As far as a lot of video games are concerned, snowboarding might as well be a made-up sport, really. You know, like Quidditch, or Welters. Or Badminton.
That arcadey downhill racer you play on the living room flatscreen has lofted itself so far from reality by this point that it can now be a little crushing to encounter the genuine thing on TV. Where are the particle effects, the afterglow, and the combo numbers? Why can't Shaun White really thrust himself so high into the sky with each jump that he comes back to earth having wrapped his face around important elements of the Hubble Space Telescope? I suspect a big part of the reason that people were so upset about the new SSX's first reveal trailer wasn't so much because the Deadly Descent angle looked terrible, but because it seemed kind of, well, realistic. Who wants that?
Happily, having played a few of the Deadly Descents last week, it turns out that they're not realistic at all. They're over-the-top, and almost cartoonishly inventive. There are particle effects, afterglow, and combo numbers. You know, like classic SSX. Or Badminton.
The events in question work a little like bosses, each one acting as the final challenge for one of the game's areas. EA's revealed four of the nine Deadly Descents so far, and they're all pleasantly gimmicky. They're also wonderfully varied. Aside from the fact that you're generally wearing a padded jacket when you take them on, there's not a lot of overlap at all.
Avalanche is the simplest to get your head round. It's set on Mount Denali in Alaska, the tallest peak in all of America - if you don't count a dangerously under-engineered homemade TV aerial my grandfather once constructed in the hope of getting Canadian channels without paying. It's also one of the most unstable if SSX is anything to go by.
With the camera pointed behind you, this one's all about getting to the bottom before you've been gulped down by a massive wall of snow and ice, and EA's got some lovely tech in place to help it all along. In SSX, Denali's avalanches are allegedly driven purely by player action and snow physics, and the development team is claiming they'll never start in quite the same place twice.
Once they get going, though, they're surprisingly primal and frightening, the outer edges made of little icy boulders, while beyond that, shredded clouds of powder boil and billow. It's a convincing display of nature, if you ask me (granted, I haven't actually seen an avalanche up close, but Samuel L Jackson once told me all about them - thoughts to the family), and it's a brave player who will attempt any tricks on their first go. It's hard enough just to stay ahead of the storm.
Gravity's up next - or should that, ha ha, be down next, quite so, quite so, Niles - and so it's off to Fitzroy in Patagonia. This is one of the steepest mountains in the world, according to the design team, who may well have measured it with a three-mile-high geometry set, and with so little gradient to actually board down, Gravity kits you out with a wingsuit too and tasks you with drifting from one scrap of ice to another, avoiding the really big drops that will leave you squashed at the bottom. Is it snowboarding? Not really, but it's thoroughly SSX.
"Take the wrong route - or the right route at the wrong speed - and you're deader than disco. Frosty, fur-lined disco."
Cold is the third descent, suggesting that EA's better at building levels than naming them. At least it's accurate. Antarctica's the venue, and the entire level was inspired by the fact that it's so chilly down there at the edge of the world, that the temperature can drop by 40 degrees centigrade in less than a second as you go from daylight to shade. Suddenly, then, we're into tactical route-mapping as you head down the mountain racing from one puddle of sunshine to the next, staying out of the shadows. Take the wrong route - or the right route at the wrong speed - and you're deader than disco. Frosty, fur-lined disco.
Darkness rounds off the four events we know about so far, and whisks us to Kilimanjaro. This isn't a particularly spectacular mountain in real life, apparently - although it's better than any I've ever made - so SSX sticks you inside it instead, dropping you into the bowels of a frozen volcano caldera and reducing visibility to just about nothing. The only light comes from your own feeble headlamp, so this is all about leaps of faith as you hop from spar to spar, hoping that the next jump doesn't land you on something spiky. That headlamp can be upgraded at the shop, incidentally, but it's a panicky kind of fun to attempt Darkness with nothing but basic kit. As is always the case with survival horror, it's amazing what just turning off the lights can do for a video game.
It's not all about the Deadly Descents, though, and racing down one of the game's other slopes, playing as Alex, a new character, SSX feels, as much as anything, like a direct sequel to Tricky. Rushing along it's easy to get back into the groove, pre-winding on jumps and pulling off tricks with the face buttons and the stick, and, as ever with SSX, tricks equal boost and boost equals speed. It's a great loop that sees you chaining your multiplier higher and higher until you're on the second and third tiers of wonderfully exaggerated moves, breaking out the no-footers, the signatures, and the ubers.
The courses, meanwhile, are a lot larger, filled with little secrets and multiple routes. There's always a range of different heights and different snow textures to experiment with, and it feels a little like a Mario 64 approach to design at times, not in terms of giant penguins, but in the sense that there's a real choice of possible approaches. It seems that SSX has stepped back from the scripting, just a little, in order to let you find your own line.
The whole thing's stitched together with an interface that's been inspired by Google Earth, giving you easy access to the game's nine ranges, including the Himalayas, Siberia, and some others I didn't write down because I shut my hand in a car door earlier on the morning of the presentation. Even here, though, SSX continues to flirt along the border between reality and fantasy. Those nine areas are all real - apart from the Himalayas, of course, a land of make believe that belongs in the same drawer as badminton - but they've been extensively reimagined by a design team that doesn't want a little factual accuracy to ever slow you down.
The last element's RiderNet, a take on AutoLog that suggests events, keeps you up to date with your friends, and pulls together ghost races and global real-time tournaments. It's just what the series needs in the contemporary gaming landscape, and it's probably going to have a terrible effect on human productivity.
SSX is back, then: it's learned new tricks, but it's kept its own style. Summing up the series recently, Todd Batty, the game's creative director said, "SSX is not just a snowboarding game. It's a racing game, an action game and an arcade game all rolled up into one package." Or, to put it another way, SSX is about going downhill dead fast and smacking into a tree, but it's also about personality and flair. Well, guess what? It's still got plenty of both.
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