As a lot of you know that the PS2 didn’t have a whole lot of really good games at its release, but it had a few – and SSX was one of them. This unlikely hit became the reason a lot of people needed to make the investment, simply because it was a lot of fun. SSX Tricky surprised a lot of people since it took snowboarding way over the top. Staying true to nature’s laws of physics wasn’t really important anymore, but a lot of people ended up buying it – because it was just a whole lot of fun. SSX3 was recently released, and it ends up somewhere between SSX and its sequel in terms of madness, but with the heavily tweaked gameplay, graphics and audio it’s simply a top-notch game.
There aren’t really a lot of modes to choose from in SSX3. From the main menu you can choose between Single Event, where you basically play in any level you’ve unlocked in the main mode. The second, and main mode is called Conquer the Mountain, which I’ll talk about soon, and finally Multi Play. In the latter you have a pretty standard 2-player split-screen setup. You choose a level, set the rules, equip whatever gear you might have earned or bought, and then head downhill.
Conquer the Mountain is pretty much your typical career mode, where you choose a character from a group of ten, ranging from your typical 12 year old snowboard prodigy to your typical male snowboard psychopath. Each of the characters has certain riding characteristics – things they’re good at, and things they need to improve upon. Each character has seven ability meters, which you can upgrade for a progressively steeper price. You get to improve upon acceleration, edging, speed, spin, stability, toughness, and tricks. Unlike in the Tony Hawk games the characters don’t start with a certain amount of points in each of these categories, which strikes me as a bit odd, but it works out pretty well. Upgrading the stats costs a bit of money, but during the game you’ll most likely earn plenty of cash to spend. Also, at the lodge you not only buy stat points, you can also buy a load of equipment, like new shoes, snowboards, helmets, and stuff like that. Once you’ve played the game for a few hours you’ll also be able to purchase special effects, like a flaming snowboard, really weird backpacks, and even weirder headgear. There’s practically tons of stuff to buy in the game, but it’s not really all that useful beyond the entertainment value, and of course the bragging rights during multiplayer sessions.
The game itself takes place on one huge mountain that consists of three peaks. At the start of the game you play at peak 1, where mostly beginners hang out. In each of the peaks you can choose between Race, where you obviously do your best to get from start to finish as fast as possible, Freestyle, where the goal is to get the highest score from doing tricks and such, and Freeride, which is a bit like the Tony Hawk games in that you ride around, and can choose to do goals. My personal favorite is freestyle, simply because of the huge number of moves you can perform, but all three are plenty of fun. Each peak has about five or six slopes, usually with a lot of variety. To unlock the next peak you have to finish either race, freestyle or freeride, and to do so you have to get a medal in each of the levels in the category you chose. If you for instance chose freestyle, then you’ll first play in three normal levels, and if you get a medal in each, the champion of the peak will challenge you. First he or she will ride along with you, where the goal is to get the most points by the end of the level. If you win here you’ll play in a combination of levels, meaning you’ll start from the top, and ride to the very bottom of the peak, which means you’ll play in maybe two or three interconnected levels. If you got enough points, you win money and access to the next peak.
What really makes the game glorious is the quality of the levels. It’s not easy to describe them all in a few coherent sentences, because they vary so much, but during the game you’ll zoom down icy rock-filled peaks, dodge falling trees, try to escape avalanches, jump both natural and constructed ramps, grind logs, railings, and more. There are times when you’re literally in awe of how cool the game really is, and that’s not exaggerating one bit. Graphically the game looks superb. The game has a really nice organic look to it, with seamless texturing, very realistic effects, and just about enough good looking scenery to keep you satisfied until the winter really kicks in. It would’ve been nice if there were a bit more “life” in some of the levels, maybe Havok-like physics on various in-game objects, people or animals moving around, etc. Performance-wise the 3d engine performs extremely well, even when all logic says otherwise. The framerate remained steady during the entire game, except in a city level where it dropped a little bit.
