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.
It's fast and vertiginous, but the tracks have been designed with a view to presenting racers with a good deal of freedom across multiple paths. EA Canada expects finding the best shortcuts and fastest or safest lines to add replayability and a sense of adventure to this race mode.
The track ends with our racer leaping across a huge crevasse with the aid of a helicopter, grabbing onto its runners for a lift (there will also be a Pilotwings-style wing suit for protracted aerial glides). Featured prominently in the trailers for the game, helicopters will be companions and familiars for the SSX riders, dropping them at and collecting them from event locations, assisting races or dropping flares to guide you along dark courses.
Next it's off to the Himalayas - yes, Mount Everest will be in the game, and you'll be able, with glorious improbability, to board right from its summit - for some tricking. This activity generally takes place at lower altitude on softer, more forgiving and more open terrain. Today we visit Makalu on the border between Tibet and China, so - in another deliciously silly flourish - we can grind along the Great Wall of China.
The goal for the trick mode is to capture the style, flow and sense of self-expression of old SSX or the early Tony Hawk games, we're told. You can use either an old-school button configuration or the more modern twin-stick approach; I use the latter when I get to try the mode out and it is very fluid, responsive and slick.
A few minutes is nowhere near long enough to tell if it has the requisite depth, but it's certainly an effortless and flowing ride. There's a great sense of freedom to the environments too, with no artificial restrictions to your movement and a physics system, rather than design scripting, dictating which edges you can grind.
Even the deadly descent "boss fights" are only so scripted. These nine challenges are summit descents on the "gnarliest terrain that we could find". Each acts as the final challenge of a geographical region and gateway to the next, and each has a particular hazard as its theme: snow, rock, ice, thin air, gravity, fog, wind, whiteout and darkness.
We're at the highest peak in North America, Denali (otherwise known as Mount McKinley) in Alaska, and our enemy is snow. What that means in practice is procedurally generated avalanches created by your own snowboard: everywhere in the game, the terrain is subject to a stability analysis, and the forces you exert on the snow while riding - a heavy landing, a hard carve at high speed - have the potential to loosen snow, creating spray, slough, slides and even different categories of avalanche.
The deadly descent sees us plummeting 1500 metres down the south face of Denali in a dim twilight, the boarder's head lamp flickering across the snowscape and a frightening apron of tumbling snow chasing him down the sheer face of the mountain.
Although offering fast and extravagant action, SSX generally isn't afraid to pull the camera far back from the boarder and simply fill the screen with white mountainside, to great effect. This deadly descent unusually reverses the camera angle, looking back towards the mountain and the boarder tumbling down it in a distant, almost 2D presentation that looks like filmed helicopter coverage. It's really effective, although hard to imagine how it maps to the controls. The demonstrator only makes it halfway down before being engulfed in his own wake of snow.
The fact is, SSX isn't really what was suggested by either its first appearance as Deadly Descents, or its subsequent, minimal rebranding. It looks, very unusually for an extreme sports sequel, like a game made to high standards, with considerable creative and technical ambition, but also sensitivity to its arcade roots. It might not be the game SSX fans imagined - but it probably is the game they've been waiting for.