Available on Xbox 360 and PS3 (version tested)
If there’s one game that SSX reminds us of, it’s Criterion’s 2010 stunner, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Like that game it’s an unashamed franchise reboot, albeit a reboot of a franchise that disappeared quietly around five years ago rather than one that had become a running joke. And like Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, SSX takes what we all loved about the best games in the series, then wraps it up in a new graphics engine, with a new sense of scale, a more freeform structure and a mass of very clever online features.
Most importantly, though, SSX achieves what Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit achieved before it – it doesn’t simply put the series back on the map, but makes it feel essential. Just as Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is the best Need for Speed, so SSX is the best SSX game we’ve ever had.
This isn’t a realistic snowboard simulation. While EA brought in masses of satellite data to recreate whole sections of the Rockies, the Alps, the Himalayas and others, the game's wide and open courses are festooned with icy tunnels, chunks of downed planes, snowbound alpine villages, industrial debris and ridiculous, spiralling rails for your snowboarders to grind along. Boarders fly into the air, pull off ludicrous gymnastic somersaults and land hundreds of feet below without so much of a hint of slipped discs or shattered knees.
Some courses even require you to don one of those wingsuits used by the nuttier kind of basejumper, so that you flip off a ramp over a chasm, deploy your wings and glide gracefully to the next slope. If you’re looking for the realism of the early Amped games, you’re not going to find it here.
But then SSX works on a bigger level. It’s a thrill ride, half high-speed racer, half supercharged stunt showcase, and on this level it’s astonishingly good.
Events generally take two forms. On the one hand, there your races, where you and one or three rivals try to hit the finish point at the bottom of the mountain first. On the other hand, there are trick events where it’s all about building up the highest score on the way to the finish.
Either way, tricks – spins, grabs, flips, rail-grinding moves and the rest – fill up a boost gauge, and this can either be used for a temporary burst of speed, or saved until you go into a Tricky mode, where boost is unlimited for a short time and you can pull off even more outrageous stunts. Keep chaining tricks together and you unlock a second-level mode, where even bigger signature moves become possible.
On top of this, tricks can – and need to be – strung together in combos for bonus multipliers, but if you tumble, hit an obstacle or make a bad landing, you lose the current string. As a result, there’s always a level of strategy to playing SSX. Do you keep pulling off tricks to build your combo at the risk of losing all, or do you pause for a second, bank the points and start again? Do you boost now and catch up with your rival, or hold back and use Tricky mode to catch up?
We say strategy, but to be honest there’s not much time for conscious decision making. The action in SSX is fast and intense, requiring the kind of zen-like focus that fans of Wipeout, Burnout and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit will know all about. And it’s an overwhelming sensory experience as well.
The riders have a slightly cartoon style to them, but they have detailed clothing and convincing animation, and the landscapes are just beautiful. There’s only so much you can do with snow and ice, but SSX gets around this by giving each of the game’s nine areas a theme, whether it’s the trees and granite of the Rockies or the industrial ruins of Siberia, and it’s the kind of game where flares go off as you race past them and everything that can glow, does glow.
The soundtrack is phenomenal too. It’s not just the content, though the game’s mix of indie rock, dance, electronica and dubstep works perfectly well, but the presentation. Tunes are mixed in and out to match the action on the screen, and there’s even a cool repeat effect that chimes in when you’re grinding along a rail seeing how many times you can spin. Like Dead Space or Bioshock before it, SSX sets a new bar for audio design in its genre.