There has been plenty of buzz growing around the impending release of SSX, with a sizable fan base and a snowboarding genre that all but withered on the vine years ago. After getting off to a rocky start, the developers quickly showed how committed they were to the series' roots and have now released a chance for players to see the result themselves. The demo is available for PSN and Xbox Live now, and shows just how much potential can be contained in a globe's worth of mountains.
The pitch of SSX has been fairly clear to this point: have the opportunity to explore the world's mountain ranges, and compete against your friends - and the clock - to prove your abilities on a board. Given that premise, it's a bit disappointing that very little of the game's playable areas - not to mention that intriguing soundtrack - is made available. But this is a demo, after all.
As a result the best thing this playable demo can do is show fans and interested gamers how the flow of a run will feel, and how the mechanics built for the game's trick system function in real time. For those who had hoped - or worried - that the recent shift towards simulation that EA Sports has been exhibiting was not a factor in bringing the SSX brand onto this generation of consoles. The skateboarding game-changer that was skate. may have been a chance for EA to take a similar genre and inject technical mastery and multiplayer functionality, but the same approach has clearly not been taken here.
With tricks simplified into one of three basic button combinations (each corresponding to a grab of the front or either side of the board) even those completely unfamiliar with snowboarding will be able to grasp the fundamentals. From there the addition of tweaks, flourishes, and increased style when tricks are triggered during key moments of a run only expands on the choices players are faced with. The tutorial itself is fairly inspired and well-paced, and even those players who may be intimidated by a franchise as established as SSX shouldn't hesitate to try it out for themselves.
Having an expansive range of flips and grabs at their disposal is nothing new to fans of the series, but the number of player choices at any one moment are what impress most in the demo. And we're not just talking about the reality-defying ubers that are in store for fans. The 'It's Tricky' trailer showed the zaniness that results when the SSX attitude is combined with massively expanded slopes and race lines, and the demo delivers on that promise. The ride areas may be contained for obvious reasons, but when a player is making their own way along tree trunks, ridges, frozen gullies and jumps, there really is the sense that they are crafting a truly unique experience.
Changes have certainly been made over the course of the game's development, specifically since reviewers and press have gotten their hands on it. The overly-used terrain-deformation that signaled a perfectly stuck landing while tricking has been minimized, and while the team's decision is understandable, it does take something away from the feeling of a truly rewarding combo. Hopefully when more of the game is shown - and more of the soundtrack heard - we'll see more ways to make the player feel like they're on a roll.
The heart of SSX isn't in creating a spectacular run to be enjoyed in isolation, and the development team at EA Sports clearly knows how much satisfaction comes from one-upping friends and enemies alike. The tricks and mechanics are clear from the outset, but the multiplayer integration that is shown and hinted at may be the most promising aspect of the demo. The earlier-detailed GeoTags and Global Events seemed to be a promising incarnation of most multiplayer arenas available, but the real thing is far more enticing.
Rather than populating any given run with AI opponents that will stick to a handful of predetermined routes, the developers have decided to challenge the player on a far more personal level. Races won't be held against a random computer, but the best three times that the developers themselves could deliver, with their runs recreated each and every time the player attempts the race. In case that wasn't enough, players won't be going head-to-head with AI routines in SSX's 'Trick It' events, but ghosts of the best runs that their online friends could achieve.
The challenge of defeating one's own friends list is a major motivator, but actually seeing so many different runs play out without a system link or agreed-upon multiplayer session could be something very special. This ability to play against several friends at the player's own convenience - not even including the persistent online tournaments and challenges - promises to redefine multiplayer gaming, provided the potential is met.
While SSX may not completely reinvent the wheel and revolutionize every aspect of the series for the better, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The mechanics on which tricks, slides and spins are built have lasted for a reason, even if they might disappoint fans hoping for a ground-up reboot. But the combination of abilities bestowed upon the player means that at any moment, there is something exciting and interesting for the player to challenge themselves with. When bragging rights at school or work are on the line, you can bet that players will be motivated to challenge themselves at every turn.
The Mountain Man technology behind the game's environments are unfortunately not showcased to the extent we had hoped at this point, but will likely shine in the game's more treacherous mountain ranges and 'Survive It' game modes. If nothing else, the SSX demo proves that despite the improved hardware and computing power behind the scenes, this franchise hasn't lost touch with the fun and creativity that made it successful.
It goes without saying that this is a far from complete view of what the game has in store, and hopefully the full soundtrack-adaptation system and more astounding mountain ranges will raise the bar. For now the game seems to be a bigger, better and prettier incarnation of the same basic mechanics that defined the snowboarding genre. The multiplayer integration is the most promising use of online functionality we've seen in some time, not to mention one of the best implementations of EA's Online Pass. Hopefully the singleplayer campaigns will innovate in similar ways in the full game, but so far our naming of SSX as one of our most anticipated games of 2012 seems justified.
If you're still on the fence, be sure to check out the SSX Demo trailer to see the modes and gameplay for yourself, and be sure to let us know what you think of the demo in the comments.
The playable demo of SSX is available now on Xbox Live and PSN. The full game will be released for the Xbox 360 and PS3 on February 28, 2012.
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