I’ve never been much of a winter sports person. Usually, I get enough chill just from the British weather, and the idea of spending vast amounts of cash to go somewhere even colder to throw myself down a mountain attached at the feet to an expensive piece of carbon-Kevlar doesn’t appeal much. Did I mention the likelihood of broken limbs and even the potential horror of bumping into the Made In Chelsea cast?
Thankfully Electronic Arts have done the hard work for me, and made another installment in their SSX franchise. This time the concept is ‘Deadly Descents’ – our team of intrepid boarders must circumnavigate the globe, jumping out of planes, helicopters, and just generally the sky, to race down death-defying ice canyons, snowy peaks and pine forests laden with felled obstacles.
Along the way you’ll have to beat opponents not only on time, but on style – heavy on the stunts, SSX promises rewards for performing the best mid-air tricks, with exotic names like tailfish and Canadian Bacon. There’s also rails and other scenery to grind as you hurtle towards the finish line, often including buildings, trees, powerlines and basically anything else you can get your board on.
The presentation of SSX is top drawer – the mountains themselves were apparently conceived using NASA geotags, then re-designed for gameplay by the EA team. There’s an excellent level of detailing, each descent feels solid and convincing, and the riders look great.
For a sport where essentially there’s a lot of white space moving at speed, the team have done really well to keep it colourful and stimulating to watch as you hurtle towards the next deadly gorge. Snow spray flies everywhere as your rider throws gravity-defying shapes, the bloody pain edges around the screen if you land badly, and dynamic shadows stretching across the powdery white really suck you into the game.
Plot is dealt out in a series of animated comicbook pages, as you pursue ex-team member Griff around the world, in a bid to get there first and conquer the world’s peaks in the name of the SSX crew. Taking control of several different riders with the usual differences in speed, skill and so on, the real customisation begins when you start to upgrade your board, suit and extras.
Doing well in the races and events awards you experience points to spend on improving your arsenal of expensive snowwear, which quickly becomes more and more essential due to the hardcore nature of many of the courses. When you’re taking on real-life slopes in Antartica, Patagonia, or the fearsome Himalayas, you’ll need armour just to make it down in one piece.
Personally, I found the shopping interface to be a little bit fiddly, but this is really one of my only complaints about the game – and it is circumvented easily enough by using ‘X’ to optimise, which chooses from your wardrobe the most suitable attire and equipment for any given run.
By the time you take on the flying-squirrel-esque wingsuit a few races in you will marvel at the ease with which you glide through the air, probably not until after a few minutes of smashing face-first into the snow as you get used to the controls. The system of control is so well worked though, that it soon becomes second nature and you’ll be swooping and soaring like an eagle on uppers.
The soundtrack to SSX includes a lot of famous names, edging around the cool spectrum via The Big Pink, Run D.M.C, The Qemists and DJ Shadow, which makes for suitable accompaniment to the high-risk antics of your chosen snowboarder. I did try it with the music off however, and found it strangely serene with just the commentary encouraging you to trick harder and more frequently, and the sound of board slicing snow.
If you become proficient enough at pulling off stunts, you can rack up your multiplier until you hit the ‘Tricky’ bar whereupon your character suddenly becomes even more fearless. Handstands while grinding rails at 50 miles an hour suddenly seeming no harder than working out which way to put on your ski goggles. This is where the points start to hit big, and using the supplied code you can go online and compete with people all over the world in speed, score or style to find out who is the real king of SSX.
Replay value is immense, with the ability to go against times and scores enhanced by the usual ghost modes and aforementioned online play. Unlocking smarter suits and boards keeps you on the up, and I have to admit I actually played for so long in my first session I gave myself cramp in my hand, which was rigidly formed into an unnatural claw.
I have to say, for a title about something I have little or no interest in; SSX does a brilliant job of not only bringing the sport itself to life, but crucially making an entertaining and addictive game. The action is fast and frenetic, but not without the use of brain power to decide your route or equipment, and as a whole the balance is pretty much perfect.