E3 2011: SSX hands-on preview – Don’t worry, this is still the SSX you love

We’ll admit publisher EA’s first footage from the SSX reboot scared the hell out of us. It’s not that we’re intensely opposed to revision and reinvention; we’re reasonable folks, after all. But the grim, almost military-themed tone really threw us for a loop. Seeing and playing the game for ourselves at E3, though, it’s hard to know where any of that even came from. SSX may lack much of the artificial neon glow that defined earlier entries, but once you vault off a powder-coated cliff and start cranking out sickening rotations, it’s like immediately snapping back into a comfort zone with an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Like, your best friend.

SSX certainly appeals to our nostalgic love for the genre-defining last-gen entries, but it’s also very much a modern reinvention. These aren’t just impressive-looking courses: they’re real-life mountains from around the world created from NASA topography maps and accessed from a menu screen globe constructed using Google Earth. But while that sense of realism is really something else, the team has made alterations where needed or desired to deliver a truly amped-up experience – for example, one mountain range in China includes parts of the Great Wall spliced into perfectly grindable chunks.

Otherwise, though, the more contrived and limiting elements of typical snowboarding game mountains are largely excised here. Consider this “SSX Au Naturale” – it’s the fun you’ve come to expect from the series mixed with a less outlandish aesthetic. And that’s fine with us. SSX isn’t all white-bread realism, though; for example, when you trigger the familiar Tricky score boost and come back to Earth following an epic mid-air explosions of spins and flailing limbs, the impact will quite visibly reverberate in front of you in the form of a massive, moving vibration line. It’s pretty intense.

Slamming down onto the snow from a few hundred feet in the air might not always be the best idea, though, thanks to a realistic avalanche effect that takes your impact and the area design into effect when triggering the terrifying hazard. No two avalanches are supposedly the same, though you can lessen the chances of triggering one after a huge jump by spreading your arms and using your wingsuit to glide effortlessly through the air before plopping back down on the powder.

SSX’s tag line is “Race it, trick it, survive it,” and we learned a bit more about all three play modes in our E3 demo. Races are pretty straightforward on the surface, but the participants will not always start from the exact same spot – we actually saw a track in which players began at different points on a spiraling drop, giving you a little starting wiggle room before everyone converges at roughly the same place. Meanwhile, the trick stages (which we tried) let you whip out a wide number of elaborate tricks using either the right analog stick or buttons, and both control options are live at all times. Even with the more realistic visual approach, notching several complete rotations while pulling off elaborate grabs and making a sweet landing still packs a hell of a punch.

It’s the last event type that’s the most significant deviation from the traditional SSX approach, and it’s one that still holds a lot of questions based on the little bit we saw. Several survival stages are included – they’re almost like boss fights against the mountain – and the one we witnessed switched the camera to an overhead, back-facing perspective that spotlighted both the rider and flood of snow, with large glowing numbers painted on the snow indicating how much further you’d need to ride to safely complete the stage. We’re not sure if that viewpoint will be carried over to the final release, but it seemed like a tense and trying diversion that’ll shake things up between more common events.

If this preview seems a bit giddily positive, that’s because we’re pretty hugely excited for SSX after playing the demo and hearing much more about the game, especially following all the great work EA Canada put into redefining the skateboarding genre with Skate. SSX is a very different beast, no doubt, but that same level of care and attention already seems present in this ‘boarding reboot, and we’re looking forward to getting an even bigger-picture look at what this January 2012 release has in store.

Jun 14, 2011

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