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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Tom goes online with EA's big-selling snowboarding/not snowboarding title.

Like a tweaked out, quadruple-grab diagonal 720 flip, PS2 Online finally seems to have taken off, with two out of the top three selling games in the UK wearing that telltale blue strip on the front cover. And wouldn't you know, it's all EA's doing, with FIFA and SSX 3 heavily advertised all over the place (including the TV) and punters flocking to "jack in" and finally embrace broadband gaming.

It's not what you do offline, it's what you do on!

But of course they're not. Not really. FIFA and, on this evidence, particularly SSX 3 are selling primarily because they are massive franchise titles enjoying widespread critical acclaim and the support of the abovementioned glitzy advertising campaigns. FIFA is being sold on a clever gimmick, which footy fans aren't used to seeing in their post-pub goal-a-thons, and in SSX 3 it's you versus an avalanche!

However to take anything away from SSX 3 just because our efforts to get online have been thwarted by an almost total lack of opposition (which is, er, what we were getting at in the intro) would be churlish. It's still one of the finest games of the year, and, in the interest of not repeating myself at length, I'd encourage you to read our review of the Xbox version to get a good idea of what you're up against. For me, the question isn't so much whether you should buy this game, rather which version of the game should you buy?

In short, what makes SSX 3 that much better than its predecessors is clever evolution of an already impressive trick system, a few subtle additions (like Tony Hawk-alike "board pressing" to keep combos alive in-between big trick jumps and rail slides), and a GTA-style free-roaming premise that marries the previous games' sprawling and intricate track designs to a believable mountain environment. It's love at first sight - much as it was when we first got our hands on the game.

Mr. Sheen

On the PS2 though the game is at once slightly better and slightly worse off than its Xbox counterpart. Graphically it does an incredible job of living up to its opposite on Microsoft's console, shifting almost as many polygons with only a hint more jaggedness and seemingly compensating with some beautiful soft lighting effects. You can happily point the finger and lament the dip in frame rate, which comes into play on a lot of the livelier tracks, particularly the Super Pipes and night-time racer Metro City with its faster pace and more cluttered scenery, but on the whole these problems don't hinder your enjoyment of the game. Oh, and neither does the lack of a 60Hz option, but not mentioning its absence would probably raise some eyebrows. Luckily for the PS2, the only graphical issues that do cause a stir also pop up on the Xbox - the camera clipping into scenery on occasion and things like that.

Otherwise, the only noteworthy difference between PS2 and Xbox is that the PS2 version features online play - a combination of EA's happy relationship with Sony, and it's rather frostier one with Microsoft. Obviously having spent the best part of three years playing SSX - from the console's launch in November 2000 onward - going online with my favourite snowboarding ("it's not snowboarding!") title was something I was keen to do. A quick scan of the manual revealed some promising facts - USB headsets are supported, lobbies are split into appropriate difficulty bands, the game tracks your stats very closely, and it even features a buddy list so you can keep in touch with the better strains of competition.

Is there anybody out there?

But, annoyingly, once I was online the experience was slightly marred by two main issues: the two-player limit, and my inability to find a willing second player to actually play the bloody thing against. To get to No.3 in the chart (at this time of year) the game must have sold well in excess of 20,000 copies in its first two days in the UK alone, so it seems mad that the lobby of worldwide players was home to only about 50 folks (that's one in every one million PS2 owners...) for a whole weekday evening just after its release, and that very few of them were actually playing the game. With chat limited to what you can be bothered to type (or shout over the aforementioned headset) with the cursor keys and an on-screen keyboard (though a few stock phrases like "Would you like a game?" and "ROFLMAO" are handily available), the lobby was just a sea of people saying "challenge me", "you disconnecting whore" and variations on the above. Oh, and "ROFLMAO", naturally. We tried a bit of that too.

There's every chance the game will take off on PS2 Online sooner or later, of course, and if it ever does then those who take to it regularly will be well catered for. EA's presentation is amongst the best in the industry, and that stretches to PS2 Online as well, with lobbies split across various difficulty brackets, with one exclusively for those using the USB headset, Xbox Live-style buddy list/quick match options for finding a friend or game type most closely fitting what you're after in a hurry, and of course a boatload of stats - regularly updated world rankings, stats on the number of games played and win percentages, and even a stat showing you the number of times a (no doubt humiliated) player has suspiciously disconnected midway through a game. A measure of their net connection, or their own flakiness when losing? The chat section might give you an idea.

It's a good service. It's just frustrating to sit there hitting "Search" on the quick match menu and finding absolutely no active games. Over and over again.

Ping, pong

When you do get out on the snow, playing SSX 3 online is a fantastic, lag-free experience for two players, which works on the same basis as the single-player head-to-head match-ups, where the player has to outrun or out-trick an adversary over a set course. The other player is always visible thanks to a shaft of red light running from his or her head to the clouds above, and you'll always be able to see how you're doing in relation to them thanks to a little box in the top left telling you how far ahead or behind you are in points terms.

Another handy inclusion is the ability to pause - but not exploit it to your advantage. All too often in split-screen, unscrupulous opponents would force me to bugger up a trick by pausing the game and then unpausing it once I'd lost my rhythm. Thankfully in SSX 3 the game lets you pause but also instigates a three second countdown to resumption when you've stirred your tea. Perfect for reassuming the position on the pad. Our only worry with this is that sore losers might pause the game just as you're about to cross the line, hoping to bore you into disconnecting prematurely and forfeiting the result. Fortunately we came across no such losers.

On the whole then, it's a service which needs more users but should be enjoyable enough if and when it takes off. The two-player limit is a shame, but it's understandable and you are at least guaranteed to get a good, lag-free game over a decent broadband connection as a result. Actually the most aggravating thing about the game that we can't just explain away is the lack of a "Re-challenge opponent" or "Go to next track" option once you're done with a race or slopestyle challenge. Having to Quit out after a race can mean losing track of your opponent for good.

Versus mode

At the end of the day, the question of which SSX 3 to buy is a difficult one to answer. On the one hand, the PS2 version is almost as good looking, it has the Dual Shock 2 in its corner, which is a natural advantage for a lot of players (thanks to the four shoulder buttons, mainly, but also because new moves like handplants are on sensible buttons), and the PS2 Online options are a nice diversion if you get sick of replaying Much-2-Much on Peak 3 and start screaming obscenities at passing specs of dust.

On the other hand, the Xbox version is a lot smoother, visually, the control scheme is just as easy to get your head round in the long run, and although PS2 may boast online options, we're not entirely convinced by them, and they aren't closely integrated with the single player model as they regularly are in Xbox Live titles these days. Racing is fun, but it's almost impossible to find someone who can trick at your precise level, so slopestyles, pipe show-offs and other challenges are either impossible to win or impossible to lose. Or impossible to set up at all thanks to a total lack of opposition.

In my view, then, the Xbox version narrowly edges it, because I'll take smoothness of gameplay over a gimmick any day. Your mileage may vary, but if you have the choice, I would recommend the Xbox title. Otherwise, just buy the sodding game - it's one of the best of the year.

9 / 10