SSX was my first PlayStation 2 purchase. It remains in my memory as the first game I bought for the console and enjoyed thoroughly. I never, ever played snowboarding games prior—whether it was a realistic or fantasy-extreme snowboarder, it wasn't enough to catch my interest. SSX, though, felt immediately accessible and, most importantly, flat out fun. The learning curve wasn't too steep, which made it an attractive buy.

SSX Tricky, the follow-up to EA Sports BIG's first initial offering, introduced along with its gameplay some Hollywood talent along the likes of Lucy Liu, Oliver Platt and Billy Zane to name just a few. It may have been my work life taking over or something else, I don't know—I skipped this iteration in the series. I read that the courses from the first were brought over and redesigned. It may well be a solid sequel, but I wouldn't know. Sometimes I just take a hiatus from gaming. Or perhaps it's the budget, too.

Believe it or not, I was weary of this third release. I am the last person I know who would pick up a game by trying an in-store demo. Yet I did just that, and I started to feel enthusiastic, just like I had with the first SSX four years ago. I let my wallet do the talking.

Now in its third iteration, SSX 3 brings with it some tradition of the series and makes a few departures as well. Staple characters like Mac, Zoe, Elise and Kaori make their expected appearance but with an older, more experienced look—it's definitely appealing for fans of the previous installments and adds a sense of chronology. The Hollywood-backed voice talent is gone, but I don't see or hear for that matter how that may actually help this time around, especially when the real stars of show are the challenges themselves.

Instead of sliding through distinguishably different locales, though, there is now a singular "Big Mountain." On the surface, one mountain split into three peaks is a discouraging comparison. SSX was known for its variety in zany snowboarding locations. Snow-covered Grand Canyon wannabes and boarders going through Hawaii? Gone. SSX 3 goes the other tangent while still upholding a reputation for extreme levels—one snow-packed mountain with increasing difficulty per peak.

The core gameplay, as with past SSX releases, revolves around performing humanly-impossible acrobatics and tricks. Not just for show (but still an obvious source of enjoyment), tricks reward the player with a small amount of "boost" which can be used to edge out other opponents. Acquiring boost is always important but often a matter of compromise; I'd perform just enough tricks to gain extra boost, but not enough to get left behind and lose the race. Too many tricks would set me back in races but I always wanted to do as many as possible in one run.

The answer to this comes by way of the new Super Pipe and Big Air events. Veteran SSX enthusiasts will enjoy these offerings if they hunger more air time and less race. There are only three with one per peak, but in the sense of half-pipes, they sufficed for all that big air I was craving most of the time. For the rest of us who also need speed, a mix of speed and scoring lies within the peaks' Slopestyle courses.

SSX 3's racing events are balanced well enough for newcomers to offer ample air from the get go, making acrobatic performances as fun to watch as it is to go down a slope at high speed. One of my first impressions was that the courses immediately gave me a sense of speed that I wanted, and in some cases even exceeded my expectations. Slopes, pipes and other surfaces are quite accessible down the course and it doesn't seem so difficult in this run to have a good time with them—rails and grinds feel a bit more "magnetic" than they used to, making it easier and a lot more fun to try and work towards them. Handplants are a new addition to the list of tricks and there are even Uber Grinds. Seasoned SSX vets will pick all the challenges fairly fast and find quite a bit to score in.

Frustration does, unfortunately, arise ever so often. Finding new shortcuts and faster paths was a benefit of my exercised skill, but oddly enough some routes lead to off limits areas that respawned me. I was left to wonder what exactly was off limits in the first place. Since the courses offer hidden shortcuts from time to time, this happens often. Trial and error hammer them out, but it takes a bit of work on occasion and expertise.

Looks like EA Sports BIG took after the Grand Theft Auto school of design, integrating an inspired "freeride" mode that lets players board down the entire mountain should the desire arise. In addition to events, small mini-challenges are strewn about with music complete with DJ banter to complement the ride. It's possible to ride all the way down the mountain and traverse each peak's main courses along the way in almost half an hour.

Surprisingly, this can be an exciting rush all the way down, and mastery of the peaks makes the experience all the better. There's an added, solid realism with what they've done—by making the mountain seem as a whole, continuous experience, I didn't mind mindlessly snowboarding down. By chance I'd pass a Super Pipe with a sudden urge to try it out and there I went. The exploration factors as a solid strength of SSX3 and kept me coming back for another run at events I may have otherwise brushed off in a menu.

The art team for SSX 3 deserves a pat on the back for giving each peak a sense of character. It looks like the engine still has to compromise framerate for quality still, but it doesn't create any major disparity with the gameplay. While the beginner's peak has levels that are sunny and crisp, later levels are less forgiving with dimmer, more haunting atmospheres. Some later courses even introduce some brief moisture to the camera, adding a convincing amount of realism. I was impressed they could breathe so much life into each level. "Intimidator," for example, is a course on Peak 2 that hurdles players with trees struck by lightning, adding a few new ways to head towards the finish line.

With the solid visuals, the music and sound are just as well: music licensing in particular always seems strong with EA's titles and SSX 3 doesn't particularly fail in this regard. A solidly backed soundtrack featuring various rock, electronic and hip-hop tunes is embedded into the game. Depending on gameplay, music changes during a high score, in the air or when behind the rest of the competition. It's a tad annoying for songs in-game with lyrics, but can add a breath-holding characteristic for the more intense moments of play.

As I mentioned previously, free rides down the mountain will yield to an almost Ryan Seacrest-like "DJ Atomica." He might be someone the people will want to (and can, thankfully) toggle off. This became more apparent in the All Peak race: I didn't need DJ speak every five minutes or so down a half hour run.

The game's replay can be a little disheartening after unlocking all the essentials. Selecting a new character, for example, means that I had to unlock courses and peaks all over again. This can be rather trying. Yes, in order to unlock the next peak I have to challenge Zoe's rival. I don't think this is worth my time, though, if I already ran the gauntlet with Mac and I just want to build my character's stats faster by skipping to later courses even if they may be harder with my newbie Zoe. I don't have time nor is it fun to rebuild a character if I can't even try courses I have already gone through exhaustively.

Online play in SSX 3 will appease me for the time being. PlayStation 2 network adapter owners will be happy to hear that the game is online ready. Only two players can go at it head to head, but every peak's tracks are unlocked (sans the multi-peak races) to keep things competitive and surprising. With my cable modem connection I experienced little or no lag whatsoever, but I also always made sure I was connecting with someone of a high-speed Internet service as well. It's quite a different experience online, where I went through many losses and grief I'm sad to say. But the competition, as humbling as it can be for me, is still quite fun and adds a lot of replay, especially after I burnt out the single player component.

SSX 3 is fantastic, despite a few small issues. It can be oddly frustrating at times, yet it has enough merit to make it one of my favorite games this year. It doesn't necessarily refresh the nostalgia I had when it was SSX two releases ago, but it definitely re-introduces the fun lacking in the gaming slump I've experienced lately. With a solid array of courses and the addition of online rivalry, SSX 3 is very rewarding and, more importantly, ultimately fun. Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.

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