You’re Not A Real Snowboarder Until You Have A Private Helicopter
I’m always a little confused by which franchises video game developers choose to reboot. Games like 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum are no-brainers, because previous Batman games weren’t even worth stealing . But Batman is a well-known character who requires a substantial storyline; anything less would be a waste of the source material. But the SSX series, on the other hand, is about sweet snowboarding tricks and trying not to die in an avalanche. So, what’s the point of rebooting the franchise? Wouldn’t a standard sequel essentially perform the same function?
Either way, EA is kicking off their reminted SSX franchise in February, and it’s shaping up to be an outstanding little title. Technologically speaking, the game’s most impressive feature (in fact, some would call it the defining feature) is EA Canada’s use of NASA satellite data to create their mountain ranges. Yup, when players are selecting their slope of choice, they are choosing from mountain ranges that actually exist on planet earth.
In fact, the menu system is even a Google-Maps-inspired globe that allows you select a slope from, well, basically every major mountain range on earth. You can choose from locales like Patagonia, Antarctica, and New Zealand, not to mention big guns like the Himalayas and the Alps, to name a few. Once you’ve selected which slope will be turning your femurs into bendy straws, a convenient personal helicopter is kind enough to dump you onto the mountain.
Conceptually speaking, EA’s use of NASA imagery was a brilliant idea—almost too brilliant, actually, as the use of real-life mountain rages actually makes very little difference. See, SSX, just like its predecessors, is a game about hyperbolic tricks and speed. Reality plays a very tiny role in the SSX equation. In fact, EA has taken so many liberties with these slopes that they bare almost no resemblance to the mountain ranges that they were purportedly taken from. The Great Wall of China, for example, doesn’t actually extend into the mountains in Macau, but since the developers wanted something for players to grind on, it does now.
“These are real-life mountains, but were going to arcade the hell out of them,” explained Todd Batty, creative director for SSX. “We’re taking whatever creative liberties we want with them. The Great Wall of China isn’t really at the base of the Himalayas, but it’s in that same region of the world. That’s good enough for SSX.”
And Batty definitely has the right attitude. In previous SSX titles, the setting has been secondary to the gameplay. So, even though NASA’s topographical imagery is a good idea, it really shouldn’t undermine the caricatural nature that’s at the core of SSX. By elevating the importance of gameplay and sprinkling in a few exceptional subtleties, Batty and his team may have finally engineered the SSX title that fans have been waiting for.
SSX is sporting 3 distinct flavors of gameplay: Race it, Trick it, Survive it. The Race it, and Trick it modes are exactly what you would expect from an SSX title; players win and loose based on their quickness and the difficulty/frequency of their tricks. However, the Survive it mode is a new addition to the series. “A couple of goals we had was to add something new to the game,” explained Batty. “We thought it would be awesome to make it to the end of the level without dying. We wanted to make it about survival, so we wanted to find out the craziest **** people were doing now and put that in a video game.” Think of these levels like the boss fights in your favorite platformer.
Even though gameplay is king in SSX, the graphics don’t slouch. They may not live up to a comparison with Battlefield 3, but they’re impressive in their own right. Each mountain is realistically rendered, with just enough exaggeration to remind you that you’re playing an SSX title. Also, the UI is simple and intuitive. Filling up your trick meter throws you in to “Tricky mode,” which allows you to execute a few overblown super tricks and reminds you how lame reality actually is. These tricks are coupled with some impressive camera work and some world-bending special effects.
Don’t worry, EA hasn’t forgotten about the multiplayer component. In fact, they’ve obviously spent a fair amount of time working out their new features. Players will be able to post their high scores and best times. You’ll also be able to challenge your friend’s best time to a Need For Speed-inspired ghost race. You can even let your own ghosts rack up wins without even powering on your console. Plus, EA is planning to run a steady stream of Global Events. These events might last for days, hours, or even a single run.
Perhaps EA’s decision to reboot the franchise wasn’t driven by character development or writing, like most reboots, but by a desire to highlight the symmetry between the SSX of 2000 and the SSX of 2012: a desire to return the franchise to its roots. Just like the 2000 iteration, next year’s SSX title is technologically impressive by today’s standards, but it doesn’t lose sight of its own identity. Despite its photorealistic textures, polished physics, and NASA-infused topographical maps, SSX is still about sweet snowboarding tricks and trying not to die in an avalanche—just the way it should be.
