OXCGN’s SSX Review
Is this snowjob extreme fun or a wipeout?
©2012 Nicholas Capozzoli
An alert informs me that my best score on Denali is no longer strong enough to keep me in the money.
I’m at risk of losing the cash I’ve committed to that Global Event, and there are only a couple minutes left to salvage it.
I drop in, promptly launching off a 200’ cliff in a series of acrobatic flips and spins that could rival Red Bull’s most dramatic footage.
My landing triggers an avalanche, and it’s off to the races as I try to keep safely out of its clutches.
I cut back and forth, carving wide swathes in the powder, vaulting off spines of snow-covered rock, hurdling fingers of the avalanche that reach out at me.
All the while one of my favorite tracks by The Mars Volta accompanies my run, ebbing and flowing with each of my leaps and spills.
I reach safety by the skin of my teeth, securing myself a nice purse.
Two days later, I’m on my 8th attempt to complete Kilimanjaro, a course composed of labyrinthine tunnels in oppressive darkness.
Seven times in a row I’ve failed. Seven times I’ve listened to the same dubstep song advising me “FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS.”
But mercifully, try number eight seems to be the charm, and I’m damned close to finally putting this frustrating endeavor in my rear view.
I veer into a tight tunnel and grind on the long rail that winds through it. A series of twists and turns ensue.
Then the rail ends abruptly, heaving me bodily into a pit of magma.
Cursing, I rewind, dragging my character back from the abyss and onto the rail for another try. This time I leap off the rail, but I crash into the opposite wall and again fall into the same pit.
I am conveyed, inexorably, to my ironic death.
For every thrilling moment like the former, there is a hair-pulling occurrence like the latter. Inconsistency is king.
It’s a safe bet that the game’s mid-development 180° from serious, survival-based game to lighthearted arcade romp is largely to blame for SSX’s failings.
Elements from both styles of game succeed independently of each other, but they often clash at their intersection.
Moving at full clip, the environments rush past in a blur, and a well-struck jump can send you sailing over large segments of track.
It’s a real adrenaline rush, and a better simulation of snowboarding at high speeds than can be found in previous installments.
Yet often you’re not afforded a great view of what’s to be found downhill of you, and so those dramatic leaps all-too-often result in you falling into one of the many crevasses that litter SSX’s runs.
If not the pits, then you’re as like to find yourself jammed against a rock wall, your character fidgeting impotently.
Flares, fluorescent paint, and the guidance of your ever-present helicopter pilot are intended to mitigate the danger posed by the pitfalls, but unfortunately they’re all a bit unreliable.
The pilots, for their part, often warn you about incoming deathtraps just as you’re falling headlong into them.
When those aids fail you, as they inevitably will, you’re expected to rely on a rewind mechanic that has a set amount of uses. Sadly, it too is an imperfect solution, as my earlier example with the lava may have helped demonstrate.
In trick competitions, use of the rewind feature saps away points that can mean the difference between first and failure, making the run a wash either way.
The result is a lot of tries that abruptly and without warning. It feels cheap.
It’s a feature most evident in the game’s nine “Deadly Descents”, pseudo boss battles which task you with survival against elements like cold, whiteouts, and the previously mentioned avalanches.
Each descent requires an accompanying piece of hardware to make it down in one piece.
A track with massive gaps necessitates the use of a wingsuit, one with hairpin turns of sheer ice calls for a set of ice axes.
They’re not all gems though, and a few, like a track in high altitude air which requires you to press a button every 7-10 seconds to breathe from an oxygen tank, show that the developers were clearly grasping at straws to round out the set of nine.
The oxygen tank is particularly vexing, because there’s no way to attempt Everest, the run that requires its use, without it.
Fail any course three times in a row in World Tour mode (SSX’s equivalent of a campaign), and the game will allow you to skip the level, no questions asked. It seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that the challenges can sometimes frustrate to absurd levels.
Let go of any trick a split second before hitting the ground, and you’re pretty much fine, even if your board was being twirled around your head.
Your character will home in on any nearby rail with a will, even more so than in the game’s predecessors, where the effect was already quite pronounced.
I can’t say whether these changes were done to offset the difficulty of the game’s other challenges, or to make things more inviting to newcomers, but one should be aware of them, regardless.
It functions largely as a tutorial mode that introduces you to each range, rider, and piece of equipment incrementally, sprinkling in the occasional grudge match or challenge.
Problem is, it’s largely the exact same content that can be found in the SSX’s “Explore” mode, but with the added fun of being unable to pick who you want to play as, where you want to go, or what you want to do.
