The Best of what there is
It's no secret that SSX is the best game available on the PlayStation 2 at the moment, and as such the closest thing Sony have to a killer app. It's also the best snowboarding game ever, putting Cool Boarders, 1080, Pure Ride and everything else to shame with its fast pace, lightning moves and addictive qualities. 'Boarding games, be they skate or snow, tend to vary greatly depending on publisher. Games like Tony Hawk's are based almost solely around tricks, whereas Pure Ride is just that. There have been mixtures too, like 1080 and Cool Boarders, both of which were immensely popular, but none of them can touch SSX. The Canadian development team behind it have managed to blend the various elements of showmanship, skill and speed so surreptitiously that one might think this is the way all snowboarding takes place in real life. They have even taken onboard things like skillsets for the characters and actually made them important to how you play the game - character selection has made little or no difference everywhere else. The key to success in SSX is also the key to its success; the way that it is not only possible to do well by varying your approach but actually important. If you race downhill at 100mph and thunder into every turn you may very well cross the finishing line first, but that isn't always the point. By integrating clever tricks into your technique and discouraging your opponents with Road Rash-style jolts, you can not only improve your standing in terms of points but also your position, as a lot of cunning shortcuts are only available to the eagle-eyed, and those prepared to do the unthinkable.
Coming up with the correct blend of tricks and speed is quite difficult, and is very dependant on character. What works for one of the nimble yet pleasantly curvaceous women may not achieve quite the same results as it does for the aggressive 6-foot male. The other factor that proves important more often than not is the way the boost system works. Other games give you a finite 'boost' bar and encourage you to use it rather like you would a 'nitro boost' or something equally implausible in a futuristic racing game. With SSX, your stored boost power is dependant on how you're performing in terms of tricks. And it doesn't just increase your speed for as long as the bar holds out either, it acts like an injection of adrenaline, a fuller bar will propel you further and faster - it's all pleasingly proportional and invites tactical use. For example, on one course, I fell into second position after coming unstuck on a jump, and could see there was no real way I could get back to where I was without using the boost. So I waited and waited, performing little tricks here and there, and a few hundred metres or so before the end I sprung into action, leaping a difficult turn by boosting into the jump and landed just ahead of the leader. Satisfaction guaranteed. In all, SSX is very involving like that. You can pick up a few of the free ride courses and passively mosey on down to pass the time, but to really succeed your practice has to be thorough and exhaustive, using every little nook and turn, because the AI is up to task and will beat you down very quickly if you haven't got your head round everything. The actual structure of the game is somewhat loose. There are single race and world circuit options, and each contains lots of sub-options, encouraging the development of different styles. Whatever, I'm here for the boarding.
The system of control in SSX is both intuitive and simplistic. The shoulder buttons control various tricks whilst X handles jumping, Square breaking, and so on. The left analog stick and D-Pad can be used (in unison if it helps you) and the right stick lets you thump your opponent if he gets a little too close for comfort. Unfortunately the latter option is a little difficult to do effectively without a lot of practice, and becomes quite cumbersome if you get it wrong, because the computer rarely misses. I learnt to steer clear of the AI quickly and it works, just. Controlling the character on jumps is simple and quite clever. If you want to perform a trick jump, just weave and charge up your jump with some manic pre-jump thrusts. If you pull it off you can perform all sorts of weird and wacky twists and flips in mid air, with some quite outrageous results. Something else that bears mention is the superb craftsmanship that has been afforded to each and every track in SSX. Some of the designs are very diverse; with loop-the-loops and other fairground style attractions. The delightful design is reminiscent at times of pinball tables more than anything else, and just like a pinball table, many of the tracks are littered with shortcuts and cunning ways to bypass certain time-wasting turns. The thing is, these shortcuts are really difficult at first, but you find yourself becoming gradually more able to complete them without slipping up as the races wear on.
SSX isn't just one of the best games ever thanks to its gameplay, it also happens to be visually stunning, with beautifully designed 3D polygonal characters, all animated exquisitely with very few (if any) perceptible glitches in the modelling. The transition moves, frequently one the glitchiest areas in games of this ilk, are faultless. The backgrounds are also rather impressive. You can venture pretty much anywhere on and off course, and the environments generally look almost real. The beauty can prove to be something of an issue though as with a lot going on, on-screen things can dip to well below 60 frames per second. It's quite noticeable at times, which is a real shame, because apart from this little indiscretion, there really is nothing to fault the game. Even the audio is used cleverly. It changes depending on your performance, with tempo and intensity changing to reflect your position and skill. The effect is rather akin to the action segments on Sky Sports, where the beats kick in hard just as something happens. The music is quite pleasant, but I would actually have preferred to have been listening to a Crazy Taxi style offering with Bad Religion and like for the majority of the time. A missed opportunity, but it's bound to strike a chord with somebody so I won't deduct points.
Snowboarding has never been represented in such a positive light. I've never had as much sustained fun with a 'sports' title, and ultimately, this is as good as the PlayStation has got to give at the moment. Buy it, and lose entire weeks to it. Related Feature - PlayStation 2 Launch Index