Gaming for Grown Ups
21st November 2011 21:07:00
Posted by John Macdonald

SSX

There was a time during the last console generation when the EA Big brand was reserved only for its flagship titles and the SSX games stood like giants among them - matched only by the ambitious scale of the snowy mountain environments they depicted and the larger than life characters it took to tame them. Times change and with new more powerful consoles, developers seized the opportunity to make more gritty realistic environments and the waning popularity of the snowboarding genre meant that the series never made the quick transition to the current generation of consoles. It took the arrival of the Nintendo Wii to see the release of SSX Blur and while it was laudable to take advantage of the more hands on motion controller of the console, the controls were overly cumbersome for most players to become proficient with the game and enjoy it.

In February 2012 EA will finally bring SSX and its flamboyant cast of characters back in from the cold. However, when the game was originally revealed as SSX: Deadly Descents and the first trailer showed a much darker tone some fans were starting to think that the influence of Call of Duty had pervaded their beloved snowboarding franchise. During this feature preview I will explain why next year’s game has the potential to be the biggest, most varied and possibly the best instalment in the series so far.

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The original subtitle of ‘Deadly Descents’ has been dropped because it was leading to confusion and wasn’t representative of the game as a whole. The SSX games have always had a mix of racing and trick based events and the new one lives by the words “Race It, Trick It, Survive it.” These represent the three main pillars of gameplay and the formula fans have come to know and love is still at the heart of the new game; with ‘Deadly Descents’ from the original title merely representing that additional third pillar.

SSX 3 had one enormous mountain, itself split into three vertically stacked peaks each with a number of sections, while SSX: On Tour was similar even if the three peaks were about the same starting altitude. In the new game there is no main menu but instead you will be presented with a Google Earth inspired globe from which you can visit one of nine regions, each region can have multiple mountains and each peak will give you access to multiple drop points. Some of the bigger mountains will offer runs around three times as wide as the Backcountry from SSX 3 but other runs will be naturally more directed through canyons or caverns.

There is no doubt that the new SSX being developed by EA Canada is going to be a very big game. They hope to reinvent the series for a whole new generation while still meeting the high expectations of long time fans. The Vancouver based development team have identified what the SSX experience should be and they want to “sell iconic natural terrain, make awesome feel easy, sell memorable moments, provide opportunity space, lead the player and eliminate frustration”.

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To create such massive game worlds the developers use a program called Mountain Man which takes NASA topographical data from which it can build a 3D model of any mountain in the world in less than 30 seconds. From here they need to “SSX-ify” the environment which means making natural features bigger or more exaggerated, adding in that iconic theme that conveys being in that stylised version of a particular region of the world and all those trademark SSX trick opportunities like half-pipes, kickers, switchbacks, rails etc. The Mountain Man tool makes creating these immense virtual playgrounds much faster allowing the team to add more trick lines and opportunities for the player to explore.

The regional themes that provide those “memorable moments” include the iconic Alaskan pipeline which players can grind along while avoiding avalanches; a massive mangled train network in the Rockies providing numerous trick opportunities as you grind on railway carriages, twisted tracks and power lines; a huge frozen dam in New Zealand that the player can jump over into the spillway below, or find a path through the dam’s big frozen pipes; or in Siberia where you will encounter an abandoned nuclear power station which will provide that wide “opportunity space” where multiple trick lines can be found to help “make awesome feel easy” for the player.

In real life mountains are obviously dangerous places and each region has its own unique Deadly Descent type representing a specific threat from the elements or the harsh environment. For example, the Himalayan region is home to some of the highest mountains in the world and the Deadly Descent here is ‘Thin Air’ meaning that the player will have a limited amount of time to reach the breathable zone before their Oxygen runs out. In the Antarctic region the temperature can drop as much as 40 degrees between sunlight and shade. In this hash environment the Deadly Descent involves trying to stay in the sunlight and limiting the time spent inside the bitterly cold glacial caverns or the snowboarder will freeze to death.

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Every bit of gear that you can buy and use in SSX will have a gameplay altering element to it whether it is used in a Trick, Race or a Deadly Descent event. There is usually one piece of gear that has been included with a specific Deadly Descent in mind. In Africa you will need a headlamp when tackling the Deadly Descent of ‘Darkness’ where you will plunge into the volcanic crater of Kilimanjaro and need to navigate the pitch black of the twisting caverns to survive. To tackle the Deadly Descent of ‘Gravity’ in the Patagonian region of the Andes the wingsuit will be essential to glide across huge chasms and crevasses that you wouldn’t normally be able to traverse. In the Alps, ‘Rocks’ are the Deadly Descent and to navigate your way through this custom made course it will require the very best gear to respond quickly to this natural hazard.

