SSX review — The obnoxious kid

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SSX Screenshot

If there were ever a case of adherence to a game design at the cost of the experience, it has to be SSX, EA’s new reboot/reimagining of the popular snowboarding series.

I’m not saying that SSX isn’t a fun game. It’s just that when it drags, it isn’t for a lack of polish or refinement, it’s because the foundation the game was constructed around was not that solid to begin with.

When I say foundation, I don’t mean the original SSX gameplay of racing and doing massive strings of absurd tricks. Since the first game in the series, SSX has been a colorful, lively take on extreme sports, with an attitude that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Competitions in the games fall into either straight-up trick contests, where players try to rack up the highest score, or races, where you compete against other snowboarders to the bottom of a course, doing tricks occasionally to gain speed boosts.

That part is as solid as it’s ever been, and there’s a real feeling of exhilaration when you completely nail a run down one of SSX’s many slopes. The hang-ups come when the game adheres to the underlying theme of the game, the “Deadly Descents.”

SSX Screenshot

Early on in development, we saw indications that the game had a darker, more realistic focus. This was eventually softened for the final release, bringing the design more in line with the over-the-top silliness of the first few SSX games. However, crucial elements are still prominent from the game’s early development phases, including more spartan character designs and a focus on “human versus nature” survival segments, the Deadly Descents.

The Deadly Descents are essentially the game’s boss fights. They’re frustratingly difficult runs down treacherous mountain paths that employ different hazards to trip up the player, like snowblindness or a wall of trees. The object of the Deadly Descents is not to go fast or trick big, but simply to survive. These sections actually employ a health bar that will end your run prematurely if you take too many hits from course hazards, which seems antithetical to the normal light-hearted spirit of SSX. Generally, the Deadly Descents can only be passed by trial and error and an eventual memorization of the safest route.

The courses in the game leave something to be desired. EA used topographical data from mountains across the world to develop the downhill runs, then modified them to be playable in SSX, adding rails and half-pipes where it improves trick opportunities. The thing is…not every mountain makes for an enjoyable snowboard run. While Mt. Everest is certainly one of the most treacherous peaks in the world, even with the modifications EA made, it doesn’t lend itself to a smooth path suitable for racing. Blind corners, frequent small gaps, and frustrating obstacles make for bad level design, especially when compared with the flowing lines of earlier SSX entries. The insistence on using real-world data for courses seems like another strange adherence to an idea of realism, rather than focusing on what makes the game fun.

The character designs are some of the most lifeless I’ve seen in extreme sports titles, let alone the SSX series. Previously vibrant and personable racers have been marginalized in an effort to make them look more like real-world snowboarders. Getting new gear for your character will improve their performance on the track, but in terms of customization, it amounts to little more than a palette swap. While each character has trash-talking dialogue they spit at the other competitors, there are few memorable lines, and the voices are often drowned out by the game’s ambient sound.

The game also attempts to have a story, which is about as threadbare as I expected. SSX no longer stands for “super snowboard cross,” but instead, “surfing, snowboarding, and motocross.” This was done to represent the many different sports the athletes in the game come from. I question the reasoning for the name change when the game only features snowboarding, and I pray that doesn’t mean EA plans to expand the franchise into multiple sports.

The narrative follows Team SSX as they try to best Griff, who longtime fans will remember as “the obnoxious kid” from SSX 3. He’s all grown up now, but still a jerk. The story switches from one of your team to another as they attempt to beat Griff to the bottom of all 9 Deadly Descents. Seems kind of unfair, since there are nine people on Team SSX, but hey, maybe Griff can replicate himself or something.

At least one part of the game remembers what the series once was: the soundtrack is one of its strongest elements. The mixture of pop-rock and electronica seems perfectly suited to downhill runs, and the inclusion of a remix of Run DMC’s It’s Tricky that plays when you achieve a full trick meter is a nice throwback to an earlier time in the series. It’s also a great way to get the player pumped up. Especially impressive is the way the game mixes the songs with whatever you happen to be doing, so the current track may drop out in anticipation as you catch air off a big jump, then kick back in right at the chorus along with a few samples of It’s Tricky right when you land that big trick. It’s immensely satisfying.

SSX Screenshot

Another SSX staple that has mostly been given the boot: the ability to fight with the other racers. While it seems like a minor element of the game overall, the ability to push over an AI competitor right at the start of a race and be rewarded with a full trick meter was integral to the game’s attitude and feeling of competition.

And maybe that omission was intentional, as the competition in SSX has been largely sucked out of it. Maybe the biggest flaw in the game is that there are no online head-to-head multiplayer options, instead there’s only RiderNet, a fancy name for what boils down to a global leaderboard. There are a few interesting features included, like the ability to hide “GeoTags” in courses for other players to find. The longer the “GeoTags” go undiscovered, the more SSX credits, the game’s currency, you are rewarded with. If you don’t feel like messing with playing the game to earn this currency, in true EA fashion, you can simply buy more SSX credits using real-world money. The monetization of players’ time is something I can’t condone, as it allows people to basically buy the game’s best equipment using real money instead of some degree of skill.

It may sound like I’m tearing this game apart, but that’s only because I know it can be so much more than it is, and I want it to be. The game remains a fun experience because the core concept of SSX is so strong, but bizarre design decisions and the contemptible lack of player-versus-player racing keep this from being a must play.

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