dangers, some far more than others. You know, "only the most skilled boarders alive can ride these hills, man".
That's cool, to a point. But SSX's biggest failure is that in its attempt to challenge players it takes away from what most of them want to do. You ask almost anyone what they want out of a snowboarding game and they'll tell you that they want to beat another person to the bottom of a mountain or put up the highest trick totals. SSX lets you do that, but about a third of the drops put you in such perilous situations that you have to be more cognizant of falling off cliffs than landing sick tricks. That's because Deadly Descents are used primarily for Survive It challenges, where players simply have to reach the bottom safely. These courses are specifically made to be dangerous, where one miscue can send you plummeting down a chasm. It's here where things fail to register because the game ceases to be about skill and all about caution.
Back To Basics And Then Some
So if you were strictly hoping to see something new from SSX, then judge accordingly. If all you wanted was the balls-out arcade action from previous SSX titles then you'll find more than enough of that here. If you've never played an SSX game just know that things aren't grounded in reality as they might be in a game like Stoked. Here, a 1620 (the largest spin ever landed in competition) is beginners work, and double digit combo strings are mandatory for even the most basic level of success. All the action starts from the analog sticks, which you use for carving and jumping, while the buttons and triggers are primarily used for grabs and tweaks. It can take awhile to master, but once you get it down the control becomes second nature.
Right out of the gate you can pull off sick trick, but some players may be frustrated by how long it can take to compete with the best on certain courses. You'll slowly level up and gain access to new and better gear, but it isn't until you hit level 6 or 7 that you unlock the things you need to meet the Gold standard. That's because some drops require you to have things like armor, wingsuits, oxygen tanks and pulse goggles. Unfortunately, some of these things just don't provide you with enough of what you need to reach the bottom in first. Some tracks, for example, require an oxygen tank, so you can stave off blacking out. But it's literally impossible at a low level to finish first before all your air runs out. Come back after you've leveled up that boarder, and earned access to a level 7 air tank, and you'll have no problems. Though you're shown a survival percentage while picking your gear, it can still be annoying that certain tracks become all about the time you've put into the game and not your skill at it.
In the end, skill is still king. Each mountain sports Survive It, Trick It and Race It tracks along the same drops. In Deadly Descents hitting the minimum requirements can be easy, but in Explore Mode it takes a lot of patience and skill to do well, even more if you expect to hit first place. As I mentioned before, some tracks are better suited to certain mode types than others. It's actually because of this that SSX feels uneven. At times during Race It and Trick It events I was holding my breath, excited and anxious to maintain a Tricky streak that begun only seconds after the starting line. But then I'd struggle three or four times down the same track, just doing my best to memorize where the mountain became a deathtrap so that I could eventually earn bronze or silver.
Things are made somewhat easier by a new rewind system that lets you back up to a place of your choosing. During Survive It you only get a few of them, but it's often enough to keep things fun. But during races and trick courses you get as many as you want. The catch is that rewinding drops you 5,000 points to start and more depending on how far back you want to go. If you don't bust out some quick tricks to make up for the loss you could also get hit with a multiplier of that, meaning 5,000 can just as easily turn into 50,000. But it's during races that it really bites because you're the only racer that moves back in time. A single rewind usually means first place is out of the question, and any more than that likely means a restart. So even though it's a welcome addition, the rewind use won't be enough to keep everyone happy.
Take In The View While You're Here
One of the neat hooks with this year's SSX is that all of the mountains are based on real world places. So you'll go to Mount Meru in Africa, Silverthorne in Alaska, Kara-Oiuk in Siberia, Fuji in Japan and many, many others. Each territory includes three mountains so you end up with a lot of places to visit. Mostly, these places are distinguishable by whether they contain dense back country, thin air or long stretches of hard ice. Personally, I'd have preferred to see the variation come from visual and pacing cues more than the danger the mountain, as I found the mountains feeling mostly similar from one to the other beyond their inherent difficulty. The upside is that SSX is a beautiful game filled with long draw distances that reveal natural beauty and man-made chaos.
If you're into multiplayer you'll be disappointed to know that there isn't any form of traditional multiplayer, online or off. It's a bummer that I can't race my friends over Live or PSN, but EA Canada has implemented the next best thing: Rider Net. Based on Need For Speed's Autolog system, your best times and scores are posted as a dangling carrot for everyone on your friends list. It works by making an inclusive leaderboard, where your achievements are always compared to your friends. Bounty's are handed out each time you beat a friend or if they fail to beat you. So you never actually go online against them, but you can see their ghost perform the run which shows you the route they took. There's also collectible markers, called Geotags, which you can find on runs or buy as gear. In a similar way to Rider Net, you can place these anywhere on a track to earn credits until another player finds and collects it in their game. It's a fun little side game and it's cool to see the crazy places that people have managed to lay them down.
It's easy to welcome back SSX after such a long layoff (excluding the Wii effort) and it should go without saying that I'm predisposed to loving it. But I'll be the first to say that EA's reboot makes you work for your entertainment. It's almost as if two thirds of this game is right on point, while the other third flounders between disappointing and aggravating. Luckily, there's enough content here to keep a lot of different players happy and EA's friends based leaderboard chasing is perfectly suited for this type of extreme sport. All told, SSX comes back big and strong. It just does so with a little less purpose and relevance.
Final Score: 80%
Great -- Has loads of promise, but falls just short of its potential. A great title that leaves you wishing they'd gone that extra mile. This is the sort of game that you keep for a long time and do multiple runs through. Always worth a rent, but usually you’d want to buy it.