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A Great Game with Great Flaws

SSX is one of those games that breaks your heart. The previews looked great, and within a few hours of playing I knew that it was great. Which makes the glaring mistakes and missed opportunities hurt all the more. With the amount of fun I have had with it, I wish I could rate it higher. But reviews are about the truth, not about our wishes for a game.

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The New Concept

Most gamers are familiar with the concept. EA decided to finally bring back the snowboarding franchise that was so wildly popular on the last generation of consoles. SSX Tricky and SSX 3 provided hours of fun on the GameCube and PS2 - SSX was one of the best multiplayer franchises of that generation.

But for the SSX debut on HD consoles, EA decided to take the franchise in a slightly different direction. The addition of the Deadly Descents, a controversial move among fans, will be what this entry is remembered for.

Unlike many gamers, I was not opposed to the idea of the Deadly Descents. The idea of racing down a mountain with an avalanche on your heels sounded pretty exciting, as long as it didn't interfere with my Race and Trick events (the main types of gameplay for the franchise and this entry). In the final release, the Deadly Descents really don't interfere. They are set up as the final stages (kind of like "boss fights") of each mountain range.

When the Deadly Descents work, they can be a nice change of pace and a rush of adrenaline. The aforementioned avalanche level is fun, as are the wingsuit levels. The pitch-black descent through Kilimanjaro is an interesting challenge, as are the treacherous rock level and the deathly-cold Antarctic level. But when the Deadly Descents aren't working, they are absolutely excruciating. If you aren't a quick learner, expect dozens of rewinds and restarts to get through. The bad half of the Deadly Descents require you memorize every turn and hill, perfect the timing of every cut or jump, and exercise saint-like patience. If you don't have Veteran-level patience, I suggest buying some replacement controllers (for the ones you'll break in anger) or a sixpack of your favorite beer (to dull the anger).

Gameplay

But don't let the idea of the Deadly Descents scare you away from SSX. While they are the most-talked about mode in the game, only 10 of the well over a hundred "runs" are Deadly Descents. The vast majority of your time will be in Race and Trick runs. And they are awesome.

Developer EA Canada got creative with the level design, and spread the game out over 9 mountain ranges of the world. You'll perform Suber-Uber grinds along the length of the Great Wall in the Himalayas (questionable geography, but fun nonetheless). You'll deploy your wingsuit for the drop-offs of South America, jump off monstrous factories in Siberia, and giddily grind your way around the oil pipelines of Alaska. The majority of runs are veritable playgrounds, with multiple paths to take and infinite possibilities to score points.

The gameplay and controls are tight and responsive, and never feel like they're holding you back from stardom. The scoring mechanics and difficulty level encourage you to constantly improve, without frustrating the player. I like the use of a "flow" combo that rewards players for keeping a fast pace, rather than just relying on how many tricks you string together (though that's included too, of course). Once I got the basic combo mechanics down, my scores rocketed into the millions. There's really nothing as grin-inducing in video games as the moment you land an 8-million, 100-trick combo that lasted the entire length of a mountain. This is where SSX truly shines, in its ridiculous, over-the-top, insanely cool action.

Multiplayer

It's the perfect crazy action to share with a couple of friends... except that you can't. The most frustrating flaw in SSX, far worse than any Deadly Descents, is the glaring absence of a true multiplayer mode. There is absolutely no split-screen support, an unforgivable omission after how popular split-screen was in the previous entries. The online multiplayer takes the form of "Global Events," where you'll compete to post better times (Race mode) or scores (Trick mode) than other players around the world. If you just want to compare your skills to everyone else, it gets the job done. But so would leaderboards, or rankings posted on a website.

In a game like SSX, the joy is in the moment, not in the stats. I want to hear my friends whine as I finish a Race a split second before them. I want them to yell "no way, it's THAT big?!" when they look up and see my Trick score. I want to be able to screen-peak, and watch them slam into a wall and lose their massive combo string (the definition of schadenfreude). The ability to challenge friends and form rivals in Explore mode does little to soothe the wound, since you'll never be competing directly. Over a month after I started playing the game, I still can't believe these glaring omissions. Part of me keeps hoping that I somehow missed the real multiplayer modes, that they were buried somewhere in the menus and an astute commenter on GI will point them out to me. But again... reviews are about reality, not dreams.

Production Values

The production values and media work in SSX are very good, and definitely add to the experience. The soundtrack is varied, but most the songs are enjoyable and accompany the runs nicely. If there's a couple you hate, or some you want to hear exclusively, the option to customize the playlist is there. A handful of the songs are better than the rest (my personal favorite is "Plastic Smile") and will get you truly pumped up as you race. The sound effects are solid, as is the voice work. The cheesy tone of the actors is part of the game's tone, but won't appeal to everyone.

The graphics are quite good, and are especially obvious in the Deadly Descents and the more geographically diverse runs. It's impossible for SSX to look realistic, with the busy UI and the cacophony of trick-related colors and effects. But it has a distinct style, and it works.

If you make it to the end of the campaign mode, you'll be treated to a wide assortment of concept art during the credits. I usually skip over such things, but some of the concept art was stunning. Unfortunately, the fantastic and diverse concepts for the playable characters didn't make it into the game. The final results are watered-down, boring versions of the artists' original ideas. When playing the game, you'll rarely know which character you chose just by looking at them. Which also makes it hard to get into the characters' back-stories during the campaign, since they look like little more than palette swaps. The comic-book cut-scenes were a nice addition though, and they show off some of the artistic talent that didn't make it into the playable build.

 

Conclusion

In the end, SSX is a game that demands both our attention as fans, and a more complete sequel or update. Despite the mistakes the developers made, it would be a greater mistake for fans to not pick up the game and enjoy it. The flaws are only so frustrating because the game is so damn fun, and I wish I could share it with more people. It's one of the best games of 2012, and probably the best extreme-sports title of the generation.

And with enough sales to warrant a sequel, maybe EA will make the all-star hit that was just within grasp.

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Score Breakdown:

Concept----------------------- 8                                  Fun Factor------------------- 9

Replay Value---------------- 8                                          Mechanics------------------ 10

Level Design----------------- 8                                           Balance----------------------- 8

Immersion------------------- 7                                          Campaign/Story------------ 7

Visuals------------------------ 8                                          Audio-------------------------- 9

FINAL SCORE: 82

For more information on how I calculate scores, check this post.

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