Genre: Extreme Sports
Publisher: EA Sports Big
Developer: EA Montreal
Release Date: February 27, 2007
The original SSX burst to the forefront of the packed PlayStation 2 launch lineup to whisk the (previous) next-generation into homes and enrapture millions of gamers along the way. SSX Blur may have missed the Wii launch by a handful of months, but it holds at least two responsibilities of its own: to keep the early adopters happy and to prove that established series of reasonable complexity can make the transition to the motion-sensing controls of the console.
While not the overwhelming success of the original, SSX Blur still manages to be a sharp experience, albeit one with some odd quirks. Casual gamers bred on the simplicity of titles like Wii Sports may feel at odds with the control scheme, which requires constant precision, yet still somehow rewards the random flailing of arms. However, patient souls with an uncanny ability to overlook frustration will find a very rewarding experience — a visually compelling joyride that hints at the greater future possibilities of the Wiimote.
SSX Blur is a game that lives and dies by its control scheme, so it comes as no shock that the best aspects are the parts that are easy to navigate. Basic movement feels fantastic, especially when racing or freely exploring the mountain. Many other titles have already displayed the great abilities of the Wiimote, but Blur is one of the first to really put the onus on the Nunchuk. Weaving your way down the mountain is as simple as moving the Nunchuk to the left or right, while harder turns are executed with the analog stick (which also controls acceleration). Need a bit more analog control? Want to put it all on the 'Chuk? Dig around the options menu a bit for a sliding scale that dictates balance between the two.
Of course, SSX is a series known for its intense trickery, and that is where the Wiimote comes into play. When approaching a ramp or the edge of a half-pipe, jerk the Nunchuk upwards (or simply press A) to jump, and then get to flailing! Technically, horizontal movements control spins, while vertical motions lead to flips, but it's amazing what you can pull off merely by waving the thing like a baton. And in the heat of the moment, it certainly seems easier to not worry too much about it and just rack up the digits. The Z button on the Nunchuk allows for various grabs (determined by Nunchuk positioning), so be sure to throw a few of those to avoid repeating tricks.
When coming back down to earth, you must press either A or B to quickly finish up your tricks and prepare for landing. This can be a tricky process, as any movements of the Wiimote following the press of the button may still be registered as tricks, causing your character to instigate a flip right into the powder. Be sure to find yourself in a comfortable physical position upon completion of your tricks, as merely adjusting your arms might lead to your downfall. Getting back up is easy enough, though, as a quick shake of the controllers usually does the trick.
Ubertricks, on the other hand, seem like a cruel joke, sans the punch line. Once you fill up at least three bars of the Groove Meter by pulling off tricks or speeding down the mountain, you'll be able to (attempt to) pull off one of 12 Ubertricks, depending on which ones you have unlocked. In theory, drawing a "z" or a heart with the Wiimote (and sometimes Nunchuk) sounds easy enough, but the execution is sketchy at best. There are all sorts of suggestions and theories around the net; some note that hard physical movements are necessary (instead of treating the Wiimote like a virtual pen), while others claim the tricks are easier if you stand up while playing. Whatever the theories (or excuses), the bottom line is that consistency is a real issue with the Ubertricks, and it's an issue that must be addressed in any future follow-ups.
SSX Blur features the expected complement of events, including Race, Slopestyle, Half-Pipe, and the dreaded Slalom. Race and Slopestyle seem to fare the best, as you'll be given plenty of space in which to take the lead or rack up a heap of points. Half-Pipe was a tricky endeavor at first, but it becomes quite simple by the time you hit the later pipes. The initial Slalom event is unreasonably challenging, and after 30 or more attempts, I was only able to complete it by assigning all movement to the Nunchuk. Later events were noticeably easier, so I struggle with the necessity of its early placement. It would be a shame to shell out $50 for a game and then be unable to unlock more than one-third of the total content because of one absurdly tough challenge.
Career Mode spans three interconnected peaks of a single mountain that can be freely explored to take on challenges, enter tournaments, and collect tokens to unlock Ubertricks. Each tournament features two to four events, each with three heats (two qualifiers and a final). Events can be practiced at will around the mountain, so explore a bit before taking on the competition. Over 30 challenges are strewn about the mountain. Character challenges allow you to unlock additional boards and skis, while the standard challenges may consist of uncommon activities (such as staying off the snow or grinding for an extensive length). By taking on challenges and doing well in the events, you'll also upgrade your character's stats, giving you a much-needed edge in later tournaments.
Going through the Career Mode is easily a 12-hour jaunt, though those aiming to nab every outfit, character, board, ski, and piece of concept art will certainly find enough to keep 'em busy into next month. Longtime fans of the series might be a bit put off by a reliance on old material, though. As in SSX On Tour, skiing and snowboarding hardly differ in execution, and it would be nice to see events catered specifically to one or the other. Of the 12 playable characters, just two are new to the series, and all are mute and strangely lacking in personality. Some tracks from previous iterations have been brought back as well, though all are presented with Blur's fresh new visual style. SSX Blur is hardly a step forward for the franchise, instead coming across like an enhanced retrospective with unique controls. This certainly benefits SSX newcomers, as they won't be too hung up on mental comparisons to the past games to have a good time with it.
Multiplayer is not an extensive element of SSX Blur, but all of the events are playable — in one way or another. Despite the mention of four controllers on the back of the case, only two players can participate in split-screen play, and only in the Race and Slopestyle events. Half-Pipe, Big Air, and Slalom can all be experienced with Hot Seat play, which has you playing one at a time, with up to four controllers. Four-player split-screen races would have been fantastic, but two is okay for now. Don't think this will fly in Blur 2!
SSX Blur looks better than expected on the Wii, which has been frequently slammed as an underpowered machine. Early releases like Elebits and Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam certainly lent credence to this idea, but Blur is more on par with an upper-level Xbox release. It runs in 480p and near-widescreen — small black bars may appear to the left and right of the picture on some HDTV models. The characters and environments are crisply rendered, and the powder is bright and plentiful. Framerate issues pop up occasionally at the beginning of a race or while special effects are on-screen, but it never becomes a detriment to the gameplay. More important than the quality of the visuals is the style — Blur is a very stylish game, full of colorful and exciting menu screens and hand-drawn character images. Unlike Amped 3 or SSX On Tour before it, Blur doesn't try to be weird or ironic. It's just chill, and the game is better for it.
This is thankfully facilitated by a fantastic original soundtrack by Junkie XL. The last two SSX games featured mile-long lists of licensed rock and rap tracks, but Junkie XL's cohesive blasts of hip-hop, electronica, and rock give it more personality than any of the game's characters. Though all over the place in terms of style, it fits well within the established style of the game: flashy but unobtrusive. While on the subject of obtrusiveness, I suppose it wouldn't really be an SSX game without some ridiculous announcer providing unnecessary commentary. DJ Atomika might have some kind of mystical wisdom to spread across the land, but I zoned out shortly after he started talking about nacho cheese and taco stands. Sorry.
Its tricky control scheme is likely to be a divisive element, but those willing to spend considerable time with the tutorials should find SSX Blur to be a rather solid experience. Not everything here is fully formed (looking at you, Ubertricks), but a rough opening patch gives way to several hours of worthwhile gameplay. It may not be the big sequel that some were expecting, but SSX Blur feels like more than just a slapdash stopgap release. Besides, Mario Party 8 got pushed back; what else are you going to play until Super Paper Mario drops next month?
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