Wednesday, March 21, 2012

REVIEW - SSX.


There is beauty, here.

Not necessarily in the graphics, which are capable - neither disappointing nor particularly impressive.  Not in many of the current-gen tweaks to the twelve-year-old franchise, which are a boon here and a frustration there.

No, SSX finds its own rewarding, elegant beauty in the same place it always has - the gameplay.  While it's thrilling to watch your rider rocket down a mountain so fast everything becomes a blur, and lovely to see them soar through a ridiculous amount of air time while pirouetting atop their board in impossible displays of awesome, that's not, precisely, what makes SSX feel special.

What makes SSX feel special is the sensation the franchise has always laid claim to; it asks you to perform ridiculous feats of speed, reaction and spectacle, and provides controls that become so natural and are so sharply responsive that you feel a complete sense of ownership of your actions.

So much, here, is prescribed and preordained by the developers that it seems strange that the word that keeps on popping into my head as I play is "expressive."  While it's true that SSX often requires you to paint within the lines, the brushes it offers are beautifully refined.


The most successful addition to the series is its passive method of addressing multiplayer.  There are two  avenues to competition - Explore and Global Events.

Explore allows you to lay down your best performance on one of over a hundred and fifty races, trick challenges or 'Deadly Descents'.  If you achieve a time or score that outstrips someone on your friends list - specifically, the score closest to their own, but better - you and your run will appear on their system as a Rival Challenge.

When they hop into their game and take up the gauntlet you've thrown down, they're met by the ghost of your performance, which offers both a taunting carrot to pursue and an education in the finer points of play.  I never would have laid down a diamond run on Mt. Fuji, were I not chasing my brother's ghost and discovering the lines he used to claim such impressive times.

Global Events offer a similar experience - you pay a few hundred/thousand/million points for the honor to compete against dozens, hundreds or thousands of other players worldwide (there's a trophy for participating in an event with 50,000 other players). The better bracket your run lands you in, the bigger the payout - with some events offering ridiculous sums in exchange for displays of ridiculous skill.


This system is utterly brilliant.

In one fell swoop it eliminates all the evils which standard multiplayer is heir to. There are no lobbies to negotiate.  There is never a question of how to invite a friend into your game - they may not have played since last week, but their ghosts remain in SSX's cloud server, waiting to be challenged.  There is no such thing as griefing, there is never a wait for a match to start - there is only you, the mountain, and the friend you're desperate to take down.

As your RiderNet wall constantly fills up with updates of your friends' exploits, SSX's system simultaneously champions the social factor and persistently encourages the player to push their trick score just a little higher, or to discover the line that allows them to shave a tenth of a second off their friend's exceptional race time.

It provides a constant, effortless connection to your friends list and a far better education in the methods and madness of the game than its middling "story mode," which ostensibly acts as a nine-hour tutorial, but is more often than not a tedious exercise compared to what comes after.


As you trudge through the game's campaign, which sees you visiting each of the title's nine ranges and taste-testing that region's style, you are locked in to what the game sees fit to provide.  It chooses the rider you'll use, and offers almost no customization options.  

The difference between the campaign and Explore mode is so pronounced, I have to think the campaign's horribly restrictive feel is intentional.  The game, at first, pins your arms to your side and pushes you through its linear tunnel of introduced mechanics and its 'Deadly Descents' - which are more often than not trial-and-error exercises in patience and frustration, as it shoehorns unnecessary mechanics and twists into a game that requires none.

It's so suffocatingly constrained that when you finally break free of its chains and crash your way through the doors of Explore mode, it's like walking from a sweltering, sardine-can-packed house party into the crisp air outside and taking a deep, pure breath.

Compared to what comes before, Explore mode is what it sounds like when doves cry.


It is, I feel, wise that EA pushed Deadly Descents from the game's title to the background, as it is the least endearing addition to the franchise - and a double-edged blade.

On the one hand, an addition of (some) realism and a hint of danger casts a different light on the spectacular actions of your rider, making their seemingly effortless navigation of the game's harsh environments even more impressive, and thrilling.  On the other hand, the reason bottomless pits have been largely absent from game design since the turn of the century is because falling down them is never fun, and totally frustrating when you're one-fifth of a second from beating your friend's time on a race.

While the game's Deadly Descent challenges are totally optional once you leave the campaign, track design retains their unfortunate additions, and somewhat damages the fun factor.  A rewind function is provided to extract yourself from pits and pratfalls and put you back on track - and it's wise that this feature provides absolutely no benefit in competitive play - but its inclusion would never have been necessary if a game whose principle pursuit is fun hadn't seen fit to include its flow-breaking, 'deadly' design.

I've little doubt there are folks who adore the game's gimmicky spin on what was once a cartoony, tongue-in-cheek extreme sports affair - but I'm not one of them.


While not every addition here is a success, SSX retains the lightning-fast, supremely tactile and satisfying gameplay that allowed the franchise to survive over a decade in gaming.  Performing a spinning leap from one side of a natural half-pipe to touch perfectly down on the other, nailing a perfect line on a race or beating a friend's score by a few million on a trick challenge is as delicious as it was in 2001, and - just as important - the game is instantly recognizable to veterans who've loved it since the beginning.

It's challenging in the good way - offering accessible fun for the un-ordained and the infinitely expanding challenge that only well-realized competition (or Dark Souls) can provide, constantly providing new insight into its systems and rewarding an investment of time with huge returns on ability.

The graphics may be nothing to write home about, but the game's engine never falters as a blizzard of trees go whipping by or you rocket into empty space over a far-flung horizon.  It's got a well-chosen soundtrack, brilliant online functionality and - when all is said and done - it's SSX in high definition.

That, all by itself, is a beautiful thing.


THE GOOD
  • it feels like SSX
  • a wonderful sense of speed and soaring freedom
  • supremely sharp, refined, responsive controls
  • RiderNet is brilliant - it eliminates the worst of online play while bringing its benefits to bear in a supremely elegant multiplayer system
  • an almost ridiculous amount of content, with over 170 events to master
  • the freedom of Explore mode is like feeling the Sun on your face - particularly after the constrictive campaign 
  • a great, if somewhat limited, soundtrack
  • the game's 'deadly' additions provide a cool spin on the classic, cartoony SSX formula, making your actions feel more impressive and thrilling with their new real-world context
  • the gameplay is accessible without sacrificing challenge for the 'hardcore'
  • Kaori's back!  Yay!
  • the engine never suffers slowdown
  • custom playlists - nice
  • in Explore mode, you may buy 'mods' which will improve your rider's speed, trickiness, et cetera, which last until you leave the event - you can re-try a race fifty times, if you like - and that investment drives you to utterly master the track and lay down the best time or score possible before moving on
  • I love the shockwave that pulses out from your impact point when you land a particularly impressive trick, which ripples through the very fabric of the environment.  It's supercool.
  • "expressive"

THE BAD
  • I hate the Deadly Descents
  • the soundtrack is a bit limited
  • the game's campaign, which serves as a tedious tutorial for the intricacies of its mechanics, is practically torture compared to what comes after
  • When did bottomless pits become fun again? (Checks watch) ohhh that's right - never.

THE VERDICT
A sharply-constructed explosion of high-flying, lightning-fast fun - with a bare minimum of missed steps. 

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