There is no character creation system and even skiing from SSX: ON Tour has gone. The developers took inspiration from SSX Tricky and SSX 3 for the characters in the new game. Many fan favourites will return such as Elise ‘Bombshell’ Riggs, Mackenzie ‘Mac’ Fraser, Kaori Nishidake, Moby Jones, Psymon ‘Sketchy’ Stark, Zoe ‘Demon’ Payne and Griffin ‘King of the Mountains’ Simmons. New characters include Tane ‘Hippie’ Mumea, Alexis ‘The Chamonix Assassin’ Moraeu and Ty ‘Lucky’ Thorsen. For the first time in the franchise, a real life snowboarder Travis Rice will also be playable. He might seem out of place among the other fictional characters at first glance but few real life snowboarders strive to conquer the elements and take snowboarding to its furthest extreme the way Travis does. You only have to watch his “Art of Flight” trailer to realise that he epitomises the larger than life qualities needed to join the SSX crew and he does it for real.

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SSX players should soon get to grips with the controls although the changes that have been made are understandable and for the better. Pores from thousands of thumbs around the world will breathe a collective sigh of relief to learn that rotation tricks (spins and flips) have moved away from the D-pad and onto the right analogue stick – they function just the same as before and work more smoothly. Boost has moved from the face buttons (it was the square button on the PS2 controller) to the right trigger on the Xbox 360 / R2 on Playstation 3. Again, this makes sense and is more instinctive and accessible. Grabs are on the shoulder buttons of the 360 or L1 / L2 buttons on PS3 while Uber tricks are a combination of these buttons. The only real question mark over the controls at this point is whether the game might be too accommodating. In their attempt to “eliminate frustration” the controls might be too forgiving when landing tricks but there is plenty of time to balance this before the game’s release. There will be a rewind feature that can give players another attempt at a trick line but this is still being tweaked to balance what the penalty should be for using it.

The multiplayer component is already looking strong with modes that enable you to take on the world as well as your friends. You can compete in Global Events where you will have a scheduled window of time to set a score or time in a Race, Trick or Survive event and you will either have only one chance, or you will be able to have as many attempts as you like. However, if you want to challenge your friends more directly you can create a Custom Global Event. SSX doesn’t have lobbies in the traditional sense and everything is organised through RiderNet which is an inbuilt social hub combined with an Autolog type feature. Once you set the rules and options RiderNet will go away and invite your friends for you. However, there is another way to compete online - players can earn money by beating the ghost of their friends, or if unsuccessful, their friend’s ghost can earn them money without the player even being online.

The soundtracks from previous games have been a showcase for new and established talent from the music industry and the new version has another varied mix of thumping tunes that I’m obviously not young enough to fully appreciate but also some metal which I can. It includes some tracks produced specifically for the game and even the SSX Tricky theme ‘It’s Tricky’ by Run-DMC has had the remix treatment. If you want to use your own custom soundtrack EA’s Harmony technology will not only incorporate it into the game matching the beats per minute to your playing style but it will also mix it adding appropriate effects depending on whether you are grinding a rail or catching some big air.

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From a visual standpoint it is already looking very impressive given the huge environments the game has to offer. EA Canada have struck a good balance of creating realistic inspired environments while managing to create the over the top SSX themed worlds that look awesome to play but not too far away from reality. Fans of Tricky and SSX 3 will perhaps long for a different visual style, reflecting their neon lit memories and the warm and colourful glow of mountains long since conquered. They can still enjoy the glowing orange arrows that help guide the player to new jumps and there is a tastefully restrained augmented reality feature that sometimes reminds the player of the altitude they are at. But given how much content is in this new version of SSX and how varied it looks it is likely most fans will be pleased with the result.

There is obviously a lot more that can be said about the new SSX and the series as a whole such as the planned demo before the game’s release, pre-order bonuses like Eddie Wachowski, the PS3 exclusive of Japan’s Mount Fuji, the online virtual comics detailing what the characters have been up to over the years or the possible SSX HD Collection. The team at EA Canada (some of whom have worked on Tricky and SSX 3) obviously have great reverence for the series and its characters. Their ambitious plans and contagious enthusiasm leave little doubt that SSX is in safe hands.