So, maybe EA’s decision wasn’t as confusing as I originally thought. And maybe SSX is the sequel/reboot that fans have been waiting for. I guess we’ll have to wait until February to find out for sure.
Race It, Trick It, Survive It
If you’re anything like me, the mention of the SSX series immediately pops great music and memorable quotes into your head. The arcade-style snowboarding series hit its peak on the PlayStation 2, where SSX Tricky and SSX 3 thrilled gamers with colorful characters, over-the-top style, and accessible yet deep gameplay. After several disappointing follow-ups to those titles, the series has been quiet for a number of years.
That’s about to change, as a new game simply titled SSX is scheduled to come out in January. It’s a bit of a reboot, but also an evolution of the series to reflect technological improvements and current snowboarding trends. Originally titled SSX: Deadly Descents, one of the big selling points of this game is that the team was able to access NASA tools to topographically map actual mountains from around the world, and a large selection of these mountains will become the setting for the new game. Despite this fact and the re-design of the characters to wear more practical-looking snowboarding gear than they have previously, the developers insist that SSX isn’t forsaking arcade action for gritty realism. They’ve dropped “Deadly Descents” from the title and are now fully emphasizing the three main pillars of the game: racing, tricks, and survival.
One of the major design goals of the new SSX is to give players the freedom to play the way they like on any part of the mountain that they prefer. Players will be able to choose drop sites on various parts of the mountain. The higher drop sites will feature more severe weather and “survival” elements such as dealing with avalanches, while lower drop sites will feature more interesting trick setups. Either way, the developers are dedicated to making a snowboarding playground out of the real-life mountains they’re featuring, and there are already signs of whimsical additions such as a Colorado mountain that features a train line buried by an avalanche. The snow-covered train cars and broken tracks become launching points for tricks and add regional flavor to the mountain.
The selection of mountains on which to play is looking quite diverse. The team has shown off maps of the world with mountains featured on every continent, even Antarctica. Early reports stated that the team was aiming for 70 different mountains, though we don’t have a current official confirmation of that number. Each mountain will feature different topographical features that have been exaggerated in order to present players with fun places to race and trick, as well as challenging shortcuts to take. The characters will also have access to new toys that facilitate the game’s focus on pushing the extremes of the sport. The one that’s been shown off the most so far is a set of “glide wings” that attach to the character’s snow suits, allowing for greater air time and crazier tricks.
The cast of characters is always a big part of SSX games, and the new SSX has held votes on its Facebook page to help determine which series veterans would make the cut. Most of the game’s characters have now been announced, and their basic character designs have been shown. The characters are older and are wearing more realistic boarding gear now, though their individual personalities still shine through. Returning characters include Canadian actress Elise, ultimate boarding champ Mac, speed demon Zoe, crazy bad boy Psymon, cheery yet determined Kaori, all-around cool guy Moby, and now-grown kid boarder Griff. Three new characters have been introduced as well: Ty Thorsen from Norway, Alex Moreau from France, and Tane Mumea from some location that sells tie-dye hoodies. EA says it’s not quite done introducing characters, so there should be a few more surprises for fans.
There are still a number of questions about SSX. Will the characters be fully voice acted and as verbal on the slopes as they were in Tricky and SSX 3? Will there be plenty of the color, style, and catchy music that series fans expect? Will the development team be able to create a truly diverse and interesting set of tracks from the real-world mountains they’ve mapped? Most importantly, what will multiplayer be like? So far, only single player gameplay has been shown. Multiplayer gameplay will be unveiled at Gamescom this August, with the developers promising the introduction of a “very unique multiplayer mode.”
Series fans remain cautiously optimistic about the new SSX, but it’s hard not to gain enthusiasm for the title as more information is released. The development team has said that they’re determined to woo skeptical fans. They’ve even promised that a playable demo will be available well before the game’s release so that gamers can make up their own minds about the game ahead of time. It’s definitely enough to have piqued excitement in my household, where we’re looking forward to the return to our crazy Zoe versus Kaori races and our pathetic attempts to pull off crazy tricks without wiping out. This is definitely one to keep an eye on.