"I've changed! Love me anew!" it bellows, as an avalanche of personality erupts from a screen that confusingly just had an EA Sports logo plastered across it, fuelled by Iron Maiden and sketchbook presentation - a blizzard of quirky animations frothing around the edges of scotch-taped overlays and spiralling load indicators. "I've got skis too! Monster tricks! Custom characters! I'm a changed game!" It's an alluring façade, unquestionably - distinct and beguiling - and most of the things that I liked about SSX are as hearty as ever.
SSX On Tour is fundamentally still about going fast on a snowboard and performing tricks so that you can go faster on a snowboard and perform more tricks and then go even faster than that and so on and so forth. Like SSX3, On Tour offers a mixture of, shall we say, feature-length races and trick events (the latter dubbed 'slopestyles' - a name I'll remember if I ever found an avant-garde roofing movement) and shorter objective-based undertakings, called Shreds. The core of the game is still "boost = speed". And you fill that boost meter by performing tricks in mid-air - ranging from grabs (shoulder buttons) to Monster tricks. You can also position yourself to grind rails and other straight or indeed bendy edges. Through cunningly measured networks of rails and jumps, you can combo your way down the mountainside without finding yourself on too much open snow.
Monster tricks, immediately, are a new thing - except they're not, not really. Whereas before the most dextrous players could wield "Uber" tricks once enough boost had been accumulated to activate them, On Tour boils the complex finger gymnastics of the past two games down to tugging and later rotating the right analog stick to bring out the Monsters, allowing you to bind your preferred and unlocked Monsters to certain directions. It a reasonably positive refinement, and that sets the tone.
So to the skiing. Over the years SSX's snowboard has grown near-perfectly attuned to the left analog stick, and deft manipulation is now child's play. It's one of the keys to the game's accessibility - that the player's own growth in prowess is largely a reflection of how well he or she can master the d-pad, shoulders and other areas of the pad, rather than initial mastery of board movement. SSX's skis pitch in at a different level, demanding more technical skill because you obviously can't ski sideways in the same way that you board. These twin-tipped prongs can go forward and backward - like rollerblades, effectively - so they're not quite as restrictive as they might be, but the sharper turning and obvious control differences still demand more discipline in manoeuvring. A bit like tarmac racing to the board's rallying, perhaps. It's enrichment rather than sea-change. Sprinkles on icing but still the same cake. I can do these lines all day you know.
Creating your own character? In other areas of the EA empire, character-creation has been refined to the point where you can select belt buckles and probably even crotch-size, but this is SSX's first stab. It's not such a bad thing, but the scope for customisation is relatively limited. Unless you find new costumes particularly exciting, it'll be the changes in equipment and purchase of new attributes and tricks that defines your experience - with this in mind, not being able to pick one of the traditional array of quirky characters, and the loss of the tickling smack-talk, will probably disappoint the odd fan. It didn't bother me particularly, but, well, dammit it did. I want to be Kaori. She's my girl.
The customisation of character through purchased upgrades and new tricks is fairly useful though, and seems to align well with the difficulty curve of the main Tour mode. As you earn cash on the mountain you can buy and equip new toys, refining the potential of your "trick stick" and giving yourself a boost, in some cases literally, by improving trad attributes like boost capacity and usage rate, speed out of the blocks and such. The other thing you build up on your way down the slopes is "Hype", earned by completing Shreds, races and slopestyles successfully and by clobbering rival racers and hapless bystanders. Hype unlocks new events - although it feels like you do that in a fairly standard manner of progression anyway - and also contributes to your overall ranking in the game, and that's arguably where you'll be most focused. Initially the Shreds act as a kind of tutorial as well as a proving ground. They have you trying to grind certain distances of rail within a time limit, outrun competitors by a certain distance, accumulate X amount of time in the air and so forth. Toward they end, they become quite obscenely challenging, and fans of the game's "perfect wave" approach of continually trying to perfect individual tasks through countless pause-restarts will love them, even if they do frustrate just as often.
