Game Preview: SSX

Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Style: 1-Player Sports (Multiplayer TBA)

Publisher: EA Sports

Developer: EA Canada

Release: Feb. 14

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My love of the "SSX" series extends back to the original entry. I had no interest in snowboarding, but as the first person in my group of friends to own a PlayStation 2, I picked up "SSX." I didn't realize this innocent purchase would lead to a years-long habit of spending a healthy amount of time with my friends playing the most recent "SSX" iteration almost every weekend for the next four years.

The journey of falling in love with "SSX" wasn't much different for Todd Batty, the creative director in charge of the long-needed series revival. "I remember going to parties, and 'SSX' and 'Tony Hawk' were the two games people would be playing," Batty says. "I would watch them playing and say, 'They're great! I need to be able to do that!' There haven't been many games like that in this generation of consoles."

As Batty sees it, the dawn of online gaming on consoles changed everything, and that's the reason the "SSX" series has been dormant for so long. "It certainly hasn't been for lack of wanting to bring it back," he says. EA needed to figure out how to make this series relevant in a digital age where gamers are more concerned about social networking than crowding around a TV in a friend's basement.

EA Canada knew it needed to bring some massive changes to make "SSX" a hit again. The reboot began with Mountain Man, a proprietary program that helps quickly build level layouts based on NASA data of real mountain ranges around the world. "We came up with a way where we could build a really big game on a relatively limited budget," Batty says. He sees this process a?" "coming up with new ways to create big games at more affordable prices" a?" as something that will be a necessity of making games in the future, and "SSX" is his proof of concept.

Once EA Canada began pulling in the NASA data, it created a physics system similar to previous "SSX" games. Early tests revealed a problem, though. "In our game, we don't have fences that prevent you from riding up side walls, and we don't have rocks or trees that prevent you from exploring parts of the core geometry of mountains," Batty says. "There were missing things in the original physics system, and we realized we could let players do some really cool stuff if we just let them ride up walls."

To allow for these changes, EA tweaked the "SSX" physics in a way that Batty says is "hard to quantify or explain until you get your hands on a controller." Basically, the new system allows players to easily ride up and trick off of any piece of debris or bump in the terrain. You'll no longer be stuck saving up your tricks for the big air provided by ramps alone.

One change that EA Canada won't be bringing to the traditionally over-the-top series is realism, despite the gritty announcement trailer from late 2010. Batty knows that some fans watched that trailer and expected the new game to be more in the style of EA's "Skate" series, but he doesn't believe that's the right direction: "I think 'Skate' is a fantastic game, and they did great things, but for myself, playing 'Skate' a?" I've never been a skateboarder. I don't know who the famous skateboarders are. I don't actually know the names of all the real life tricks, so I don't know what makes one of them cooler than another one."

The "SSX" team isn't interested in tackling these problems, and Batty believes that fans would be disappointed if they tried. "'SSX' has never been that way in any way, shape, or form in the past," he says.

Since the developer isn't worried about making things realistic, it's bumped up the RPG-lite aspects thanks to a simple leveling up system and thousands of pieces of gear. Characters level up individually, but rather than having their own stats that improve, levels allow access to new tiers of gear that have stats attached to them. Characters have a level cap of 10 at launch, but EA Canada may boost the cap via DLC or patches later.

Gear ranges from snowboards a?" over 700, many of which feature community-created art a?" to boosts, which are tiny mods that act like perks, giving slight bumps to speed, spins, or other abilities. Some tracks require specific gear. For example, an area with thin air might require that a character equip an oxygen tank, while an area with dangerous big jumps could task you with using the game's new wingsuit. Gear is limited by level in online events, so although you may be level 10, you might be asked to pick out level 3 gear.

Speaking of online, even when players are away from their consoles they can still stay abreast of community happenings. "We are planning to build an iPhone app that communicates directly with the game," he says, hesitating briefly to caution that the app isn't officially up and running yet. When it is, though, this add-on will provide constant access to in-game information, such as your records on each of the game's 150-plus drop points, whether or not friends have beaten you recently, and whether you've made any money from friends' attempts to beat you while offline.

With all of the changes to "SSX" related to online and the game's physics, EA Canada still wants to prove to long-time fans that they have a grasp on the style and tone that helped make the series so popular. As such, they've licensed a remix of the iconic Run-DMC song "It's Tricky" by popular DJ Pretty Lights. In addition to this franchise classic, "SSX" now gives players the ability to port custom music. You can play your own tracks via your 360 or PS3's hard drive, and as you make big jumps, the music fades out and come crashing back in. As you grind rails, the music skips and scratches just like the official licensed songs.

Everything that I've seen, heard about, and played of "SSX" so far makes me think this is the revival I've been wanting for years. Batty and team believe so as well. "We certainly hope that it's the beginning of the franchise being back again," Batty says. "We're hoping we can keep working on 'SSX' for quite some time." Batty says the future of the series could be DLC-focused, with new tracks and mountains, or they could do an "SSX" Tricky-style version 1.5 depending on how players react. Either way, the sun is finally rising over this long-dormant mountain, and the future looks bright.

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