After surviving the ice covered slopes of Siberia, the freezing temperatures of Antarctica, and outracing avalanches in Alaska, you arrive in New Zealand. Gale force winds batter your helicopter as it struggles over the Southern Alps. You open the door to whiteout conditions, and get a moment to draw one chilly breath before the change in air pressure sucks you into the deadly blizzard and onto the slopes of Aoraki Mount Cook.
Five years since SSX Blur was released for the Wii, SSX is back. And EA Canada’s snowboarding game is as epic and extreme as ever. Packed with arcade thrills, stunning locations, and a new online mode that sets up rivalries with all your friends, it’s heart-pounding, on the edge excitement that forgoes realism and concentrates on big air thrills.
Hung on a fairly irrelevant story, where team SSX is competing against Griff in a race to be the best on the world’s nine deadliest runs, you soon find yourself jumping out of a helicopter to try some skysurfing. This is the training mode and, after you choose either the left stick or face buttons for the tricks, you’ll be run through the basics of controlling your snowboarder. Keeping with the fun, arcade-y feel of SSX, tricking couldn’t be easier — but to get good scores, it’s not just a matter of landing tricks. While stringing them together gets combo multipliers, repeating moves or slowing down and losing your flow will severely reduce your score. And bailing, of course, will stop you dead.
Once you do string a few tricks together you can activate your boost. The speed boost is needed because the runs split into races and tricks runs. Although there is the obvious difference between them, you still need to do tricks to get the speed boost and use the speed boost to get bigger air and do bigger tricks. This means you’ll be tricking and boosting down all the runs. At the end of each run you earn credits that you can spend on clothes, boards and special items like armour, thermal packs, and ice picks.
In the story mode you go to nine locations around the world. Each location has three mountains with various runs on each. The final run on each location is a deadly descent. Each descent comes with its own danger such as darkness, ice, rocks, and trees. While it all sounds logical, there are some game design choices that make it all a bit weird.
Firstly, while just about everything is locked at the start, you don’t have to complete anything to unlock it all. To unlock the next mountain, next location or new rider, just fail a run a few times and you can skip it. Being able to skip every event I guess balances out the deadly descents, because although they are not impossible, they do have a lot of crevasses and killer drops that are unavoidable without numerous attempts.
The worst offender is the avalanche descent in Alaska. When you start, you get a zoomed-out, reverse view of your little snowboarder. This is so you can get a really good look at the chunk of mountain that’s hard on your heels. That’s fine, but it means you have no idea of what’s ahead of you. All you get is the helicopter pilot warning you to stay left, stay right or watch out. And I have enough trouble with left and right as it is, let alone in reverse view, half way down a mountain, moments away from being swallowed by a thousand cubic metres of freezing death.
But the deadliest descents and their frustrations can be quickly forgotten given just how much fun you can get from SSX. Big, big air, epic locations, and there’s even the The Naked and Famous giving an excellent and varied soundtrack some Kiwi flavour. It looks great, sounds great and plays great. In many ways playing SSX with a few mates and a few refreshments would be a pretty good way to spend a weekend. Trouble is, SSX has no multiplayer. Or rather, there is no split screen and no way to set up a race to compete in real-time against your friends.
However, SSX does do online, and it’s pretty good. When you go online you can search the globe for events. Each event can go from free entry to costing thousands of credits. Choose an event, post a time or a score, and when the event closes credits are paid out as prize money. The more entrants, the more credits. So if you come first out of 5,000 you’ll walk away with around a million credits, while finishing down the list might still get you 50 or 60 thousand. Just remember that this is Electronic Arts, so while you can play online, you won’t get any of your winnings without an online pass.
All the credits can be spent on better boards and suits that raise your trick ability and speed. There are also mods, as well as the special items. In the story mode, special items are needed to help you survive specific locations. The thermal pack protects you against the cold of Antarctica, while the pulse goggles are essential in the white-out conditions of New Zealand.
Best of the special items, however, is the wingsuit. This first becomes available for the deadliest descent in Patagonia. Get air and open the wings with the right bumper. Then you can glide over mountains, forests, factories buried in the snow, and competitors. It’s awesome. If you’re not on a run that requires a specific special item, the wing suit is definitely the way to go.
Using your wing suit, mods and credits to beat strangers is one thing, but the most important thing is to beat your friends. Although you can’t race against them in the way we’re used to, to some extent you’ll be constantly competing against them.
When you’re online, SSX keeps track of all your stats and keeps track of all your friends. So if you’ve spent the morning getting a good time on Mount Kilimanjaro (and the 20,000 credits for the best time), then all your friends will instantly get a pop-up to let them know. So, in five minutes all your friends’ times will be updating on your screen and you’ll be way down the list, and looking for another easy run to try.
The online works very well, despite the lack of real-time player versus player races. Surprisingly, SSX still manages to maintain a real sense of competition, as well as giving gamers the great sense of accomplishment that only comes with beating your mates.
Just about everything in SSX works well. It looks fantastic and is easy to play. Though there is little point to the story, for once that doesn’t matter. SSX is thrilling and, most importantly, fun. And like the best things in life, it can be summed up in a very few words. Board, snow, mountain, awesome.