PS3 Attitude takes a peek at EA Sports’ exciting SSX reboot
Since debuting as a PS2 exclusive, SSX has continued to be an important PlayStation franchise. As part of the system’s launch line-up, it ushered in a new era of smooth gameplay, intuitive controls, sharp graphics and edgy soundtracks. It felt next generation and the critics loved it.
Later SSX games went multi-format, but that didn’t diminish its importance for PlayStation owners, and the fact it’s finally about to arrive on the PS3, five years into this generation, is huge.
This, of course, puts pressure on EA Sports to deliver. SSX fans are precious about their favourite snowboarding series, and they know exactly what they want. Just look at the furore surrounding the game’s début trailer at the VGA Awards. It featured a snowboarder leaping from a helicopter on to a treacherous mountain. The emphasis was on danger.
This wasn’t what the fans, at least not the vocal ones online, wanted. For them, SSX is all about colour, racing and tricking — not SSX: BLOPS, as they mockingly called it. They were aghast at the lack of colour. Sure, the internet isn’t the best place to have a rational debate, but it was clear EA Sports leapt from the wrong foot.
Either the fans jumped in too quickly or EA Sports have undergone a dramatic U-turn, because the game that we were presented with recently was not the game die-hard fans feared. That “Survive It” vibe is still there, but it’s only one part of it, a third of it, to be exact. The other two pillars are Race It and Trick It, familiar to all SSX fans.
The game is also as colourful as you would hope and the focus is on great gameplay rather than Hollywood set pieces. One member of the team explained to PS3 Attitude that they wanted to show off the “survive it” aspect first because that was new and they were proud of it. The rest was always going to be shown-off later. However, we did get an admission that some “interesting conversations” were had at the office afterwards.
There was definitely a shift in focus; it didn’t take long before the colourful artwork became viewable to the public, they rolled out series favourites such as Kaori and (more tellingly) the “Deadly Descents” part of the title conspicuously disappeared. The game is now simply called SSX.
Whether or not EA Sports altered its plans is irrelevant. We can safely say that the game we experienced is very faithful to the series; however, we can also say that it promises to be every bit as fresh and innovative as the original.
Let’s begin with EA Sports’ unusual approach to designing maps. Using incredibly smart satellite technology, the studio accurately maps the terrain of some of the most famous peaks from around the world, including Alaskan, Himalayan and Patagonian mountains.
The team use this NASA topographical data to create the foundation for their peaks. It offers them a sense of scale and authenticity, and the occasional unpredictable layout; the kind no person would ever imagine. They then go in afterwards to do what only a game developer can do: improve on nature. They contort the mountains until they are full of advantageous lift-off points and deadly drop zones, turning these natural wonders into a trickster’s paradise.
They then add some character to the mountains by exaggerating each location’s unique landmarks. The Great Wall, for example features more prominently on the Himalayan peaks in SSX than it does in reality. The famous Alaskan oil pipe is also much more of an improbable tangled web of opportunities than we suspect it is really. We also suspect the Patagonian peaks aren’t full of crashed helicopters either. All of these unique features, of course, offer tricking and grinding opportunities.
The peaks are still a work in progress, and the Alaskan peaks we played on did have some sections that are obviously going to be tweaked. The potential, however, is clearly there for them to be great. We were thrilled by the endless opportunities each drop provided. We could drop down from high slopes to lower edges and head up pipelines to get to high ground; we could head wide left, wide right or bomb down the middle.
We played on them dozens of times and we took a different route every time. It’s going to take some time to master this. When you consider there are 150-180 drops, each likely to be around four-five minutes in length, it is clear that SSX has a lot of gameplay to offer.
We learned a little about how the campaign will work too. Each mountain will essentially be a chapter filled with several challenges. Some peaks will be home to races, while others will test your tricking ability, and the final stage will be the big Survive It challenge. These, EA tells us, are essentially boss battles.
Players will ride narrow ridges and avoid deadly falls as the rush down slopes as quickly as possible. It’s a battle against nature; more specifically, it’s a battle against rock, gravity, ice, darkness, snow, trees, thin air, cold and whiteout. We haven’t had a chance to sample these Survive It challenges yet, but they excite us the most.
The significant thing is that you can’t take on these boss battles until you have the right equipment. We know you will need an oxygen mask, for example, to survive the thin air, and it doesn’t require too much guesswork to come to the conclusion that you’ll need a parachute for gravity and some thermals for the cold.
You need to buy the equipment, using money earned from tackling the various drops. These credits are also used to buy better boards and equipment. It sounds quite similar to the currency system of Gran Turismo, which means that it will be easy to dip in and out of the game, while still having enough depth to draw us back for a long time.
Then there’s always the online side, which EA Sports are confident will go down a treat. They are using a “no lobby” motto, which basically means that you can jump in and out of SSX’s 150-180 drops without having to wait for others. They will already be there racing and tricking.
It will use a networking system that is very similar to Need for Speeds’ Autolog, which means your times and scores will be instantly bounced to your friends, encouraging them to come back and challenge your new records. Expect these notifications to be plastered on your Facebook wall and even pushed to your mobile.
Challenges will play an important role in SSX. EA Sports will host them all-year round, but you can even set up your own private or public challenges. These can be timed or indefinite.
The team is still to decide on how many players will be on a map at any one time. They know they can easily fill it, but they’re currently playtesting to find the point where having too many players on screen at once starts to ruin the enjoyment.
We’re also wondering if their “no lobby” system is likely to stay true when it comes to races. The only way that would be possible is if they only have time trials, which would be madness if you ask us.
SSX looks as though it will be packed full of content that will keep us busy for months, but this would mean nothing without great gameplay. Thankfully, SSX’s gameplay promises to be more than good enough to justify a long stay.
We’ve been playing an early build, which doesn’t have many skill moves, and it clearly needs a bit of tweaking. Nevertheless, it still plays like a dream. We’ve been gliding, grinding and spinning down peaks, performing melon grabs and flying squirrels. We’ve been chaining moves to build our accumulator and learning to utilise our boosts at just the right moment. It’s as slick as you would expect from an SSX game.
EA Sports plans to include as many moves as they can, but they’re stressing that they won’t just add any run-of-the-mill move. They have to be quality. However, expect to see many of the classic gravity-defying moves from older SSX games to make a return.
What is also clear from this early stage is that it will have that trademark SSX difficulty curve; anyone can pick this up and feel reasonably good after a few shots, but it is going to take some work to become a true master of this game. This is what promises to drag us back for more.
SSX is arriving much later than we would have liked, but it’s looking as though the wait is going to be worth it. The campaign promises to be deep, online mode should be accessible and rewarding, the mix between Survive It, Trick It and Race It should ensure the gameplay is always varied. More importantly, it’s already feeling great to play.
Many are already looking to the future now that the Wii U has been announced, and rumours of a PS4 and Xbox 720 just won’t go away either; however, we can’t help but feel as though this generation is just about to get started now that SSX is finally on its way.