During our first couple of
hours with it, our relationship with SSX was as much of a rollercoaster as the
frozen rails – manmade and not – upon which we rode. We say
“rollercoaster,” but that’s not strictly accurate. It was actually the
emotional equivalent of trying to navigate a boulder-filled minefield on
rocket-skates, before eventually remembering that we’re one part Spider-Man,
one part Jesus, and we happen to be able to fly.
In other words, SSX goes
from being a painful, frustrating, crash-happy death-o-thon to one of the most
flowing, empowering, transcendently Zen experiences in gaming. Don't believe us? This is enlightenment:
This new SSX, you see, is
far more emergent, far more dynamic and far more demanding than many games in
the modern landscape. We didn’t progressively get “better” in the traditional
sense. Rather, like all of the best games of its ilk (Street Fighter IV in
particular being an odd but utterly appropriate comparison), SSX is a game that
opened up new pathways in our brain, forging new instincts, new ways of seeing
the game world and its mechanics, and new ways to bend and remake the rules
with every new level of understanding.
Trial by frostbite
The game gets off to a fast
start – and thus beat the living hell out of us when we began playing it. But
at the moment it all clicked – the moment of that first beautiful synergy of
muscle-memory control and understanding of the game’s physics – the payoff
for our perseverance was a feeling we rarely get from games. And at that point,
a whole new world opened up right in front of us. What we are and aren’t
capable of in SSX comes down to our own ability to see opportunities and
SSX is a series in which a
tactile, almost musical sense of rhythm and flow blends seamlessly with a much
more analytical, almost mathematical second-to-second tactical decision making
and resource management. If you’ve played any of the previous games, you’ll
know that already. But if not, allow us to explain a little of the detail.
SSX, at its roots, is all about physics-driven snowboarding. In lieu of accelerators and brakes, there’s just the speed you can build and control through your physical interactions with the environment, augmented by a boost function earned through successful trick-based combos. Events are split between races and trick competitions, in which having equal parts audacity and skill to keep an insanely long combo rolling is vital to success.
Those crucial tricks – and
precarious timing – involve a steep learning curve that feels like a bit of “patted
head/rubbed belly” scenario, particularly while learning how ambitious you can
afford to be given any particular window of air. But once you get it down, and
you start unlocking bigger and higher-scoring special moves by filling your
Tricky meter with combo points, you won’t believe what you can pull off.
Chain those together with
grinds, which have been modified to allow combo-sustaining poses, and you’ll
build up from Tricky (which gives you unlimited boost speed) to Super Tricky to
Uber Tricky, which begets ludicrous legions of points the longer you maintain
it. It sounds like a simple, logical gameplay loop, and it is.
What’s not so simple
however, is how you choose to use that loop. Just as Street Fighter IV (or any
good fighting game for that matter) is really about knowing how and when to
most intelligently and creatively use the tools at your disposal on a
second-by-second basis, so too is SSX about using your increasing mastery of
your bag of tricks to maximize your success at every turn.
From defeat comes greatness
You’ll need to understand,
for example, that big air is a godsend for trick-based events, in which “go big
or GTFO” is the order of the day. But in the throes of a race, you’ll need to
decide on the best methods for keeping your combo (and thusly, your boost)
alive while avoiding too much flight time.
This is a game that revels
in the sheer joy and control of movement like few others this generation, while
also marrying it to a need for disciplined, intelligent play in a way that results
in not the hampering of either element, but rather the glorious, thrilling
concentration of both via mutual emphasis.
