From the slopes to the air with SSX's wingsuits

Back when the latest SSX was first introduced, players worried that this supposedly "grim, darker" take on the franchise would lose the goofy, colorful elements that made the series so popular. Most of those elements (the over-the-top tricks, the larger-than-life settings, and the extravagantly ramped and rail-equipped levels) have survived just fine according to what we've seen so far, but art director Geoff Coates does say that some of the fun had to go.

"If you look at the character design [in previous versions]," he says, "it's characters that are wearing t-shirts and jeans, and dresses or whatever, and they're being thrown out on these mountains." So it's fair to say that we won't see jean shorts or bikinis on SSX's latest class. "The character design now is taking the characters, retaining their personality, but still giving them that survival aspect. You'll see they have backpacks, they have gear that's a little more appropriate."

"And the wingsuits," Coates continues, "are part of that." Yes, the wingsuits. Oh my, the wingsuits.
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Because here's the thing: When the wingsuits first appeared in screenshots, players were sort of dismayed at the whole thing, as if SSX's core game had been taken over by a Mountain Dew-fueled extreme sport-a-like. But in an early version of the "Survive It" level that introduces the wingsuits to the game, playable at an EA event earlier this week, the wingsuits actually serve as an extension of the SSX gameplay. Yes, they're not as goofy or flashy as the attire from the other versions, but they make even crazier stunts possible, and that's what SSX's real core has always been about.

The wingsuit level (which takes place in the game's version of the mountains of Patagonia) is a "Deadly Descent" level based around the theme of gravity. Each of these "boss" levels in the game has a specific challenge associated with the environment: Antarctica's keyword is "cold," so in that mission, you'll need to stay in the sunlight to keep the race going. In the Himalayas, you face thin "air," so you need to move fast before your oxygen runs out.


In Patagonia, your SSX boarder faces gaps between the mountains. "The whole idea behind it is that you have to clear these massive gaps, gaps that are too big for even an SSX character," says Coates. "We've always had over the top terrain, but these are so big that you need special gear for it. And so we have the wingsuit."

The way it works is that after jumping up in the air with the X button (on the PS3), you can hit it again to pull the cords and open up your wings, moving into a glide. While gliding, you can tilt down or up to dive faster or slower, and left or right to move through the air. The overall feeling is super intuitive, and once you figure it all out, the whole process allows for some really crazy stunts, like flinging yourself up in the air, performing a few tricks on the way up, and then hitting the wingsuit to guide yourself down into the next crevasse, landing the tricks a split second before you fly off of another ramp and do the whole thing again.

When you combine that with a "rewind" feature (used by pressing L1), things get really fun. You can hit the wingsuit too late and fall off the cliff, but hit rewind and you can tweak your last split-second movement, landing it just right instead. Rewind is available throughout most of the game as a limited resource (like boost), but on the wingsuit test level, it was unlimited (though you were penalized for using it at the end of the level). Coates isn't sure just how the mechanic will be used in the final game. "It's something we're still tuning," he says.

The wingsuit isn't the only piece of equipment you'll have access to on SSX's mountains. Not all of the deadly descent levels grant you extra equipment, but some of them do. "We have a darkness Deadly Descent that's going to require a headlamp," says Coates, "and we have an ice Deadly Descent that's going to require ice axes to help you steer and navigate. So by the end of the game, when you've unlocked everything, you'll have all the gear, and using all that gear is going to come in handy when you get close to the end."

That's exciting -- SSX's trick system still works well, and while the UI looks like it's still being iterated on, the "Tricky" mechanic is in there and seems just as addictive as ever on first glance. When you add in the extra gameplay mechanics found in the wingsuit and the other extra equipment to come, it's looking more and more like EA Canada's going to successfully bring back that old SSX fun, and maybe even improve on it some more.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.