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SSX review: The odd couple


Much like one of my favorite games of 2011, Saints Row: The Third, the franchise reboot of SSX kicks off with a leap out of an airplane. And as in Saints Row, the section of Twilight Zone-esque endless sky serves as a tutorial to a variety of gameplay mechanics. When complete, you deploy a damn wingsuit and fly off, presumably to do something else equally awesome.

Soon after, you're quickly mastering one of three control variants (or all three), before jumping directly in to the world of mountains and snow and, uh, wingsuits (did I mention there are wingsuits?). I was doing 1080 Switch Tailgrabs in under five minutes!

But before I go on, let me first take you back to SSX's original name -- SSX: Deadly Descents. Aside from sounding like a brand of violent deodorant, that subtitle is a nod to the nine major mountain ranges featured in SSX, each with its own "Deadly Descent" (essentially a boss battle, but, ya know, on a snowboard). They are supposed to punctuate a particular gameplay hook for each range of mountains. And they almost ruin the game.

Gallery: SSX (2/28/12) | 9 Photos

That "almost" is extra important, though, because SSX, at its ice cold, xtreme-flavored snowboarding core, is excellent. Easy to learn without any instruction, SSX's controls are nuanced and eventually demand competence. The sloppiness that I got away with when I began gave way to more deliberate maneuvers, and then mastery. Through a combination of retrying levels and using the built-in rewind button (points and time are penalized, but it's enormously helpful), I learned how best to finesse my way across all manner of terrain, not to mention through the air.

That mastery, unfortunately, means diddly-squat at several unannounced points in the main campaign. Between AI that never misses a jump and courses that sporadically fall apart in massive chunks, SSX plays downright cheaply from time to time. The fun of mastering every turn and figuring out the best line down a mountain for maximum points is eroded when levels are pitch black and littered with sheer dropoffs. The nine major drops are especially frustrating, requiring repeated, agonizing playthroughs to pass and rarely bringing any fun at all to the experience. The developers seem to know how frustrating it can be, offering a chance for you to skip the level and progress after several consecutive deaths (yes, even the nine "Deadly Descents").

Thankfully, other systems assisted in rewarding my continued focus on becoming a better player. Bringing in big points from tricks mean speed boosts for racing, and speed boosts mean bigger jumps for trick levels. The focus is always on the snowboarding, thankfully, despite the occasional gimmick (I'll get to those soon).

Being able to equip Team SSX members with new types of boards, suits, mods (essentially buffs), and "equipment" serves as another effective carrot, and an in-game currency system (which can be bought into with real world dollars, should you so choose) permeates every aspect of the game. Though the customization system feels awfully underused in the main campaign, it shines in the "online" aspect of SSX.

You can level up and equip individuals with a variety of speed, trick, boost, armor, and gliding bonuses, not to mention spiffy new boards and equipment (wingsuits, armor, ice picks, etc.). In the main campaign, the storefront for new stuff tended to be full of less useful junk than what I had equipped, though my experience online has been markedly different. "Rare" items abound, and I'm often making sure my character is optimized before heading into online snowboard warfare.

Rather than offering a straight head-to-head online mode, SSX has an elaborate social network system for tracking your data against friends, as well as global leaderboards and ongoing global challenge events (see: NFS: Hot Pursuit's Autolog). There's even a neat persistent aspect thanks to "geotags," which essentially accrue in-game credits (up to a point) while waiting to be found by other online competitors. If it's never found, well, you're probably pretty good at hiding things.

You don't create a character in SSX, but you can choose one of several aggressively awful characterizations. You've got too-cool-for-school surfer dude, the supermodel by day/extreme sports enthusiast by night, and the tasteless depiction of a black "outlaw" -- each is more ridiculous than the last. I've embedded Zoe's below for an example. If you don't get wahjah from watching it, you're a much stronger person than I am.

Worse than all the character profiles and mini-comics that are shown for every other character is the single, bizarre antagonist, "Griff Simmons." As he's the lone bad dude in this world of rogue extreme sportsters, his characterization is -- and I shit you not -- "the enemy." He's been alone his whole life, and it's shaped him into the man he is today! Oh my! I would legitimately pay two SSXes worth of cash to see a dramatic reading of Mr. Simmons' comic strip, preferably by a writer from EA Canada who worked on SSX. I want to see the shame in their eyes. I need to see it, to feel okay about people again. Thankfully, like all the other story-based moments in SSX, this can be skipped. And you should skip it. You should always skip it. This is not a joke.

When SSX wasn't trying its best to push me away, I loved every minute of it. From a mechanical perspective, it's the best treatment the "extreme sports" genre has received on the current generation of systems thus far. Unfortunately, it's wrapped in a dirty old program from X-Games '98 and punctuated with frustrating moments. With such a great base, I'm hoping the next SSX is everything this one could have been.

This review is based on a retail copy of SSX for Xbox 360, provided by EA.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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