What makes a person strap a piece of fiberglass to his feet and careen down a mountainside? Probably the same thing that keeps me seated safely in front of my television playing a game based on that sport. Snowboarding is not for the timid. At its very core, its a sport for the daredevil—anyone willing to go to the edge to show-off his skill or test his mettle. For the rest of us, SSX is the next best thing to being there. It takes a sport already bursting with attitude and bravado and cranks it up a few notches. The result is a game that provides a fun, wild ride and actually does its job in justifying the purchase of Sony's high-priced PlayStation 2.
EA Canada developed SSX under EA Sports' new "BIG" label, dedicated to extreme sports releases. It also has the distinction of being one of the PlayStation 2 launch titles—titles by which the new console will be judged. With this kind of pressure behind it, the developer was determined to have its game debut with a bang. The intro starts things off rather nicely with a dizzying montage of international snowboarders jockeying for screen time. They race through the game's tracks and take to the air with great frequency—all viewed through dynamic camera angles. Boarders shout their trademark one-liners over the game's booming techno-soundtrack. It's everything it needs to be to get gamers jazzed to play. It's loud, energetic and full of attitude, and luckily for EA, it also carries over to other parts of the game.
SSX comes with all the visual amenities that the PlayStation 2 affords. Before the start of every race, the camera pans the entire track ending with a close-up of my selected snowboarder. What's worth noting is how detailed and sharp everything in view would appear to be. Each boarder is rendered with a relatively high polygonal count and benefits from rather detailed animations. Mouths and eyes animate realistically, giving a convincing illusion that each boarder is actually speaking his or her lines. The tracks themselves are equally impressive. You'd think that a healthy helping of white and gray tones would be satisfactory in depicting a snowboarding world, but thankfully, EA Canada didnt think so. The screen is almost always saturated with every color under the rainbow—and it seems the developer made up some new colors for the later tracks. Just about every technical trick in the PlayStation 2's playbook finds its way into the game in some form or another. The most apparent are the ones all the first-time PlayStation 2 developer's are using like lens flare, reflective surfaces and motion blur. That said, they have been incorporated into the game nicely and succeed in mimicking the real world.
I must confess that my opinion of SSX was rather low when I first began playing it. Though visually impressive, it did little to really separate itself from all the other snowboarding games on the market. It contains a small number of tracks and selectable characters (both top out at eight) and the usual motivations for continued play by way of hidden players, boards, tricks and clothing to unlock. Going through the courses seemed somewhat straightforward as well, with the fastest boarder always seeming to get the job done. However, it is only through extended play that things start to get interesting, and I began see the true appeal of SSX.
SSX features two separate modes: World Circuit and Single Event. The Single Event is for those wanting a quick race against computer-controlled opponents or to take on a friend in a two-player race. The World Circuit mode could be considered a career mode because you actually select a character and take him through the game building stats and an arsenal of tricks with every victory. The racing portion is pretty standard fare in that medals (bronze, silver and gold) are awarded for placing in the top three finishing positions over the course of three races. The catch is that each track must be raced no less than three times (qualifying race, semi-finals and then finals). It's also worth mentioning that some of these tracks are quite lengthy—some as long as eight minutes. You'd better apportion your bathroom breaks because you could easily find yourself racing through these tracks for 30 minutes at a time. The other downside of such long tracks is that there is plenty of real estate to cover over the course of a race; a major slip up along the way could put you out of the running almost before the race even begins.
One area of contention may be the factors that determine victory. Rider ability and snowboards do have an impact, but the success is often the result of finding the right shortcut. SSX was built to be as wide open as possible. Going off the beaten path is encouraged because though more dangerous, these shortcuts can be very rewarding. Sometimes a shortcut will consist of nothing but a series of jumps that not present the opportunity to perform insane tricks, but can literally leapfrog you ahead of the competition. This can be great of course, but the catch is that the computer-controlled opponents know about them too. If you don't discover these shortcuts on your own, or when you do, manage to stay with the opposing racers throughout these secret areas, you could find yourself quickly in last place—in some cases as far as a full lap behind. It's not easy to make up that much ground in a game like this, so losing any would mean having to start over.
