The worst thing one can say about the return of SSX is that it never fully commits. It stands at a crossroads between a revival of a much-beloved series and the kind of fresh take snowboarding games need. And while the reboot’s taken a drastic turn for the better since the surprising original reveal, there’s a sense that the initial design remains in-tact, lurking beneath the shift in marketing and preliminary fan service.
SSX kicks off with the willfully short World Tour mode. It finds Team SSX, a group of extreme sports athletes from various backgrounds, joining up to take on an obnoxious characterized rival named Grif. The team travels across many of the world’s most recognizable mountain ranges and compete in trick, race, and survival events, loosely pieced together by makeshift comics, offering a cut of embarrassing exposition in-between.
Mountains are the true opponent in SSX. It’s the classic story of man against nature, played out across some of the world’s most deadly slopes. Survival matches take on a decidedly fatalistic slant in contrast to the standard race and trick events, and come at the expense of the expected arcade simplicity. Fittingly, it turns into a trial of grit and endurance, stressing the importance of survival and reaching the finish over the experience of covering the slopes in the most ridiculous, flashy way.
The deadly descents are otherwise an admittedly interesting spin that matches the less colorful characters and environments while accenting the new tech used for replicating actual mountains. This comes as the most inventive new feature, with the new courses all holding onto an appealing sense of scale and with the developer’s alterations providing plenty of tweaks that allow for absurd gravity-defying stunts. Sometimes a character will get stuck on the craggy geometry between rocks, or find themselves trying to work back onto the course from the oddly-defined barriers of tracks, and when you’re not rushing down the mountain, it all seems half-realized. The feeling is the tech might’ve been better utilized in a release without the expectations that likely lead to months of retro-fitting for a completely unrealistic formula.
It’s ultimately a game of halves and the arcade-centric portion provides the best hook. It remains easy to perform the big tricks and hold the line all the way down the mountain. The tricks remain as over-the-type as ever, with simple variants of grabs and tweaks. There’s a slickness about it that finds some balance between all-out excess and crushing realism, and it’s complimented by intuitive control schemes. There’s a natural flow governing movement down the mountain, with the music remixing and fading in and out based on performance, with a remix of Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky” filling in that satisfying throwback to a simpler time every time the meters filled, while the track terraforms around your landed tricks. The mechanics all feel excellent, with a sharp sense of speed and balance informed by the classic entries.
The RiderNet online features – adapted from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit’s Autolog – provides a pulse for the online community, offering up constant updates on friends’ progress and utilizing a smart ghost save function. This provides some connection between friends’ runs, encouraging a constant back-and-forth, and constantly highlighting all of your beaten records and suggesting new drops to check out based on the ones your playing. It’s a brilliant system and one that makes perfect sense for racing games, providing connection to the community, despite the lack of any true head-to-head or local multiplayer. The breadth of content available across the Explore and World challenge modes proves to be more than sufficient, with the RiderNet functions likely to ensure a healthy lifespan for the community.
The only true sticking point with the online comes in the use of micro-transactions for customization. SSX never really needed much customization but there’s a large quantity of content available, most of consisting of palate swaps and perks, with higher-level equipment providing better returns. There are some neat variants, from glowing costumes to modified gear that borrows classification straight from a role-playing game. This forces a disconnect between new and high-level players and it’s a shame that so much of it feels necessary in order to prove competitive.
Despite the split identity, there’s a lot to like about SSX. And while the reboot never fully finds its way, largely because it comes across as being led in too many directions, there’s a sense of renewed potential here and a return to the mechanics that made SSX great in the first place. So that’s what EA’s delivered: a great game taken in the spirit of an extreme sports hybrid, that’s also partially grounded in reality.