A black diamond game.
Compared to the number of people who have ever actually snowboarded, it's amazing how many games there are based on the sport. The Saturn had Steep Slope Sliders. The Dreamcast has Rippin' Riders. The N64 produced the excellent 1080 Snowboarding. The PSX has about 10, including year after year of Cool Boarders.
So it comes as little surprise that a snowboarding game is among the throngs of PS2 launch titles. What is surprising, however, is that this is not only the best one yet, but that it's actually one of the best games so far released for the fledgling system.
SSX is, at its core, just a dolled up snowboard game. You pick a boarder, pick a game mode, and haul ass down some enormous mountains. And that's the gist of it. But if the devil is in the details, he's up to some heavenly stuff.
The highlight of the game is the huge, sprawling, futuristic tracks. At first only two are available, but as you progress, you'll open up more. The creative juices were certainly flowing when the developers brainstormed the track design, as each one is filled to the brim with jumps, banks, and hordes of shortcuts. You'll barrel down a course built into a futuristic city, complete with jumps over freeways. You'll carve through an iceberg being towed into port. You'll even bounce your way down the Tokyo Megaplex, a giant pinball table. Try that on for size, Tommy.
Plus, these tracks are long. Some take over 5 full minutes to complete, and since it's a mountain, we're not talking about laps (duh.) And since you aren't restricted to the track itself at all, you'll play 'em over and over again before you've even scratched the surface of every possible route.
As pundits and peons argue over the potential of the PS2 (while Suzie sells seashells by the seashore), SSX offers a glimpse into the power of the system with some of the best graphics yet seen in a console game. The framerate kicks, the lighting is cool, and the vibrant colors will dazzle bystanders and gamers alike. Perhaps most impressive is the persistent carving lines, which don't disappear right away. You can actually find out where other boarders have gone by following their tracks. If this is what the PS2 can do already, I'm excited for the future.
The control takes some getting used to, as the standard control in SSX adopts the "lock-on" scheme. When you press the Jump button, you get locked into place in order to set up spins and flips with the D-pad/analog stick. The problem is that you need to be lined up accurately with a jump, or it's goodbye feet, hello snow. This is a common control scheme in snowboarding games, but it can get incredibly frustrating - especially when compared to a game like Tony Hawk, where holding the jump button doesn't lock up your steering.
To its credit, SSX lets you "unlock" your planned jump via the L3 button (pressing down on the left analog stick). Alternately, you can choose the 'Pro' control setting, which does away with the lock altogether. As opposed to the similar scheme used in Rippin' Riders, SSX allows you to stop your rotation and level out rather than forcing your boarder into a death flip. After a few runs down the mountain, the control becomes second nature.
When you manage to get up in the air (and you will), the tricks are easy-to-learn and hard-to-master. Thankfully, the developers tied in the tricks with the racing itself by including an "Adrenaline" meter, which is really just a turbo boost. As you land tricks, you get more adrenaline. This leads to a good balance of focus between speed and style.
There are two main game modes: Single Event, sort of an instant action mode; and World Circuit, where you can unlock more boards, boarders and tracks, as well as beef out each rider's attributes. Unless you're playing with a friend, you'll spend most of your time rumbling through the World Circuit. In addition to the main Racing, you can also go for a leisurely plummet in Freeride or go for the gold in Showoff. Scoring points leads to medals, and gold medals lead to more unlocked stuff. Depth in a snowboard game? You bet.
The multi-player is adequate if not thrilling. Split screen gaming just ain't my cup of tea, but despite the obvious graphical setbacks and slight framerate loss, SSX handles it well.
The replays, however, are handled superlatively. You can fully edit your replays ala Driver, complete with adding/subtracting cameras and changing positions. Amateur directors rejoice.
Not only does the game look great and play great, but it also sounds great. SSX features a pretty tight, understated techno soundtrack. Sound effects are spot-on, changing appropriately to reflect the different surfaces. And oddly, the announcer manages to avoid driving you nuts.
SSX doesn't try to break new gameplay ground so much as perfect what's already been attempted. To be honest, it does a damn good job. With excellent graphics, great level design and fast, furious action, this is sitting firmly at the top of the PS2 mountain.