I'm surprised it has taken me this long to get to the tricks in the game, but that doesn't mean they are trivial—quite the opposite. Anyone familiar with the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series will no doubt appreciate the way the tricks and stunts system has been worked into the game. Using nothing more than the shoulder buttons (L1, L2, R1, R2), a player can put together a distinct routine of tricks after every jump that will rack up plenty of points. Toss in the Square button (which serves to "tweak" certain tricks) and the analog sticks for turning and flipping in air, and you have a formula with almost limitless variations. The lone sore spot about this system is the jump button. As in Excitebike 64, the height you gain from a jump is determined by how long you hold onto the button before a jump and how close to the peak of the jump you let go. This worked fine in the Nintendo 64 hit, but here SSX uses a "lock-on" feature that often does more harm than good. Once you hold down said button, you can't steer left or right to adjust your alignment with the jump. That means you have to be committed to a jump well before you reach it, or you're likely to land in a most undesirable location.
Pulling off tricks is such a breeze that it can quickly distract you from the main goal, which is finishing in the top three. In keeping with its extreme theme, SSX routinely sends players careening off cliffs and insane jumps for the sole purpose of catching as much big air as possible to pull off stunts. Each level is designed around this so there are jumps at almost every turn. You can leap off anything and everything with achieving varying degrees of altitude and landing on practically anything with a flat surface—like fences, railings or signs. In no time flat, terms like Tail Grab, 540 and 720 Canadian Bacon will become your new second language. There is a price to pay for all of these tricks as a wipeout earns you a trip to the back of the pack, and having to catch up and still pull off tricks is not easy. Tricks do more than look pretty though, as they also add to your Adrenaline Meter. Depending on the complicated nature of a trick, your Adrenaline Meter will fill, giving you an extra edge when trailing (or leading) in a race.
SSX is not without it's flaws. The PlayStation 2's infamous anti-aliasing (stair-stepping appearance on the edges of all 3-D objects) issue shows its ugly head from the very beginning. It can get bad during the close-ups of boarders or miscellaneous objects on the screen. In SSX's defense, this is masked very well once the game is in motion, but it is still noticeable. Where it falters a bit further is in its combining of certain visual elements in the game. SSX can sometimes look downright cheesy with so many brightly colored objects that appear to just be sitting on top of the snow. There isn't a cohesive look to the game with unnatural objects (bleachers and signs) sticking out of the environments and at times appearing to float on top of each other. The use of pyrotechnics in the game looks pretty the first few times, but it soon looks a little underdone. The more I saw it, the less impact it had.
The sounds in SSX, from the music to the voice work, are commendable and fit perfectly with the whole extreme sports theme. Unfortunately, they can also grate on your nerves. From the word go, it's an almost non-stop assault on the eardrums—from the banter of the boarders to the incessant commentary from the announcer (done by the eternal "Mean" Gene Okerlund). The music is a series of looped tracks mixed by the likes of Beastie Boy DJ, Mix Master Mike and Rahzel of The Roots. The downside is that with such long racing tracks, the music repeats itself early and often. EA Canada wisely included the option to turn it off, but more varied musical tracks would have been a much better alternative.
My final gripes are not that major, but still noticeable. Framerates take a drop regularly as more boarders pile onto the screen—this is especially true on the more complex tracks where there is a lot going on. During SSX's weak two-player split-screen mode, the game can stutter—which doesn't help this already limited two-player mode. Load times are also an issue. I spent too much time waiting, whether it's waiting to go through menus or for each level to load and reload.
When it's all said and done, SSX is a great title for PlayStation 2 fans to build a gaming library around. It delivers in almost every department, and though it doesnt provide any sort of breakthrough experience, it is an all-around solid title.
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