When the "extreme" sports sub-genre of gaming reached the height of its popularity, SSX was in its prime. Even traditional sports like football, basketball, and hockey were being "extreme-ified," in the most tubular, awesome, extreme way possible. Remember NFL Blitz? NBA Street? Heck, even Tony Hawk was still good. But that niche eventually waned a bit, and some franchises, such as the aforementioned Tony Hawk, fell from grace. SSX seemed to fizzle out and quietly disappear from the forefront of the gaming scene, but it's back. This brings us to SSX (formerly subtitled "Deadly Descents"), an attempt by EA Canada to bring the franchise to the current generation of high-def gaming systems. The result is a snowboarding game that easily out-tricks all others, but may end up getting the cold shoulder from the more conservative SSX veterans out there.
This new release sees the original boarding team going head-to-head with former team member Griff, who has "gone rogue." He double-dog dares them to board some of the world's deadliest mountains, because that's what hardcore snowboarders do. And that's about it.
Controls have been freshened up, placing emphasis on using the right control stick to perform various board grabs. While grabbing the board, you can then jam on the right trigger to tweak the current move and give it a little more pizazz (pizza + jazz). This will drive up your trick points and give you more boost, thus allowing for bigger jumps and longer trick times. The tricking mechanics have been tweaked slightly, but still offer plenty of freedom for improvisation. Landings and grinding edges are a bit easier this time around as well. Releasing both control sticks will automatically put your boarder upright for a clean finish, taking some of the guesswork out of which angle you need to spin to avoid crashing. Ice edges and rails are also easier to stay on, taking the focus away from balance and placing it on tricks.
Each mountain features a "Deadly Descent," which is a boss battle against none other than Mother Freaking Nature. The mountain tries to kill you with trees, ice, avalanches, low oxygen, and gaping crevasses as you shred your way to the bottom. These work pretty well for the most part. However, some mountains (such as Kilimanjaro, for instance) force you into darkness with only a headlamp to shine in front of you. Since your lamp points in the direction your head is turned, doing flips and jumps becomes problematic. Imagine running through an uncharted cave while trying to juggle three flashlights, and you'll have an idea of the visual challenge some of these courses present. Other courses are blanketed with whiteout conditions or extreme cold, forcing you to use equipment like pulse goggles (huh?) and solar shields. My favorite gadget has to be the wingsuit, which can be used to sail your way across vast chasms. Pulling a flying squirrel move as you zip down a sheer face of ice and rock is simply breathtaking.
This brings us back to the subject of the mountains and courses themselves. EA claims that each mountain is topographically accurate, which means they look absolutely gorgeous. However, this also means some of them will be a waking nightmare for anyone prone to stumbling into the lava pits of Super Mario Bros. On my first run through one of Antarctica's mountains, I wound up for a big air jump off of a nicely-placed ramp, twirling and lighting up the scoreboard...only to fall headlong into a bottomless nothing. A fight-the-Balrog minigame...only without the Balrog or awesome wizard. This constant threat of danger will probably turn off anyone expecting a bunch of neatly-cut halfpipes and courses shaped like giant bowls with no edges to fall from.
Thankfully, though, it's not an outright "game over" when (not "if") you take an unexpected trip to the deep darkness. Pressing and holding the Left Bumper spools up SSX's rewind feature, allowing you to choose the appropriate place to right what went wrong. Some players will cry foul and call it a handholding mechanism, but there are consequences as it does subtract from your overall score as you use it. Furthermore, your opponents won't stop and rewind with you; they just keep going. The rewind also encourages you to take riskier jumps and try for bigger combos, where in past games you may have just played it safe, or worse, ended up faceplanting and having to restart the entire run from scratch. Furthermore, you can place a "Geotag" during your rewind; these are glowing orbs existing in the collective online environment that get you credits when they're picked up by another player. The longer they go undiscovered, the more cash you net. The crazier your jumps are and the more you go off the beaten path, the tougher it is for your Geotag to be discovered. Older SSX games recognized when you were stuck or in trouble and then neatly beamed you to some adjacent spot in the middle of a fairway, which worked, but adding a rewind feature gives newbies (and sloppy players like myself) a legitimate second chance. And a third. And fourth.
When it comes to aesthetics, SSX combines beautful scenery with a buttery-smooth framerate that never once chugged as I played it. Textures are a mixed bag, with the exception of the environments themselves, which feature sparkly snow, jagged outcroppings of rock and smooth rivers of ice. Character models look fine, but there are occasional muddy textures. The snow effects are also nicely done, realistically parting and flattening as you carve through it. Honestly though, as pretty as it all is, you'll either be going too fast or performing too many outlandish tricks to notice the scenery as it flies by. The sounds of your board gliding through snow and scraping across ice are great, but some of the character voices (especially the Aussie helicopter pilot) get annoying after a while. The pilots do tell you when the end of a course is coming up, but if you can make it through without constant hints ("big jump coming up") and praise ("wow, you really know how to trick"), I'd recommend turning their voices down to zero. And then there's the music. It's always been a staple of SSX, and it's no different here. There are tracks from artists like Amon Tobin and the Qemists, which get remixed on the fly as you grind rails and sail through the air. When you land enough consecutive tricks and enter Tricky Mode, Run-D.M.C.'s "Tricky" blasts forth, complimenting the neon-blasted insanity happening onscreen. Getting into Tricky Mode causes the entire color palette to saturate and brighten, giving you this great sensation of success. Pulling off a massive trick even causes a huge shockwave upon landing, sending a giant ripple effect through the environment.
SSX, like Blur before it, will be another polarizing entry into a popular series. Some will detest the move toward more realistic (I use that term loosely) environments, but others will embrace it for that very same reason. The new gadgets and Deadly Descent runs add another layer of gameplay to the genre, and the constant battle for online supremacy will keep you coming back to this for months. While a few of the mountains are truly unforgiving and require lots of practice to defeat, that's fine by me. I'd rather have a challenge than an easily-won sled ride.