It’s not often I comment on good camera usage, but this is really another department where SSX3 shines. You’ll zoom down steep mountains, literally fly through the air, and the camera always stays at a nice cinematic angle. There were a few times when it can work against you, like when you’ve crashed into some obstacles that are difficult to get out of, but it’s surprisingly good during the majority of the game.
I must admit that it took me a couple of hours to get the hang of the controls. It’s perfectly logical when you’ve gotten it into your fingers, but there isn’t much of a tutorial beyond the tips you’re given from the menu, so you basically have to experiment. You control your character’s movement using the left analog stick, as expected. You’ll have pretty good control of the movement by default, but if you press and hold the A button you’ll crouch down, which is useful for gaining speed, and charging up for a jump, but makes for more difficult turning. When jumping you can press and hold either X, Y, A, or B to grab the board in various ways, but if you combine that with pressing the digital pad in a direction you’ll do a real trick. It takes a little while to get proficient in the whole analog to digital stick movement, but it’s perfectly do-able. On the top right corner of the screen you’ll see the special move meter, which fills up as you perform tricks. By pushing this meter higher and higher you’ll unlock letters of the words Super Ãœber – first Ãœber, then Super. When you’ve unlocked the first word you can hold the L trigger while holding X, Y, A, or B, while pressing a direction on the digital pad. Sounds complicated? It is at first. When you’ve unlocked both Super and Ãœber you’ll do really insane moves, and also at such a speed that you’ll have time to do more than if you only had Ãœber unlocked.
The special move meter is good for more than just that though. When you’re riding down a hill you can press and hold the X button to get a speed boost. It’s critical that you use this, because it’s a great way to add height to your jumps, and an equally great way to beat the competition when racing. But make no mistake; your competitors can do the same as you. Because of this speed boost you’re pretty much forced to do tricks whenever you can, regardless of whether you’re playing for points or the best time. This is a pretty neat game design idea when you think about it.
I’m sure the EA Games wanted SSX3 to compete with Activision’s Tony Hawk 4, and that’s probably a reason why so much focus has been put on the soundtrack this time around. During the first few hours I was literally amazed to hear all these brand new tracks being played, instead of just old classics. It’d take a substantial amount of time to list all the artists, but they range from very famous bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, to lesser-known DJs. The genres tend to be focused on hip-hop, punk rock, electronica, and trip-hop. There’s a really entertaining radio included in the game, who not only tells you about the latest news, but who also plays a lot of great music. You’ll ride to RÃ¶yksopp, UNKLE, Placebo, Dan the Automator, Black Eyed Peas, etc etc etc. The whole soundtrack is pretty evenly spread over the three peaks, so each time you progress you’ll hear a few new tracks, but even if you choose to play a lot on maybe the first or second peak you’ll still get to hear some of the later tracks – just not as often. I must say I’m very impressed at the soundtrack, the DJ, and his radio, but it could’ve been nice if we had some more control over the playlist. The sound effects and voice-overs are pretty good too, but the trash talk tends to get a bit repetitive. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the game’s audio is THX certified, and makes great use of 5.1 surround.
I’ve already talked a bit about the multiplayer already, but compared to for instance Tony Hawk 4 it seems a bit limited. The lack of modes and support for more than two players detracts a bit, but imagine if it had Xbox Live support, maybe had a two-on-two combat mode, or maybe a few other.
In my opinion the Xbox has too many action games. I have at least played what feels like too many action games on the Xbox, but when a game like SSX3 comes along it just brings a new sense of excitement to the console. The game isn’t a revolution in snowboarding or anything, but it takes the game mechanics that worked in the earlier games and improved upon just about each and every one of them. Graphically the game looks spot-on, with very little to complain about. The soundtrack is just superb, even though it may not be quite as long as those in other major titles. It may take you a little while to get the hang of everything, but once you do there’s no reason why this game can’t bring you hours of exciting gaming. It may not beat the real thing, but it’ll save you some bruises.
The best snowboard game so far? I believe so.