On SSX…

I have often questioned the appeal of sports games. My prior existence as a goalkeeper doesn’t translate an interest in FIFA, nor does watching the Cowboys send me rushing off to grab the yearly iteration of NFL. Only the most hardest of core fans will know the differences and tweaks between NBA 2011 and 2012, and some would argue the differences are closer to some kind of patch rather than warranting an entirely new game. Sports games, however, seem excusable to yearly iterations as opposed to more nuanced games. One can look to great franchises like Guitar Hero or Tony Hawk to relive the bitter sting felt by many to see such games inundate the market and fall so rapidly in appeal and quality.  If a lesson can be learned from our fallen brethren, it is that there is a delicate balance that must be achieved between time and pedigree. A studio cannot spend years on end making a perfect sports game (or any game, for that matter), yet they cannot rely on storied game play modes and environments from previous installments to make a newer edition. SSX first debuted alongside the PS2 as a launch title, and in the years since it has remixed, revitalized and proved that even in sports games, innovation is still possible.

It is interesting to see how EA has handled the SSX brand over the years. While properly emulating  the sport of snowboarding, they keenly avoid keeping speed, physics and other elements of reality from limiting their imaginations,  instead opting to embrace chaos and adrenaline as guiding stars. Marred slightly by an unstable difficulty level between mountains and a tutorial that does little to prepare you, this latest edition of SSX is its highest and mightiest snowboarding extravaganza. From the legendary Rocky mountains to the deadly peaks of Antarctica, each region comes brimming with their own personality manifested through tumultuous weather changes and hazards that require special equipment to conquer. Just as you get used to shooting through caves only traversed with the help of headlamps, another mountain demands you don a wing suit and literally fly from one part of the course to the next. The new equipment allows for drastically various challenges from one track to the next, almost taking priority over beating your opponents altogether. Aptly put, the final stages of each mountain need only that you survive the ride down the slope without competing against any AI.

The introduction of mandatory equipment is part of a larger gear system intended to add a RPG element to your rider of choice. As tracks are completed, players gain experience and have access to new boards and costumes that increase different attributes. It’s a new feature to the SSX series but the idea is all too familiar. It’s always pleasant to be rewarded when completing bigger challenges, but it does little to affect the overall game in any way. As with any sports game, ease of control is what makes or breaks the title and it’s where SSX falters a bit. The initial tutorial on performing tricks is both shallow and lacking in explanation, all but requiring players new to the SSX series to go through more than once. Attaching the trick system to a single analog stick is nice in theory, but the execution requires a great deal more than just five minutes of practice. As a result, the first few tracks are where most players will feel most bogged done due to acclimating to the new system, but it does become easier over time.

A very welcome addition to riding is the ability to rewind. Fans of the Prince of Persia series will instantly recognize the feature as players can rewind several sections of game play, allowing them to fix a mistake, try a different trick or take a new route. Though limited in how often it can be used per race, I found that it was frequently responsible for many of my first place wins. It prevented me from wasting time restarting the entire race, but also encouraged me to learn the pitfalls scattered across the slope. Ultimately, I found myself quickly memorizing large portions of the race without distracting myself from pulling off several insane tricks in succession. Perfectionists will argue that rewinding takes away much of the challenge of doing the perfect run and is EA’s way of catering to casual gamers, but such arguments wane as rewinding is completely optional; if you don’t like it, don’t use it.

Lastly, although SSX raises the bar on what can be done in a snowboarding game, the difficulty is not matched as so. There is a distinct spike in difficulty between the three groups of mountains that changes almost as much as your equipment, rising quickly in the beginning and fading near the end. With the exception of the final race, the middle tracks are suspiciously easy to beat when compared to the struggles in the first three mountains. Perhaps this is tailored more to the skill and adaptation of the player, but it is worth noting that it might better serve the game if some of the tracks early on were moved toward the end of the story to create a smoother increase in difficulty that matches a player’s natural improvement.

As a whole, SSX does nothing to change the engine that drives a sports game. While SSX differs as a solo-sport rather than a team sport, the attention to the minutia of the characters and especially the different regions of the world make the game truly stand out. Even after five previous installments, SSX stands as a vibrant response to such naysayers who claim there is no innovation left in some video game genres. SSX may operate outside the realm of human possibility, but EA maintained a careful hand at executing innovation with balance, and it is such precision that continues to make this franchise so much damn fun.

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

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