It didn't really seem to me like the world needed another snowboarding game, but now that I've played EA Sports' revival, titled simply SSX, I'm glad that EA brought this franchise back. With high-flying action, completely ridiculous tricks, complex courses to traverse, and some very dangerous slopes that are difficult to merely survive on - much less look good while enduring them - SSX packs in a wide range of fun features to keep you coming back. And by implementing an asynchronous multiplayer mode full of ghost-based replays to go up against, the game supports many hundreds of people competing in the same event - in a way that, while not terribly impressive visually, at least makes it possible on today's console hardware.
SSX revolves around three gameplay modes: Trick It has you trying to maximize your trick score while giving you larger score multipliers for moving quickly down the descent (to discourage people figuring out ways to stay in one area and do tricks endlessly before hitting the finish line), Race it asks you to simply get to the bottom as fast as possible (where successfully landing tricks increases your boost meter), and Survive It puts you on some nasty, difficult descents through low-oxygen environments, avalanches, and worse - and the goal is simply make it to the bottom without crashing into too many trees and obstacles. Each of these modes becomes much more interesting when you stop playing offline and start competing with other people, and it gets even better if people on your friends list are also playing this. You can compete with the whole world, but getting notifications that your old college buddy just decimated your score on a Trick event on Mount Kilamanjaro is good motivation to get back in there and improve even further.
The controls have been re-worked and simplified, where a flick of the right stick or a few face buttons control nearly all of the tricks you'll be doing. But don't think that the simpler control scheme necessarily makes this game easier. Instead, you'll find that the tracks are more dangerous and full of pitfalls - literal pits you fall into in many, many cases - and the only thing that will save you is the Rewind function on L2. Having the ability to rewind your mistakes isn't an automatic "I Win" button, however, as using the Rewind on Trick It courses breaks your combo and actually subtracts points from your score. On the Race It mode, rewinding your mistake doesn't actually turn back the clock - it keeps going forwards, instead - so fiddling around with rewinds merely adds to your final time and gets shown in your saved ghost replay. And on Survive It, you'll have a limited number of Rewinds you can use before you'll just have to disappear into a ravine and be forced to start over entirely.
In Trick It mode, filling up the Tricky meter by getting unbroken strings of impressive moves will change a few things as long as you can keep up the Tricky modifier. Your whole move set changes to make everything flashier and give you even more points, while you can use an unlimited amount of boost to increase speed and get bigger air on your next huge jump. Continue succeeding and you'll go into a golden Tricky mode, which tweaks your moves even further and adds even bigger points to your total. While you don't actually need an unbroken combo to enable Tricky, doing so does get more points, and you can maintain a huge combo with "manual"-style carving moves between jumps. On top of this, there are plenty of rails and other natural features you can grind on for some really showy combos.
In Race It mode, you hold the right trigger to use boost, and that's fueled from your trick meter. If you can get into Tricky mode and stay in it, you'll have unlimited boost, so that means you're best off doing just enough tricks to enable that and then maintain that while finding the fastest route. And these descents have plenty of tunnels, ramps, rails, and ravines to make finding the fastest routes quite a challenge, and I've seen top players streaming the game over on Twitch making a lot of progress on finding continually faster ways down each mountain.
Survive It events are probably my least favorite, but at least in the online modes, they're tweaked so as to still give players a way to compete even if they survive the discent. When doing these in the online-connected mode, surviving a full run down the mountain resets you back to the top with whatever suit armor and health you had left, asking you to take another run at it and add to your total meters survived. Whoever gets the largest total of meters dropped before eating a tree or disappearing down a hole is the winner.
Throughout these modes, you'll be getting your hands on gear, like armor to help you survive the dangerous slopes, ice axes to turn more easily, a wingsuit for crossing large gaps, and an O2 mask for the very high-up descents. Throughout events, you'll be amassing level ranks along with credits with which to buy gear, and the boards and other items adjust your stats. You'll eventually wind up with sets of gear that are better specialized for races, trick events, and survival slopes, and if you want better gear and don't have the in-game cash, you can put down real money (as Microsoft Points) to get in-game credits. No, I'm not a fan of this kind of feature, and I've no idea how this is accepted practice in a full-priced AAA game when, as a community, we've made it clear that even free-to-play games shouldn't allow people to buy their way into better gear or other gameplay advantages.
Despite that issue, SSX is a blast to play. The developers have ensured that throughout nearly every event, you'll find good reason to bust out at least a few solid tricks, as even when you don't need the trick points, accumulating and unleashing boost at the right time can get you access to routes that make non-Trick-related modes easier or faster. You've got a pretty wild range of tricks, and while at first you might find yourself just holding a direction to get out a few spins or flips and mashing out a bunch of random tricks on the buttons or right stick, getting to the top of the leaderboards is going to require a much more controlled execution. Little tweaks like being able to shift your weight before a jump to get more flips out before the landing add depth for the higher-end players.
Until this point, this sounds like any other goofy game with online modes, but there's one big difference here. Most games will just let you languish there, stuck at worldwide leaderboard position number 10,356 on any given mountain, and you won't feel like any progress is worth anything unless you're at the very, very top of the ladder. To alleviate this issue and make even decent players feel like they're more competitive, SSX runs timed events with particular challenges that last days or sometimes just hours, and at any time there's always events like this running - even in the middle of the night. Entering these events puts you into a pool only with the people who also run the event during that period, and you may actually see live players on the snow with you, but you don't collide with them or interact in any real way. They're kind of like live ghosts, and in subsequent runs on that same event, you might see that same run they did down the slope again in ghost form.
With that comes the disappointing news that SSX doesn't have any true simultaneous multiplayer. Over in the single player modes you'll be able to go up against AI opponents that you can actually crash into, and I do feel like it's a bit of a disappointment seeing that in single player but not in the online play at all. You can still spend nearly all of your in-game time online and it works very well, but it's all based on EA's very slick system that brings in elements of Need for Speed's Autolog along with the aforementioned constantly-running events. There's no split-screen or direct multiplayer at all - online or off - so if you want any of that, you'll have to go back to one of many of yesteryear's extreme sports games.
I could go on and talk about the on-the-fly soundtrack remixing for either the game's tracks or your own (all in time to the on-screen action), the intuitive way letting go of all controls a second before landing will auto-right your snowboarder to avoid bailing, or the overall fluidity of the downhill snowboarding that rivals the old days of the original three Tony Hawk games, but I think you get the picture. EA has put together a great effort in this revival of SSX, one that's not only worthy of the name but also brings the game to new heights (literally and figuratively) in quite a few ways. The lack of direct online multiplayer is a disappointment, but the evolution of everything EA's developers have learned in the realm of leaderboards and asynchronous connectivity makes for a very different and exciting online mode. SSX doesn't bring back everything that made the original games great, but it forges out on its own with excellent snowboarding mechanics and amazing online functionality, and that's more than enough to make this game a must-have for fans of the series.
Disclosure: Reviewed on a retail Xbox 360 copy of the game, provided to us by EA.