SSX 3 was ostensibly the first game in EA's legendary snowboarding series to feature online play. I say "ostensibly" because whenever I bothered to string an ethernet cable across the room and connect my PS2 to the EA mothership, my reward was an empty lobby. Nothing could have been more fitting. SSX 3 is not a game about community or friendly competition; rather, it shows us the bliss of achieving greatness in solitude. It was among the last games of its kind.
Present-day games are practically considered broken unless they come with a global leaderboard, so that once you do some awesome thing a score table can pop up to inform you that 75,343 people have already done that thing more awesomely than you. Online multiplayer turns us all into amateur party organisers, cajoling friends and doing timezone math so that perhaps all your acquaintances can click the same "join room" button at approximately the same moment. Then there's the LittleBigPlanet create-and-share movement, which expands a game's world in large part with a sprawling wasteland of user-generated chaff.
Streaming-music advocates talk about an always-on, always-accessible "celestial jukebox", and by the same token, we're all playing in a celestial gameroom now. Yes, that has obvious, marvellous benefits, but it also serves as a constant reminder that each of us is just one star in the vast online firmament.
In contrast, SSX 3 casts you as a superstar, existing on your own lonely plane. Its triple-peaked mega-mountain is filled with stretches of untamed backcountry, where there are no crowds and never more than one competitor. The upshot is that you spend much more time by yourself in SSX 3 than in its predecessors, SSX and SSX Tricky. The third game is a more reflective experience that captures the isolation of winter sports.
Look, this isn't Myst. There are crowds at the big events, of course, and in most races, you jockey for position amid a field of six competitors. But even in the heat of competition, SSX 3 pushes you to get away from the bustle and seek your own path. Only novices stick to the standard route. Huge signs marked "OUT OF BOUNDS" invite you to ride off the beaten track, where there are no grandstands and the snow is less manicured. This is where a true snowboarder should live, the game suggests, and if you can improvise your way through the rough terrain, you'll leave the field in the dust. Solitude equals success.
Accordingly, this is a quiet game - or at least quiet at the right moments. The developers curated a phenomenal soundtrack that mixes alternative, hip-hop and electronic music with a few other genres peppered in there for good measure. Not all of it has aged well - if I never hear Basement Jaxx's "Do Your Thing" again, I still won't be able to get that godforsaken tune out of my head - but for the most part, it holds up.
And, counterintuitively, SSX 3's brilliant audio design is at its best when the music fades away. When you launch off a particularly steep vertical, the soundtrack mutes almost entirely. It's like the game is holding its breath right along with you. The sliders on SSX 3's virtual mixing board also go down when you ride into the peak's more secluded areas, leaving just a low beat, as if the thick powder is muffling the tunes. Is it possible to recreate the sound of snow? This game comes pretty close.
That realism was something of a departure for the series, as the aesthetic in SSX Tricky was less "alpine majesty" than "giant pinball machine". But nobody would mistake SSX 3 for a true-to-life simulator. For one thing, the steep curves and vertigo-inducing cliffs of the SSX 3 mountain are still far beyond anything a sane boarder would attempt to traverse.
More to the point, riders in SSX 3 still ply their trade with tricks that defy the limits of comprehension, the human body, or the laws of physics. Obviously, no real-world snowboarder has ever executed a Frontside 1080 Double Backflip Trickitello to Late Nifty Shifty - I doubt any real-world snowboarder even knows what it means. I certainly don't, but who cares? What matters is that it's a contorted, gyrating work of aerial art in motion, and after a few hours to get the feel of the game's trick system, even a novice can pull one off.
The more grounded context of SSX 3 makes the mid-air stunts all the more thrilling. Sure, in SSX Tricky you could do some nutty tricks. (Perhaps you deduced that from the title.) It was all of a piece with the over-the-top setting, though. When giant air vents catapult you onto loopy, Dr. Seuss-ian metal ramp, your spectacular twists and board grabs seem like par for the course. Spinning like a top upside-down in the SSX 3 backwoods is a more startling, compelling image. Because the surroundings are more real, the tricks feel more unreal.
Best of all, there's nobody around to see it. SSX 3 has been on my mind because I recently played and reviewed Skate 3, another EA counterpoint to the Tony Hawk series. In Skate 3, you're rarely alone. Whether it's your cameraman, adoring crowds in the bleachers, or even random passersby, there's almost always someone on hand to tell you what sick moves you're laying down. The game encourages real-world extroversion, too. Post your best photo! Email your friends a link to your video! Build the ultimate skate park for the world to see!
Conversely, when you land a killer trick in SSX 3, your character typically applauds him or herself, and that's the end of it. You were there to witness your own triumph; move on.
I'm not going to pretend that everything was better back in the day. Skate 3's community features are undeniably cool. There has been something lost, though - a sense of contented loneliness has been sullied by a unspoken mandate to join the masses. When I ride down the frigid slopes of SSX 3, I experience moments of glory that are communicated solely between the mountain and me, and I fondly recall an era when that was enough.