The second of EA Sports’ major titles dropping in a crowded first quarter has a ready-made fan base, but the challenge of progressing your rider and an engaging multiplayer suite mean there’s more to SSX than 90’s extreme sports fever.
SSX – EA Canada
The first entry in the series since 2007’s Blur.
Originally debuted with the subtitle Deadly Descents, it has since been marketed more as a reboot of the franchise.
Takes a more challenging approach to snowboarding, with an emphasis on surviving extreme conditions, as opposed to the cartoon feel of previous titles.
Does utilise an Online Pass system, but second-hand users can still participate in multiplayer.
SSX has a lot going for it. The RPG-like character progression and equipment unlocking has the usual lure; the live remix of licensed and custom soundtracks is a nice touch; satellite imagery-based maps are undeniably cool; and a lack of competitors means snow bunnies are lining up for some off-season fun. But it’s probably the fact that it doesn’t mind dropping half a mountain of snow on you before throwing you down a waterfall and onto a pit of iron spikes that gets me.
One of SSX’s conceits is its man-against-nature theme, as demonstrated when you begin a new, advanced drop with basic equipment. On the Silverthorne drop’s survival mode, a starting character only has a 4% chance of survival, the menu proclaims; with a bit of equipment swapping, the demonstrator raised this to 39%.
It’s a good thing he was pretty practised, as the challenges came thick and fast. In one level, the camera reversed to show the player’s distance from an encroaching avalanche, and on New Zealand levels, whiteout is a major obstacle barely mitigated by pulse goggles.
A limited Prince-of-Persia like rewind function helps, of course, but each tracks present a dilemma and a gamble – do I take the best opportunities for high-scoring tricks, or do I salvage a tiny bit of space between me and the more hostile landscape? It’s a decision which has to be made close to once a second.
Sucessful tricking increases your multiplier up to 20x, while wiping out drops it down. Maintaining a high multiplier is the key to success, EA Canada’s Connor Dougan said, warning us that rewinds will put you further and further behind, too.
There are plenty of different modes to practice in besides the fiendishly difficult Survival heart. Explore and Global Events are the single-player and multiplayer versions of the same mode; players can endlessly loop through the terrain, taken straight back to the top at the end of a run, but in the multiplayer mode, your performance is being weighed against other players.
Global Events are the most social-feeling of the multiplayer options. EA Canada has given lobbies the boot, allowing you to drop in and participate at any time, meaning you might not be aware of just how many boarders are also competing for the prize. Although it’s been said many times before, hearing the number is always startling.
“We support around 100,000 people in each global event,” Dougan confirmed.
“We don’t show 100,000 players. We phase in and phase out riders based on your skill level, your friends.”
There aren’t yet 100,000 copies of the game in the wild to test this feature against, of course, but even if it ends up a horrid mess, there’s always the possibility of custom matches. Any drop is available for a custom match, which can be restricted to friends or friends-of-friends if you prefer, with a wealth of customisation options ranging from barring rewinds to setting the terms of point sharing, gambling funds in a winner-takes-all pot.
There’s a more traditional multiplayer side in the form of ghost runs. In a very Autolog-like setup, friends will be informed of each other’s progress, and earn points by beating each other. To make the resulting oneupmanship bouts as accessible as possible, you can replay a challenge attempt with a single button press. RiderNet – which will be accessible from an iPhone app – will inform you and your mates of your accomplishments on each and every track, a system which has proved both compelling and popular in the Need for Speed series.
Not every feature the reboot packs in has met with unbridled enthusiasm. Although series fans are unlikely to need much in the way of coaching, one tutorial is probably worth a visit – the controversial wingsuit can take some getting used to.
For beginner players, the wingsuit can provide an elegant escape from a badly timed launch, but for experts, there’s the chance to do a lot more – even skipping difficult sections of track.
“If you’re really good, you can,” Dougan confirmed.
“It depends on the track. In Patagonia, it’s specifically designed for wingsuit. On other tracks, it’s flatter, it’s not gonna help you much,” he added.
Another use for the wingsuit, which once unlocked can be used anywhere, is placing and collecting geotags. These markers can be placed anywhere you manage to reach, and appear in other player’s games provided they’re online. Collecting a geotag nets you points, but they also earn points for as long as they go uncollected, giving players impetus to explore the more dangerous parts of the terrain, searching for inaccessible areas. The higher a player’s level, the more geotags they can place at one time.
It’s a neat little form of asynchronous multiplayer which reminds me of the messages in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls; players would often leave positive feedback on those left in the most inhospitable places, like a ledge accessible only through careful wall hacking.
Despite its clever use of various multiplayer elements, in the end SSX is really about you and the mountain. Although the Deadly Descents subtitle has been axed, the environmental design is clearly the star of the show, and even single-player fans will find plenty to do as they progress their characters and master each trick and slope.
Some environments include surprise events like unscripted avalanches, and dynamic, physics-based generation means these events won’t always play out in the same way, so each run could be different. Thankfully while each drop is designed in such a way that you feel free to explore, the steep branching tracks funnels you to the finish line at last – even if you try to wingsuit away – so you can’t get lost.
For a game which is all about snow, EA Canada has packed in a surprising amount of variety – huge dams surrounded by a spider’s web of grind-able pipes; rocky crevasses; old railway lines and mines; forests. Even along each track you’ll meet unique assets as well as opportunities to grab extra points – brushing a helicopter with a particularly lofty leap, for example – and the night stages bring a whole new world of flare-lit colour and dynamic shadows which is unusually beautiful. At the edge of the light, the snow flickers pale pink and lavender edging towards the long grey shadows which limit visibility; the player’s snowsuit is bright against the background without distracting or overwhelming it.
A demo is out now, giving players a chance to check the game out for themselves, but with a host of thoughtful features and compellingly high production values, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt so far that EA Sports has seized the opportunity to revive a franchise – and genre – thought lost in the extreme sports crash.
SSX releases on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on February 28 in the US, and March 2 in Europe.