When is a sequel not a sequel? When SSX Tricky hit the shelves late in 2001, EA representatives were at pains to explain that it was merely a remix of the original. And, of course, they were right, but now we've got some confusing history rewriting jiggerypokery to contend with, and EA now wants us to forget everything we know and welcome SSX 3 to our bosom.
At last week's salubrious Camp EA event there it was, winking at us, beckoning us over to play it with its tractor beam charms. Problem was, it's been well over a year since I last tackled SSX Tricky, and my fumblings with it were about as successful as a drunken teenage boy having his wicked way for the first time. Attempt trick; crash; repeat to fade, and performed as hilariously badly as I do when confronted with any extreme sports title. In all honesty, Tom's your man when it comes to all things extreme, but luckily there was a man stationed at the demo pod who's spends his whole life dextrously pulling off Super Ubers to make up for my ham fisted proddings.
Anyway, extreme waffling aside (come on, it is Friday), SSX 3 is probably the most eagerly anticipated game in its category along with Mr Hawk's next opus, and EA Canada promises, among other things, an "open-ended gameplay structure" where gamers are free to "ride anywhere gravity takes them", "seamlessly boarding from one event to the next". Gone is the old-school level-based structure, gone are the traditional menus and in comes a Jak & Daxter/GTA-style sprawling "no load" world of three peaks to conquer.
10 playable characters were on display including six from the previous SSXs (Mac, Elise, Zoe, Moby, Psymon, and Kaori), while the newcomers are "crazy" Swede Viggo, mountain man Nate, 12 year-old phenom Griff, and the "talented and sexy" Allegra. As before, there will also be a few unlockables in there for those of you with the talent and patience to do so.
At first glance SSX 3 looks pretty similar to the others in the series, but don't be fooled. Firstly the complete absence of menus makes for a slightly more immersive game. After you've selected your character you're left sliding around the mountain hub with a choice of either getting stuck into the various challenges available to you, or simply going for a free ride. In the hub area, players can either head for the info fork which allows for saving and character customisation, while the event branch lets you access Race, Big Air or Slopestyle courses via clearly defined archways.
Graphically, SSX games have never exactly been a slouch, and no-one is likely to come away disappointed here either. The excellent style of previous SSXs has been retained, but tweaked in various areas, with higher poly counts on the riders and the odd noticeable improvements in attention to detail on the snow, which now comes in various types, such as powder and hard packed areas. Arguably, SSX didn't exactly need an overhaul, but the addition of nice touches such as the clouds at high levels, lightning storms, avalanches and gratuitous coloured lighting effects all add to the splendour on show.
Predictably, the PS2 version fares slightly worse than the Xbox version, and the GameCube version is somewhere between the two, but as with most EA games they look pretty uniform whatever platform you play it on, which is good news. Also good news is that it'll debut across all formats for the first time, ending the PS2 bragging rights for once. However, again, PS2 owners can feel smug in that they get the online mode exclusively.
It's fair to say that we didn’t have time to really get the hang of SSX 3, but the chap manning the demo pod patiently explained that while the core gameplay and controls have been retained, the trick system has had an overhaul. For a start, different types of tricks will be available depending on your level of boost, with three levels of Uber attainable, which you can link together if you're particularly smug. We're not going to pretend we even got close to pulling this off in practice, but apparently you'll be able to modify the axis of your flips and spins as well as perform special moves - from handplants to board presses, as well flatland tricks and stalls. Each character will also have signature moves and be able to pull off pretty much endless combos at all times, but don't hold us to that, ok? For the real experts out there, you'll even be able to traverse the full length of the mountain once the game is finished, said to take over 30 minutes to ride.
Look ma, no hands... oooof!
Rather usefully, a new wipeout recovery system has also been introduced, which has you furiously pummelling a button in order to correct yourself just before a fall, although you'll lose all your points as punishment at the expense of maintaining your speed. A nice trade off.
Also new is the currency system, which enables you to upgrade your character's board, outfit and so on, as well as purchasing a ticket that enables you to climb up to the next peak and access a whole new area of challenges. Sounds like the bridge repair programme in GTA 3 doesn't it? The lessons of GTA-style game design also appear to have influenced the decision to include 150 hidden challenges, so that'll keep tips writers in gainful employment for a few more months, then.
Finally, the in game EA Trax selection features an eclectic selection of licensed tunes, with Queens Of The Stone Age, X-Ecutioners, Felix Da Housecat, and N.E.R.D confirmed so far, with players also able to purchase new MP3s with spare cash collected in the game.
Another skint Christmas
So far, the whole 'ride anywhere' gaming mechanic and streaming technology lends itself extremely well to the SSX brand. Ok, it's still another snowboarding game at its core, but is shaping up to become the definitive extreme sports title around. Start saving your pennies. This Christmas is going to be expensive...