Mountain mastery.

Games are about freedom. Whether that means killing hordes of hookers in Grand Theft Auto because you don’t have to deal with the consequences, soaring above city skyscrapers and the confines of mortality in superhero titles like Spider-man 2 and Prototype, or in the case of today’s typical RPG, making the simple choice to say something you would never say to anyone in real life; it’s abundantly clear that we play video games because of a primal passion to sherk our societal bonds and become the absolute embodiment of self-determination without the slightest slap of the wrist. Or maybe that’s a bit preachy and we actually just play games because they’re fun.

In any case, EA Canada have certainly taken a cold, hard look at that philosophy and put a good deal of sweat into SSX, the latest in the arcade-based extreme snowboard brand, a game that makes you feel like a god descending Babel, and a reboot that maintains the flavoured farce of the franchise while successfully adding just enough realism into the mix to make you buy into its awe.

Like other sport games of the extreme variety, SSX tries to provide something of a story for an extra bullet point, and what you get is what you’d expect: no more than simple fluff. Team SSX aim to become recognised as the gnarliest bunch of snowboarders in the world, but their quest for fame doesn’t become any easier when one of their own, a gruff git named Griff, bails on the crew and starts his own rival club. And so the onus falls upon Super Snowboard Cross to put the riding reject in his place as they grind the globe. That’s about it, and all this tale-telling is over within the few hours it takes to complete the World Tour mode, but as mentioned, you’d hardly notice if a campaign mode weren’t included. In fact, it may as well have been left out; the gameplay is where SSX pulls a 1080.

Frozen Freedom

If you couldn’t guess from my lengthy opening spiel, freedom is at the absolute core of SSX’s (try saying that five times fast) gameplay. Much of that unrestricted feeling is a result of the fluid and tight controls. Right from the get-go, your character jumps out of a helicopter  into complete freefall at ten thousand feet above a canvas of snowy mountain ranges; that’s only the tutorial and that’s how you kick off an extreme game. It’s the perfect prelude that epitomises the entire experience in terms of exhilaration and getting off the ground.

He believed he could fly. He believed he could touch the sky.

Like so many of EA’s games, the controls have been re-worked to make use of the right control stick, and like EA’s Fight Night and NHL series, among others, the successfully implemented mechanic’s slight learning curve is the meat of the game’s potential rewards. Move with the left stick, predictably, and control your board with the right to pull off mind-blowing spins and grabs. Holding a combination of the triggers pulls off even sicker signatures that get you to Tricky mode faster, whereby you get extra boost and points for completing combos. For the SSX classicists who are more used to the yonder days of button controls, like myself, the original scheme is available, but take a few runs to adjust to EA’s latest layout and you’ll reap the benefits of mastering an incredibly intuitive system.

Trickster

The format of SSX is similar to the most recent Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. You select your stage from a map screen; the more runs you beat, the more you unlock. Also like Hot Pursuit, different runs offer different challenges and objectives. Sometimes it’s just a matter of racing to the finish, while other times it’s about racking up the highest score by riding radical and getting tricky.

Make no mistake: this is still an arcade experience.

But the most interesting and involving game type is the survival scenario, in which the mission is simply making it to the bottom of the mountain in one piece. That would be easy, were it not for the avalanches, dark caverns and chasms, freezing temperatures, and other occupational hazards. To survive certain runs, your rider comes equipped with gear to combat the danger, such as a headlamp for the dark, or an oxygen tank to make it at the higher altitudes. Knowing that the slightest screw-up could mean your demise is chaotic-yet-thrilling and one of the highlights of the game.

Make no mistake: this is still an arcade experience. Yes, the lack of sequel number or subtitle would imply that the company seek to re-invent the series, and the game assuredly plays much more realistically than in the past, but don’t expect a simulation. It’s just believable enough to justify a departure from the complete far-fetched foolery of the originals. Fans will argue that that’s what the series has always been about, and they’re right, which is why this iteration isn’t completely realistic either… it’s somewhere in between. Again, I return to the analogy: Need For Speed Hot Pursuit is to driving as this SSX is to snowboarding.

Oh come on, now you’re just showing off!

What’s fantastic about all of these gameplay variants is that, despite the diversity (racing, tricking, surviving), they still all revolve around amassing a killer score, which means a lot of intuitive strategy is involved. You’d think for the race events you would abandon style for speed, but good luck winning any of the races without using boost, which you can only get by clocking some points. The survival events work the same way; you need to get your ass moving, but to do so you need to grab some air and bust a move. Tactical prowess is a constant demand; ‘am I going to pull off tricks to get some boost, stick to the ground or grind a rail…’ It’s an incredibly balanced system that leaves no room for cheap wins and lets you play the way you want to, as long as you follow by its rules; it’s a fair but tough game.

Once you get past EA’s tedious online pass hassle – whose greed, thankfully, the publisher have corrected so that now you can at least play online without paying those robbers (though posting scores and collecting credits is reserved for those with a pass) – SSX is an absolute beauty to behold with incredible level design. The developer’s diligence has actually reconstituted the grandest peaks in the world this time around, opposed to the fictional locales in previous SSX games. A chopper drops you off at the top of each summit, and then you’re on your own to the bottom. Multiple pathways let you tackle the vast slopes in a handful of ways, and the rush you get from gambling a dodgy jump, falling a hundred feet to what you can only assume is certain demise, and then landing intact on what turns out to be another pathway is unrivalled. You feel like each visually voluptuous mountain is yours, and it’s that sense of no-limit liveliness that defines SSX and sets it apart from its predecessors and genre competitors.

Rock A Rhyme

The sound design is equally fantastic. A great soundtrack is highlighted by the ever-nostalgic ‘It’s Tricky’ by Run-DMC, which kicks in when your board does. Soaring through the air is powerfully silent, the music dimming and the sound of the air currents making you feel a mile high in the sky.

The air was so cold, he was suspended in animation for the rest of eternity.

You needn’t worry about longevity, either; the competitive nature of SSX’s structure will keep you coming back for more. Sure, the game doesn’t frustrate beyond reason in that you can get by earning bronze medals the whole way through, but after finishing the World Tour mode and its nine deadly descents, you’ll find yourself playing through the Explore mode, where you can take on roughly 150 events and go for the gold, earning enough credits and experience along the way to unlock special gear and badges. EA is also no stranger to stat-tracking, and the RiderNet option keeps tabs on all your buddies, letting you know their times to beat, medals they’ve earned, and so forth. And with a great online suite that jacks up the competitive element, there is a good wealth of replayability here.

If 2012 is to be as good a year for gamers as 2011, SSX is certainly evidence of that. Given the recent untimely passing of Sarah Burke, a pioneer in women’s extreme sport and a hero in the hearts of many Canadians, it would seem that even if the game’s development had closed after the tragic loss, some of that tributary spirit is infused into SSX.

Prefer moving pictures and sound? Then watch our video review here.

SSX was reviewed on Xbox 360.

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