I’m tempted to say that there’s no reason to even bother with World Tour after getting your feet wet, save for the most ardent completionists.
Some might absolve SSX for the World Tour, in light of the strength of the game’s other two modes. But I can’t let it slide when it’s presented as one third of the game’s content, yet disappoints so thoroughly.
Its story is tossed at you halfheartedly, and it’s not a very good one, either. Lack of story isn’t a real problem in a snowboarding game, of course. But the campaign also presents an opportunity to flesh out the game’s cast, and World Tour does a miserable job of this as well. New characters are introduced with shoddy, non-sequitor comics that are barely intelligible.
Were this, say, SSX 3, that wouldn’t be a problem. That game, which I view as the high point of the franchise, offered a cast of vibrant, distinct characters, each of whom could be customized with a metric ton of interesting gear.
Items purchased from that game’s shop helped paint the picture of each boarder’s personality about as well as any cutscene likely would, and affording them became the impetus for amassing cash.
Watching them, I was struck by their bizarre de-evolution from unique, distinctive appearances into everyman sameness. Psymon’s new appearance, in particular, borders on A Clockwork Orange-level neutering.
Alas, there’s no saving them, either, because the characters’ customizability begins and ends at the color of their pre-set clothing. There are myriad color combinations available, but for some inane reason, you’re only treated to four possible purchases at a time.
The offerings are randomly generated each time you enter that section of menus, too (the game helpfully suggests that if you’d like to see something new, you should buy a few items to have new ones take their place).
The window with which you view the boards being offered is woefully small, depriving you of the chance to get a good look at the designs. Considering that they’re almost the only thing one truly needs to spend in-game credits on, it’s a shame that they’re not visualized more fully.
It becomes particularly damning that SSX fumbles these features so badly when you consider that they were handled perfectly well in previous games. It’s the worst kind of regression; one that occurs for no good reason.
It’s not all bad, though, by any stretch.
SSX’s soundtrack lives up to the lofty standards of its lineage. It’s odd to say that, as there isn’t a single song on the game’s packaged lineup that I enjoy. Yet I suspect fans of dubstep and 80’s throwback will be duly pleased with it, and I can appreciate its cohesion.
More importantly, the game allows you to import custom playlists from your own collection.
Though I’m at a loss as to why the Deadly Descents, the tracks that you’re most likely to have to repeat ad nauseum, are the ones in which your musical freedoms are snatched away in favor of a single track.
After limping my way through to the end of the World Tour (I had stooped to repeatedly leaping to my death to reach the skip level option, just to be done with the damned thing), I was treated to the breaths of fresh air that are the Explore and Global Event modes.
It’s therein that SSX is in its wheelhouse, offering customizable events, player-versus-player challenges, and the freedom to wallow in all the bombastic, arcade-style action.
You buy into individual events, created by yourself or others, and attempt to reach benchmarks that determine payouts within a set period of time. The cash you can bring in here easily dwarfs the meager earnings of the other modes.
A few other riders often share your runs, and ghosts show you the best efforts of your friends and rivals. It all suits SSX perfectly; you’re given updates when a friend beats your high score or you fall out of the money, so you’re always driven to push yourself ever further.
You’re certainly free to ignore those objectives and “explore” the tracks, but in truth, I had hoped for something a bit more ambitious.
Personally, I’d have liked to see the courses opened up quite a bit and the pace slowed dramatically. It’s not that the mode is bad, though; it’s certainly enjoyable enough.
For as remote and dangerous as SSX’s mountain ranges are, the impeccably formed jumps and features often shatter the illusion of untamed nature.
In case you were wondering: the very first anecdote that I described, which occurs at Alaska’s Denali course, is as close as SSX gets to this, and it’s a personal favorite.
Here, the camera views you as if from a distant helicopter.
Your controls are reversed, and you travel downwards on screen to outrun falling sheets of snow created by your own riding. Most of the jumps here look natural and unmarked, and you’re given much more horizontal room with which to carve back and forth.
The cliffs look all the more dramatic when you plunge off them, and the snow gives way realistically as you blast through it.
I found myself coming to the edge of my seat, hoping that my boosts would propel me out from underneath the churning layers of snow.
Turns out that SSX can get your adrenaline flowing without all the bells and whistles and arcade flair.
Mountain, snow, and rider alone can more than suffice.
It’s pure bliss, a next-gen Ski Free where the yeti never shows up to eat you and spoil the fun.
©2012 Nick Capozzoli
You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickCapozzoli