Review: SSX

I spent many-a-late-night huddled in my room around my television with my PS2 while learning to master the slopes in the previous SSX titles. I never have been one for sports games, but something about the wild, whacky and extreme racing and tricking of the SSX franchise really caught on to me. My brothers, friends and I would spend hours learning to master each course and find all the shortcuts, racing against each other’s best scores and the clock.

Those were the days, and I’m sure there are games out there each of us could reminisce about. Some say nostalgia is a boon to gaming, others say it’s a bane. Back then, of course, I wasn’t looking at the game with a critical eye, but was simply in it for the fun. Does this SSX “reboot” live up to the memories, or does it falter in the face of current generation tropes?

The first thing to note is that there probably is more of a story here than there ever was in the franchise previously. I’ll touch on it briefly simply because the story is practically inconsequential. There’s a former SSX member, Griff, who wants to shred the nine deadliest peaks in the world. These peaks range anywhere from the Rockies to Siberia to Japan and even Antarctica. Naturally, the SSX team, headed up by Zoe, wants to get it done first and beat Griff at his own game. To do that, she needs to assemble new and old friends alike to go up against Griff and take him down. There. That is your story. It’s simple, it’s shallow and it’s completely what we should all expect from a game like this.

Review: SSX

The “story” unfolds as you reach each new area, which provides you with a handful of peaks and events that lead up to a “boss” event against Griff. Things start off tame and increase in difficulty as you move on through the area. Each “zone”, so to speak, also has a single theme challenge. It could be darkness, it could be ice, it could be trees. Each of the nine areas have their own theme and carry that theme throughout all the descents in that particular region. I actually like this concept, as it challenges you to work – during that segment of the game – to learn how to deal with that particular obstacle on the slopes. Learning about all those, as well as the gear to get you through them, will come in handy later in the game’s campaign.

In each of these areas, leading up to the final challenge of the region, you’ll be racing against one of these new recruits you’re trying to get join with you in challenging Griff. Once you clear the first race with that new character, you’ll unlock that racer for continual use throughout the game (including the awesome Explore mode, which I’ll get to in a bit). There is a little bit of interaction between the characters, but it doesn’t go too deep.

This all works together to keep the story there, but doesn’t shove it in your face. It’s mildly interesting, but certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously and never tries to be more than what it is – a shallow membrane to wrap around the meat of the game.

As you go through these various regions, the game teaches you about the new additions to the franchise, which is an extensive gear shop. Just about everything you do in this game awards you credits, and you can spend those in the shop. There you can outfit your characters with new gear like boards, mods, accessories and other things. The most important addition is that of various accessories that help you out in certain slope conditions. There’s an ice pick, for example, which helps you dig into icy mountainside courses, thus controlling your cornering and descent.

Review: SSX

The various boards and outfits you can purchase also increase your “stats”. The stats are simple – speed, tricks and boost. The higher the stat in each area, the better you are at it. The game keeps that simple and effective. If you purchase a board that gives you a big enough trick boost, you’ll definitely notice it as you trick your way down the mountain.

The unfortunate aspect here is that, aside from the main stats, some of these gear additions are hardly noticeable. If you traverse an ice-covered peak without an ice pick, many times you won’t even notice you’re missing it. The game lists a survival rate far lower than what it really is. I’m not sure if this is an attempt to scare you into purchasing the gear or what. Granted, the gear needed isn’t that expensive, but it would stand to reason that it should do something.

To that point, some of it does work, and works very well. The armor plating, for example, provides a pretty noticeable addition to how many hits you can take going down a mountain filled with rocks or trees. Overall though, it’s very iffy as to what you really need and what you can do without, regardless of what the game does to warn you that you absolutely need something for that particular descent.

Review: SSX

The descents themselves are designed well, for the most part. A lot of effort was put into designing them with as much realism to the actual peak as the developers could muster in a game like this. Obviously you don’t find grind-able nuclear silos or half-buried monasteries in these areas in the real world. However, because it’s highly unlikely most of us will ever see these areas of the world from these perspectives, it does give it a sense of awe-inspiring greatness to race and trick down some of these areas. Each area is also culturally themed to the region you’re playing in, which is a cool touch and keeps things interesting.

I do think, sometimes, too much is done with these areas. I don’t remember ever having a dozen choices of where to go all at once in the previous games. This kept courses tight and easily learnable. This iteration seems to want to give you a path to go and a jump to take for every day of the week, and then some. I found this many times to be very overwhelming, and that feeling generally detracts from an otherwise well designed mountain. Even in the first campaign region, you’re subjected to a race or two that is incredibly complex and branching, which stands the chance of overwhelming new players or those just starting off. Not everyone wants to race a track a dozen times before a) figuring out the best and fastest way to go or b) to check out every last nook and cranny.

Review: SSX

There were times that tracks had so many choices and were so complex that it was very difficult to clear them with the parameters that the game sets for you. Luckily, on most of these courses, once you fail a few times, the game asks if you want to just faux complete that descent and move on with the campaign.

The “boss” battles are something I don’t think really belong in a game like this, either. It reminds me of the “boss” battles in a game like Guitar Hero. The game itself is already fine without them, and it sort of adds a cheesy theme to the whole game, in my opinion. These battles typically put you up against both an opponent, and a force of nature, which is usually the theme of that region, whether it be something like pitch black darkness or something as simple as avoiding trees. In most cases it’s just, again, excessive complexities that ruin these events for me. I would consider myself very adept at this title by now, and I still trip up many times on the first survival descent “boss” mountain where you have to avoid a bazillion trees on the way down. That seems a bit much for even me, an avid and hardcore gamer. It isn’t fun to continually trip up on trees when all you want to do is race or trick your way to the bottom.

So, in summary of the main campaign – the progression is laid out nicely, the overall tracks are designed nicely and the story nicely wraps everything together. However the unnecessary complexity of many courses, especially early on in the game, hinder the experience, and the unbalanced necessity of gear accessories has me wondering why some of them are even there in the first place.

Review: SSX

As far as I’m concerned, though, the crux of the game is the Explore Mode. This is also where the online aspects come into play, as well as the massive amounts of replay value therein. In this mode you have all courses available to you from the get go. Granted, you do have to spend credits to unlock some, however they are there and available, and there are more than enough available from the start to help you earn credits to progress.

Here you are tasked with challenging yourself and your friends. The game gives you credits for doing just about anything, including clearing the tracks with the predefined bronze, silver and gold times or scores. You also get credits for creating or beating your personal best on a course. Your friends’ “ghost” is something you will also be competing against, and massive bounties await you if you defeat their high score on a descent.

More than that, if your score goes undefeated while your “ghost” races against a friend on their game, you will get credits when you log on next, which also lends itself nicely to this competitive online mode. Therein lies the challenge and what makes the online in SSX so great – you’re constantly competing against yourself and your friends for credits and bragging rights. It’s a great idea and melds online where you actually play with your friends on-screen and play against them while they aren’t online very nicely.

Review: SSX

Another cool aspect is you can also leave items, called Geotags, on courses for your friends to find. The longer your Geotag goes without one of your friends claiming it, the more credits you receive. You also receive a bucket of credits when you nab one of your friends’ Geotags. It creates a great form of interaction that can happen with your friends even when you aren’t online together, and that is, quite frankly, pretty awesome. Friends can’t always make their schedules coincide, so this is a great way to meet in the middle, so to speak, and I’d love to see more games do something like this in the future.

With all those great things being said about the online mode, I’m sorely disappointed there is no split-screen play. Here is where you’re either going to love me or hate me, because I’m going to bring nostalgia into the picture. The absolute single best aspect of the previous SSX titles was to play right there on the sofa with your friends. Forget online rankings against Internet “ghosts”. Let’s be honest, most of your Xbox Live or PSN friends are people you don’t know outside of the online realm anyway. Nothing beats sitting down in the same room on the same sofa with your friends and competing.

Unfortunately, SSX does not include that, and I’m sorry to say that that oversight alone – for whatever reason – is a huge letdown. Immediately when I heard there was going to be a new SSX title, the first thing I thought of was it is going to be awesome to have mini-tournaments and gaming parties with it like we did in the past. That is, sadly, not to be so. I can not express to you how disappointed I am for them not including a split-screen mode and I really, truly wish more developers would consider cutting a few corners elsewhere to make this happen in the future. Online is great, but it isn’t the core group gaming experience people remember, which leads to a huge amount of let-down for some, myself included.

Review: SSX

Overall, SSX has kept the same graphical and musical stylings of its predecessors, the same speed-hungry descents and crazy, out of this world tricks (and, let’s not forget, that ever-present tricky meter which gets the blood pumping each time it’s activated) and the engrossing, detailed and choice-filled courses. Its online is a great experience that melds two separate ideas together to create a fusion of competitive greatness. However, I do think something was lost in the years since the previous iterations and that thing that was lost is, unfortunately, the aspect I most enjoyed about these games. You can add all the single-player or online content you want, but at the end of the day, the lack of what made this franchise great before puts a damper on the whole experience.

For a certainty this is a great game and a worthy “reboot” of the franchise that has been missing for many years. If you’re a huge online gamer or just want to enjoy what single-player has to offer, including the online aspects that you can take part in solo against your friends, then this is most certainly the game for you. I don’t want to discount how almost all aspects of the game work together very, very well and how fun the experience that was created here is. However if you’re looking to relive memories of times past, you probably won’t find them here.