In this new SSX there is
also the addition of Deadly Descent events, in which you simply have to make it
to the bottom of a particularly long back-country run as a brutal natural
hazard tries its best to kill you. A couple of these, alas, provide the game’s
only real bum-notes through being overly hard for the wrong reasons: either
boosting the challenge via too many contrived fiddly control demands (manual-operated
oxygen tank, we’re looking at you) or somewhat unclear track layout (random
death-drops of the Wing Suit challenge, we’re looking at you). That said, they also provide some of the most epically
cinematic setpieces in a game that already operates on an epic scale as
Core gameplay established as
wonderful, the other main thing you need to know about SSX is that it is huge. How huge? Put it this way. There
are two main game modes, World Tour and Explore. World Tour is the story-driven
campaign. It takes place in nine different mountain ranges, each comprising
three different peaks and approximately five to seven events. It’s as big as
you’d expect the main game to be, and took us well over ten hours to complete. But
when you did, we hit Explore mode and we realized that World Tour was
essentially a giant, game-sized tutorial for the main event.
Just when you thought you had it all figured out...
Where World Tour splits each
mountainside into a couple of different branching routes and a couple of
different events, Explore deconstructs the same geography on a granular level,
squeezing five to seven challenges out of each mountainside alone. Suddenly the
nuances and pacing of each slope will make sense on a whole new level.
That inconveniently jumpy
bit that was so tricky to swiftly navigate during the last part of that
mountainside race? Well how about starting there, and treating it like a short,
brutally intensive trick park, tasked with maximizing your score in a really
brief space of time? That long, snow-blind Deadly Descent, whose limited
visibility saw you relieved simply to finish in World Tour? How about an
infinitely looping version, which now has a full three-medal system that demands
you complete it multiple times in a row for a gold? Start Explore and you’ll
rapidly realize that World Tour was simply practice for the real depth of the
game – including the full RPG experience that seemed so obtuse during World
Tour. Now you’ll have access to individual character stats for the whole cast
and even purchasable passive buffs to aid speed and trick quality. Completing
Explore’s 154 (yes, 154) challenges will take just as much canny character
management and development as skilled, intelligent riding.
Make no mistake, winning at
this stuff is demanding. Opponent trick scores and race times may
seem impossible to beat at first. You’ll struggle to understand how you can
finish behind by 20 seconds or five million points despite nailing what you
thought was a perfect run. But then you’ll start considering that maybe you
used the wrong character. That maybe your board, gear and buff load-out wasn’t
right. That maybe you need to session the route for another hour to find that
hidden optimum route that you’re missing.
Keep in mind that all of these great features come in solitude,
but SSX also incorporates an online system identical to Autolog, the social network-meets-Xbox Live-inspired competitive feature
seen in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, to excellent effect. While you’ll be
challenging yourself in a variety of methods in Explore mode, you’ll also find
yourself striving to trump a number of competitors, including your friends
list, to top their best scores. (One could argue that it’s glorified ghost data,
but it’s a fine garnish on this sumptuous experience. Either way, be sure to
check back in a week or so for an update on how SSX online is working with
The best praise for SSX?
Nothing is impossible. It just requires effort. But the rewards are so great,
and the sheer pleasure, thrill and second-to-second gratification of
discovering how to succeed are such joys in and of themselves, that it really
won’t feel like an effort at all.
Is it better than...
Shaun White Snowboarding Yes. Even coming along in the lengthy period between last-gen's last SSX and this one, Shaun White's dull, pedestrian semi-realism couldn't fill the gap left by the series' ultra-kinetic acrobatic technicality.
SSX 3 No. While SSX is faster, smoother and more beautiful, SSX 3's vast open-world mountain range, free-flowing peak-to-bottom exploration and staggeringly affecting sense of place and life still make it the better game. But not being better than the best game in the series is no failure.
Amped 3 Yes. Amped 3 was okay, but its ludicrous Saints-Row-meets-Jackass tone, bitty event structure and overall underdeveloped feel mean that it pales in comparison to SSX's fully-formed, fleshed-out robustness of gameplay and content.
For those who skipped straight to the end
The wait was worth it. Full stop. While it doesn't top SSX 3 in terms of that game's vibrant sense of place, and is occasionally hampered by being hard for the wrong reasons, SSX is a vast, deep, beautiful and nuanced blend of showboating adrenalin and sharpened intelligent play. It's a demanding game, but its rewards are immense, providing a feeling you won't get anywhere else in gaming.