PREVIEW: SSX [X360 / PS3]

A little backstory: The original SSX was kind of a big deal for PlayStation gamers back in the days before the PS3. It was – for many – the “Killer App” for the then-new PS2, heralding the next generation of graphics and providing some great gameplay. But then it all went quiet – EA tried valiantly but never seemed quite able to reclaim the lofty peaks reached by the first game.

…and now, it’s been a long time between drinks – and those drinks have changed an awful lot.

So many promised reboots, long-awaited sequels and “spiritual successors” take minor elements of the popular original, discard the rest and wrap the whole thing up in a new shiny exterior designed to appeal to whatever the current trend is.

When EA Canada revealed in 2010 that the team was working on a new SSX, gamers around the world sighed with resignation. The developers were scrapping all of the over-the-top tricks, crazy gravity-defying tracks and the exaggerated atmosphere we’d come to expect from the snowboarding franchise.

What we are getting, however – is more than we’ve ever seen. The game was jaw-dropping simply for its graphical quality, but EA Canada have gone further than simply making it look pretty. The trailer shows two snowboarders taking different paths down a mountain – that’s all in-game. You can pick and choose your own track, with a certain level of open-world-ness thrown in for good measure.

Of course, if you’re taking the path less travelled, chances are you might take the path off of the cliff – EA has you covered there too. By incorporating a Prince of Persia-style rewind feature, simply hit a button and fly through the air to the point just before you took that fateful leap. Of course, you’re not able to use that all the time – where’s the fun in that?

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If your leap of faith is more intentional – but still not headed for a soft landing – there’s another option available to you: A wingsuit, helping you to gently float back to earth. This one’s also handy when there’s a rumbling avalanche on your tail – but you can’t perform tricks while gliding, so use it sparingly.

The tracks themselves – leading to safety or certain doom – have a sense of realism to them, and for good reason. The devs at EA Canada spent time working closely with NASA to gather up satellite terrain imagery of various spots around the world, and then translated those directly into the game.

A few tweaks to make things snowboard-friendly, a jump exaggerated, a line smoothed, and you’ve got one of the most true-to-life snowboarders we’ve seen.

It’s not just one or two of these real-world geomapped tracks either – there are a massive 25 peaks and 100 different routes in-game, with EA promising all of them are more open-ended and realistic (obviously) than anything we’ve seen before.

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Designed over three pillars (it’s all about pillars, these days), SSX is designed around Racing, Tricking and Surviving.

The first one is self-explanatory – get to the bottom, in one piece, quicker than anybody else.

The second is also traditional – tricks are performed with either your face buttons or analogue sticks, while boosts, grinds and other fun stuff are attached to triggers. Successfully landing tricks will fill your Tricky meter – and once that’s full, a whole world of even bigger stunts opens up to you.

The third, however, is new. The all-new survival element is where the avalanches and other disasters come in. These “Deadly Descents” (there are nine in total) are all a bit over-the-top, even if it’s not to the extent we’re used to, and act almost as boss levels to cap off an area within the game.

There’s also a new feature – RiderNet – rather like AutoLog, which includes matchmaking features, organises ghost races and makes sure you know all about global real-time tournaments. Plus it keeps you up-to-date with what your in-game friends are up to, which is always handy.

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On paper, this sounds great. On screen, it’s a slightly different story. Super-impressive graphics and some lofty ambitions are all well and good, but when they’re executed poorly, it’s fair to suggest that perhaps EA Canada should have gone back to the game’s uber-popular roots, simply releasing something in tribute to that, an old-school game with next-gen graphics. Really, that’s what most of us want, right?

SSX is due out next February for both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

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