What's in a name? Enough for EA to drop it. The first proper SSX snowboarding game since 2005's On Tour and the first on PS3 and 360 was originally announced late last year as SSX: Deadly Descents.
The gritty cinematic trailer, tough-guy subtitle and steely logo had fans of the series up in arms. After such a long wait, had the SSX's breezy, OTT charms been abandoned in an attempt to tap into poker-faced testosterone and the fad for franchise reinvention?
It seems the protest was loud enough to reach EA Sports HQ, and to convince executives that the SSX brand had more inherent value than they'd thought. In April, the subtitle was dropped for a simple SSX - implying an exchange of high-concept reinvention for grassroots reboot. More colourful, ebullient videos and screens started to appear. By E3, there was a chunky, bold logo and a new cinematic trailer, which was basically the first one with the brightness turned up. Everyone breathed a big sigh of relief.
All of this is likely no more than marketing manoeuvring. At the E3 demonstration, there's no suggestion that the game itself, in development for a couple of years already at EA Canada and due in January 2012, has undergone a major change in direction. It's still based on real-world locations and still features the formerly titular deadly descents as dramatic, high-action "boss" levels.
Nor is there any suggestion, even from this pre-alpha code, that it's anything less than a fantastic addition to a much-loved series. SSX looks great and plays as smooth as virgin snow.
The demo begins with a lengthy, nerdy preamble about mapping all the world's mountain ranges from NASA data that makes SSX sound worryingly like an over-reaching sim. However, it's not long before we're pelting down a twisting tunnel of ice that is supposedly in the heart of Kilimanjaro's frozen volcano (but looks more like something from Mario Kart crossed with WipEout) while our demonstrator tells us the team's aim is to deliver "Burnout on snow". Phew!
It's a best-of-both-worlds situation. In a "Google Earth-inspired" interface, you can spin a 3D globe and select famous mountains from every one of Earth's major ranges. These will be modelled on the real thing thanks to that satellite data, and completely open for exploration - you can ride anywhere on them from preset drop points in a free ride mode covering vast, open-world areas.
But within these, you'll find areas that are sculpted, with a great deal of creative licence, around SSX's wild attitude and three gameplay styles. These are, inevitably, defined in terms of three buzzword "pillars" in our presentation: "race it, trick it and survive it". Race events and trick events will be familiar to any SSX fan, while "survive it" refers to the deadly descents - more on those shortly.
We start with the race inside Kilimanjaro, beginning in the Kibo crater and plunging into its fancifully imagined intestines. In many races, riders start from different points on the mountain before converging on the track; here, Mac, Elise and others start scattered around the crater rim before meeting at the tunnel mouth.