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.
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 execute them.
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.
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 standard.
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.
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 real-world gamers).
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.
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.
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.