Why I love SSX
26th Nov 2011 | 19:30
Forty feet above potential death, wind whipping my face as chunks of ice snap free around me, I find a moment of gorgeous, golden silence. SSX is - despite neon colouration, hyperactive tricks, Escher-esque courses and the constant squawking of both your rider and your DJ - about little pockets of peace.
My happy place is at the very top of SSX 3's Peak Two. Its peaks are hubs, and home to some very different tracks. At the pinnacle of each you find three swathes of 'backcountry' - unstable areas of unpacked snow, untouched by the insane snowscaper that's carved and sculpted the rest of the tracks.
Backcountry courses are studded with sharp rocks and huge drops, plus weak points that trigger avalanches. They're SSX at its most primal and, when navigated properly, offer the biggest adrenaline rewards.
The second peak's summit - 'Ruthless' - is a muted mixture of slate grey and steel blue, at odds with the pastel pinks and luminous greens further down the mountain. Where the lower tracks signpost their twists with colourful chevrons, Ruthless forces riders to rely on instinct.
It opens with a blind leap. There's a ridge of snow ahead, and then... nothing. I launch off and twirl toward the ground. I'm onto the slope proper: terrain at this early stage in the course rarely gets shallower than 45. A minute of slalom moves, picking up speed, and I see a strange expanse. Up ahead the track stops. I crouch, arrange my rider's body with the d-pad, and wind up.
A LIGHTER NOTE
The SSX series is proud of its soundtrack. Tricky sold itself with Run DMC; On Tour raided the punk archives to lend the game a rockier vibe. SSX 3's soundtrack is varied - a spot of hip hop, a dash of electro - but it's a near-constant companion, buzzing away in your ears no matter the situation.
But up at the top of the mountain, I know my speakers are about to go quiet. I launch from the lip of Ruthless' first real jump. The music fades out. I can hear the wind, but I can't see the ground: partly thanks to atmospheric conditions, and partly thanks to the antiquated draw distance. I hang for long seconds, spinning and yanking at various parts of my board, before gravity takes over and I begin my descent to the slope below.
The snow bursts into view - spattered with trees and rough boulders - and I smash into the powder, the reconnection making a hiss so satisfying I carve hard right and chart a new course down a side-track. Just to hear that sound once again.
SSX games can spare these moments of disconnection because the rest of the time is spent in perfect contact with the mountain terrain. The first game in the series understood the relationship between board and snow better than any boarding before it.
Cool Boarders' snow was retextured plastic; Tony Hawk's concrete constantly fought the player, dragging away their speed. SSX's surfaces are by turns slushy, icy, powdery, dense, cloying, and frictionless. Inuits are meant to have thirty-odd words for snow - SSX has thirty different types, and doesn't need words to explain them. It relies on its sensational feel alone.
Skew a jump and leap beyond the boundaries and you plough into snowdrifts. The visual clues are there - your rider heaves himself out and shakes snow from his jacket - but you can feel it in the pad, anyway.
Subtler examples can change the outcome of entire races. SSX Tricky's Alaska stage is a tightly wound snake-run with a line of compacted, icy snow along its centre. Ride that line and you slither ahead, laughing in the face of the gods of friction (George the God of Friction and Carl, the Vice God of Friction). Your board chitters and booms happily as you skitter ever faster across rock-solid ice - knowing you're sliding toward doom.
Try to turn on that ice and those same gods will slap you down. Success relies on deftly skimming between the ribbon of fast ice and the surrounding, corner-carving deep snow. Get it wrong and you rocket off the edge of the track to snap all your limbs at the same time. Not that you'll need an agonising series of surgeries and physiotherapy sessions to get back on track. A key SSX strength came in realising how loosely it could play with reality - it simulates the emotional feeling of snowboarding rather than the physical truth.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in its approach to tricks. The original's spins - wound up before reaching the lip of a jump - defied physics in a way that would make even Einstein clap, but they only got madder from there. To perform one of SSX 3's Ubertricks was to fly up and punch the face of God himself. Introduced in SSX Tricky, Ubertricks are ultra-complicated - riders even take the board off in mid-air to twizzle it around their heads - but surprisingly easy to pull off.
The real test comes in judging when you've got enough hangtime to deploy them, and adjusting your weight mid-air to land cleanly - the speed boost when you pull one makes it worth the risk.
SSX was EA's best fit for their then-new 'BIG' label, and it seems like a damn good fit for 360, too. Yet initial fan reaction to Deadly Descents was bleak - to say the least. The trailer showed a po-faced, pseudo-militaristic reimagining seemingly focused on grit, mortality and look-at-me-I-live-on-the-edge self indulgence.
Where was the original's innovation, Tricky's vibrancy or SSX 3's spark? But I've played those games already. From a new SSX, I only need sensation. Will SSX (now no longer Deadly Descents) give me the tactile clattering of carbon fibre on ice? Will it give me that puff of smoky snow as I carve into a corner? Will it give me those silent, hanging seconds spinning in the sky? If it does, I will love it just the same.