Monday, February 27, 2012

30 Minute Playtest: SSX

When we did a 30 Minute Playtest on Just Cause 2, it didn’t seem long enough. When we did one on Quantum Theory it seemed like far, far, far too long. With SSX it’s exactly the right amount of time to assess the game and come to a very neat conclusion: if you like arcade style action sports games in the Skate or Pure mold, then you’ll love this and want more. If you’re not a fan of that type of thing, then half an hour will be quite long enough.

The SSX series has always been popular with critics and, to a lesser extent, fans. The first three instalments raked in praise aplenty, but later versions tended to be greeted with benevolent indulgence rather than out and out praise, which is why the series has been quiet ever since 2007’s Wii edition. This latest version drops the catchy sub-titles and returns to the straightforward name of the first edition, and looks likely to recapture the plaudits as it reuses the name.

It’s a pretty simple concept: take the extreme sports staples of helicopter drops, skyboarding and snowboard racing, throw in stakes-raising avalanches to amp up the drama, then borrow some geographical data from NASA in order to realistically map genuine slopes from around the world.

The combination of real world environments with arcade style action sounds hugely exciting, but in practise you’ll barely notice the effort that’s gone into creating authentic runs for you and your plank, as the speed and exuberance of the tricked out racing tends to create tunnel vision in the player. You could be boarding down a Black Forest Gateaux and you probably wouldn’t notice.

The gameplay follows a common formula: tricks and rail grinds fill your stunt meter, which in turn allows you to go faster and pull off crazier stunts. The control system uses an intuitive system not dissimilar to that seen in Skate: left and right flicks of the left stick make you grab the left or right side of the board, up and down make you grab the front or back. Combinations of the two allow you to play something akin to snowboard Twister: left and up, for example, would make you grab the front of the board with your left hand. The left and right triggers are then used to modify the tricks with spins and leaps and the like.

These controls are put to use in races, free-roaming explorations and points competitions, all taking place in a set of very open environments, all accompanied by the sort vile audio bubblegum associated with extreme sports games (ok, we’ll admit that a couple of tracks are ok, but for the most part this is a game to play with the music volume turned down).

The controls are intuitive, the racing speedy, the drifts convincing and the near misses will have you sucking on your teeth like a nervous plumber. It offers pretty much everything you want from an arcade racer. I have to admit, it’s not entirely my cup of tea, but it’s a tightly assembled game that does everything fans of the genre will ask of it, so we’ll say play on.