She'll be falling down the mountain...
Despite having reviewed a ton of snowboarding games, I still can't snowboard. I can fall down really well and am something of an expert on shattering certain small bones, but if the definition of snowboarding includes standing up for longer than 10 seconds, then my likeness will never appear in the dictionary.
But I kick ass at snowboarding video games, and few let you kick as much ass as SSX 3. The game is based on its two excellent predecessors, but is also completely redesigned, adding in a fantastic new mode, new moves and updating the graphics to near ludicrous levels of cool. And most importantly, even those of us with the snowboarding skills of a blind, one-legged pigeon can rule the virtual mountain without hurting anything more than our thumbs.
For the most part, the game plays like the other SSX titles. Tricking is handled with the shoulder buttons and works as well as ever, which in turn fills up the boost meter to increase speed and eventually leads to big Uber tricks. Now, however, there are three levels of Ubers, the last one resulting in the biggest tricks and unlimited boost for a while. Much of the gameplay lies in you deciding how and when to use your boost.
The other key gameplay concern is keeping yourself in line for jumps and staying on your board. The former is handled better than before by giving you two control types: a Pro setting which is just like the lock-on from the other games and a new default that dumps rotation over on the D-Pad. While it sounds ungainly, it works wonders. You rarely get into the snafu of lining up a trick, unable to move while heading towards a wall. It was a great move by EA to fix this small but noticeable issue.
SSX 3 also adds the ability to do a nose press, which functions much like a manual in the Tony Hawkgames and is primarily used to link tricks for big combo points. It's pretty easy to use and its only major drawback is that it messes up your turning a little. Once you figure it out and start linking tricks, your scores move into the stratosphere. You can also pull off handplants, but these aren't particularly useful. LikeSSX Tricky, the PS2 control edges out the Xbox and Gamecube due to the easier-to-reach four shoulder buttons.
If pleasant kudos should be given to the control tweaks, then EA Big should get dinner and a movie for changing the ubiquitous set up of snowboarding games. You can partake in standard single Race or Freestyle events, but you probably won't. In these games you usually go from track to disjointed track, seemingly unaware that in reality, these things are built into mountains.
Succinctly put, SSX 3 gives you a mountain. Three, actually, all connected and fully stocked from breathtaking start to glorious finish.
To be fair, this isn't totally unheard of, as THQ gave it to us in Dark Summit. However, THQ also gave us crummy control and a retarded story and the continuous mountain format was lost in the snow. Here, it's the basis behind the innovative, preposterously fun new Conquer the Mountain mode.
Instead of just tackling a bunch of set tracks, you take one of thegame's riders to the three peaks. You do not create your own boarder, an omission that is a little annoying and forces you to deal with the smartass personalities of the "extreme" characters. It's forgivable, but hurts. At least they allow you to build up character stats and buy plenty of new gear, though that's entirely cosmetic.
Each of the three peaks has a number of races to complete and goals to accomplish; meet a certain requirement on one and you'll open up the next peak. But the three are actually connected, so that eventually you'll have the chance to race from the top of the highest peak down to the very bottom of the first one, a task that will take " and I'm not exaggerating " a full half-hour of uninterrupted snowboarding gameplay.
Before you meet that staggering race, you'll enjoy some of the best level design in any game on the planet. The drops are huge, the jumps enormous and the plummet at times nearly vertical. The sensation of speed is palpable and exhilarating; there's nothing quite like launching yourself into the air for what seems like 10 seconds while the ground is rushing up at you. This game will literally make you gasp.
The races include Big Air, Half-Pipes and standard Slopestyle timed courses, but linking them all together is tons of "back country' overflowing with cleverly hidden jumps and shortcuts. It's like you're in the middle of nowhere for a while, just cutting up a mountain alone, until you eventually reach one of the race areas and start to see rails and signs of life.
When it all works together, especially during the massive downhill races from a peak to a bottom, SSX 3 is video game synergy at its finest. This is in many ways thanks to the great streaming technology that allows the game to preload the entire mountain so that you can burn down it without any loading times (specific races will load up, however).
Part of the reason it gets away with this is that you only see other boarders during the races. The mountain is entirely devoid of life, and then you start a race, and suddenly there are a bunch of other guys around you. It would have been much, much better had there been random boarders, skiers or really any life at all on the mountain. At times, you get a little, uh, lonely.
One solution is to hop out of Conquer the Mountain and try some split-screen multiplayer, which works well enough, but another option (for PS2 owners only) is to go online. Unfortunately, you can only play against one other person and it's pretty much just a straightforward Freestyle or Race event. Stats are recorded and you can use your beefed out Mountain mode character, however, so there's at least some incentive. The game also supports voice chat if you have a USB or SOCOM headset.
But while once again the Xbox and Gamecube get the online shaft from EA, both of those versions look a little better than the PS2. Which isn't to say the PS2 looks shabby; in fact, SSX 3 looks outstanding on all three platforms. The snow effects are unrivaled, the framerate is consistently high and the colors are vibrant. Add to that great animations (particularly during tricks) and an intense sense of speed, and you wind up with one of those rare games that can be as much fun to watch as to play, provided you have some "party favors' for the watchers.
It also sounds terrific, thanks to a good, varied soundtrack and great effects. Tying it together is the EA Big Radio station, which advances the thin story of you becoming a hotshot and gives witty, fun updates on the track conditions and how things are going on the circuit.
And if you ask me, things are going just peachy for EA Big's star pupil. SSX 3 is the best in the series so far and is an easy recommendation for vets and newbies alike. Though the gameplay is still mostly the same as it ever was, the awesome new mode and fantastic delivery crown a new king of the mountain.