It may seem silly now, but it was entertaining to watch people skateboard, snowboard, or strap anything to their feet and perform insane stunts. There's still a market for this, but it's not what it used to be, and that's reflected in the video game market. Titles like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater used to be king of the heap, but the focus of modern sports games is either on realism and accuracy or pure fantasy, like the Mario sports games. SSXis a return to the old form. It leans closer to realism than the older SSX titles, but it still combines a vaguely realistic style with extreme action. This may not be the most innovative game, but it's certainly a lot of fun.
SSX's plot, such as it is, would make a cheesy '80s movie proud. You play as a group of extreme sports stars called SSX, dedicated to taking on snowboarding challenges around the world. One of the members, Griff, betrayed them, took their funding, and took on all the challenges himself. As a result, the SSX team has to go grassroots and depend on live-streaming their events to make money. The plot is a thin excuse for snowboarding down crazy slopes. There's a vague attempt to give the characters backstories and personalities, but you'll probably find it difficult to care. The characters lack some of the personality they had in earlier SSX games. The low-budget motion comics that reveal their histories don't do much to alleviate that.
Of course, nobody is playing SSX for the plot; they're playing it to snowboard down mountains in the craziest possible ways. SSX's controls are generous almost to a fault. It takes moments to learn the controls, and mastering them only takes a little while longer. You move with the left analog stick, jump with the A button, and … well, that's almost everything you need to know. Tricks can be performed using either the face buttons or the right analog stick, but the trick mechanic is extremely friendly. As long as you stop performing a trick anytime you're near the ground, you'll land safely and without danger. Grinding is pretty much automatic. Get near a rail, and you'll pop on. There are some optional "ridge" grinds that require you to hold a button, but even those don't stress out the player.
The biggest challenge is maintaining Tricky status. As you land tricks and don't fail, you build up a boost meter. You can spend this boost meter to go faster, but if the meter is full, you enter Tricky status, where you have infinite boost for a limited amount of time, and you can extend that period by continuing to do tricks. Do enough, and you enter Super Tricky status, where you can perform character-specific high-point tricks for more points and speed.
The ease of play is both a boon and a curse for the game. It's a boon because pretty much anyone can pick up and play SSX without much effort. The controls are user-friendly, making it a great game to play with friends. The downside is that it puts an emphasis on learning the levels over learning your character. Normally, this wouldn't be a huge issue, but it leads to some of the game's more frustrating moments in the new "Survive It" mode, where death feels like the result of awkward level design instead of the player's failure.
SSX is weirdly divided into two different types of gameplay. A good chunk of the levels is the classic SSX-style stages, with crazy runs designed to encourage high scores and crazy tricks. The other half are "survival" runs, where the focus of the game changes into not dying. The two are so completely different that it is extremely jarring. In a way, it feels like there are two games in one package: an arcade-style snowboarding game with a focus on crazy tricks and ignoring physics and a strange platformer where instant death pits and "realistic" hazards encourage you to play safely and carefully. Neither is bad, but it feels weird to go from one to the other.
The survival gameplay tends to include various gimmicks that focus on keeping your character alive. Some of these, like the Wingsuit, fit pretty well in the crazy aesthetics of the game. The Wingsuit lets your character spread artificial wings to catch some extra air and glide, Batman-style, for a few seconds. It primarily exists to give you a way over bottomless pits, but it can also be used to perform some pretty awesome tricks. Others seem to be a holdover from when the series tried to be realistic. You have to use an oxygen tank to keep yourself from passing out or you need special goggles to see in terrible conditions. These don't really add much to the gameplay, and this is where things get annoying.
The Survive It levels are akin to a modern Sonic the Hedgehog level, with many instant death pits, platforming segments and deadly things. Whereas a Sonic the Hedgehog level is carefully designed, though, several of the Survive It segments in SSX feel arbitrary. Pits can be too frequent or feel out of place. They're fine if you play carefully and cautiously, but it feels rather at odds with the SSX philosophy. When your story is told in comic book panels and sounds like it's from a cheesy '80s movie, you don't expect realism or caution to be part of the game.
There are some mechanics in place to help you recover, but they're not very useful. The most noteworthy is the Rewind feature; when you screw up, go off a cliff, or generally make a mistake, you can rewind to get a second chance. The longer you rewind, the more of a penalty you're given when it comes to score and time. This means you want to rewind as soon as possible because waiting until the last moment means you lose more points. The problem is that rewinding is too harsh of a punishment. For a number of stages, especially the racing stages, rewinding may as well be replaced with a level restart. The penalty is so high that a perfect run is your only choice. While it's understandable to take this path, it makes the Rewind feature feel rather pointless.
You can also buy new equipment, which uses MMO-style "tiers" of gear to qualify the stat bonuses that you get. For example, there's Epic Regenerating Armor or perk-equipped Wingsuits that grant passive bonuses to other gear. The better your equipment, the better your overall abilities and stats will be. Your total equipment stats are tallied into a "survival rating" that shows how close you are to the appropriate level for the current track. Don't let this discourage you, though, as the survival rating is almost meaningless. Aside from levels where you must be using a specific piece of equipment, it is only a rough estimate. I easily finished levels with equipment far below the expected survival rating. Equipment is useful, but far from required, but that may change when the leaderboards become fast and frantic.
These may sound like a lot of complaints, but that is mostly because the game is so darn enjoyable. Once you get the hang of the controls, SSX becomes one of the most addictive score-attack games in recent memory. Learning and mastering the tracks, figuring out how to combine and extend your tricks, and earning new loot and gear keeps the game feeling fresh long after you've learned the basic mechanics. The Explore mode allows you to spend countless hours trying out tricks and attempting to beat your own high scores. There are also cool Global Events that you can enter so you can challenge people around the globe. These events are not quite multiplayer but more closely resemble Leaderboards; there's enough variation and competition behind them to keep things interesting.
SSX looks great. The environments are memorable, despite the fact that you're inevitably going down countless snow-covered mountain peaks. There are some incredibly impressive set pieces, and the feel of sliding down the mountain at breakneck speeds is enough to keep things interesting. The character models could have been a bit better, but they very rarely matter in this regard. Rather disappointing are the lackluster motion comics used to tell the story. They feel very cheap and out of place with everything else in the game. A strong soundtrack keeps the action feeling intense, with a variety of songs, both new and familiar. The custom soundtrack feature is also a great help, making sure that players can listen to their favorite tunes at any time.
SSX is a game of two minds. When it sticks to the franchise's old-school, over-the-top snowboarding action, it is one of the most enjoyable games I've played in a while. When it falls into the trap of thinking that I care more about survival instead of pulling off crazy tricks, it loses something. It's so easy to pick up and play that you can pop it in and decide to play for 15 minutes, only to look up and discover a few hours have passed. It may not be a game that reinvents the genre, but it's an excellent example of why extreme sports games are fun. If you were a fan of the old SSX games or are looking for a fast-paced, arcade-style game, SSX should meet your needs. Even those who normally pass up sports games should download the SSX demo from Xbox Live Marketplace or try renting the game. It may not be flawless, but it sure is fun.
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