Their addition - again, more of a refinement to SSX3's smaller tasks than a complete overhaul, shifting the game slightly more toward the task-oriented parts of the latter Tony Hawk games in terms of direction - is entertaining but for many the main events are more engaging. Handily they're consistent with past games - heats followed by a final, best points-total over a certain number of rounds, etc. - and like SSX3 they sometimes roll different tracks (or areas of the mountain, if we're to respect the labels) together into longer runs. There's a tremendous amount of variety and any number of approaches at work in Tour mode, and you can also use the main menu's Quick Play option to tackle individual tasks - even using your preferred riders for a quick blast, albeit obviously shorn of their character development.
As ever, the sensation of speed is excellent - the graphical reaction to boosting is that of piercing some sort of intangible barrier - and the vivid colour schemes and variety in course design is impressive. That said though, the character graphics appear a little simpler this time, and the texturing and geometric detail - certainly on PS2, which is the version tested - is pretty basic, perhaps because the tracks are more cluttered with grinds and incidental detail than ever. The range of special effects is probably equivalent - I particularly like the night-time and snowstorm effects - but there are less fireworks going off literally and figuratively. Over its three-term course to date, SSX has felt more and more vivacious with each new launch, but it's less of a jump here, if it is at all, which is a shame - although it's important to note that it's still alive with more personality than a handful of its EA Sports stable-mates.
The course design itself is arguably an improvement - there's much less resetting-to-track, as promised, and you can find well-defined new routes to explore. That said, you could equally argue that it lacks the purity of old-school SSX, where you had to work hard to remain on the higher path. That's not so much the case now - exploration is almost accidental, go-anywhere and haphazard in a way that, thanks to the interchangeability of the various routes, perversely calls to my mind the way one used to spin off course into new and interesting places in Sonic the Hedgehog. Hey, I could even just about get away with a Mario vs. Sonic comparison - where SSX1 and Tricky saw you mining for uncharted terrain with a certain amount of deliberation and measure Mario-style, On Tour presents so many options you can't always meaningfully pursue them. Which is fine for people who care more about what happens on the journey than the route itself, or who revel in variety, but worth bearing in mind for those of you who prefer to be able to see all ends.
Lauding the general course design, meanwhile, doesn't demand as much couching. Continuing combos is still tricky but is aided somewhat by a sense that you can throw in quick tricks in-between without upsetting things because the courses are geared toward continuity, and there's definitely more going on in every area - so much so that I've seen people complaining about it.
SSX also remains the most accessible of the extreme sports games, despite the confounding nature of the middle of this paragraph. Thanks, as I've said, to the brilliance of left-analog-manoeuvring, you're capable of exploring the rest of the pad's abilities without becoming utterly overwhelmed. You actually have to use the d-pad as well as the left-analog to get the most out of the trick system, as well as all four shoulder buttons, the right analog stick, the boost and jump buttons and, assuming you want to bank some extra points on rails, the rail-trick and handplant buttons to boot. The way the game works sounds nuts to newcomers reading about it, I'm sure, but it's quite gently bewitching, as potentially tricky things like landing correctly are mostly automatic - you can angle your descent with the left analog stick, but if you stop twisting with the d-pad in mid-air you'll generally level out, and it becomes a matter of judging when to stop twirling rather than how, which is good.
SSX On Tour's undeniably a good game, then, but one that demands all sorts of arguably's and plenty of clarification. It's hard to see where else it can go now - it's such a maxed-out game, demanding everything of everyone to some degree, and demanding literally everything of the PS2 Dual Shock (to the extent that it'll inevitably suffer a bit on other pads). Short of binding some hitherto unimaginable brilliance to the Select button, or making fundamental changes to the way you control your snowboarder, it's hard to guess what the inevitable SSX5 will do. As for today, the law of diminishing returns isn't quite worth invoking on this occasion, but it's getting there. The best way to sum up SSX On Tour is probably by saying that it's a different game without being a different game. Enjoyable without being extraordinary. And now I need to stop doing those sentences and let you decide whether to buy it or not. It has LCD Soundsystem on the soundtrack, if that makes any difference - although it's not "On Repeat", which might've been the obvious selection.