The first SSX game was (arguably) the crown jewel of the Playstation 2 launch line-up. A sleeper hit seemingly out of left field, SSX combined groundbreaking graphics with tight controls and white-knuckled arcade style snowboarding that was hard to resist. Sure, half the stunts in the game would shatter your bones if you were to attempt them in real life, but isn?t that why God invented video games in the first place?
I am pleased to report that SSX On Tour, the fourth installment in the series, continues the excellence of the original game. Though really this is SSX 4, it seems that EA only numbers every other game in this franchise (read: SSX, SSX Tricky, SSX 3, SSX On Tour). You can play as three of your favorite Nintendo icons (Mario, Luigi, and Princess Peach), but the real meat of the game lies in the Tour Mode. Here, you can create your own character from the ground up and enter him/her in the main competition which, for some unknowable reason, is called a tour. It seems that most of the ?on tour? aspects of the game are tacked on simply to avoid calling the game SSX4. The goal for your character is to become a rock-star?but for snowboarding (it doesn?t make sense to me either). In accordance with this theme, the game menus all feature pseudo hand-drawn sketches that look like they?ve been torn from the notebook of some high school student who just discovered Led Zeppelin. I say that these ?on tour? aspects of the game are unnecessary because once you get past the menus and ranking system, the gameplay is wholly unrelated to anything akin to a rock tour. The feel of the game is remarkably similar to SSX3, which had nothing to do with any kind of tour. This makes the ?on tour? part of the game seem like it was slapped on as a last minute feature, and the end result is a feeling of a forced attempt at ?hip?-ness which, like most such attempts, fails.
Once you create a character, you can choose to make him/her a snowboarder or a skier. This is a new feature and it?s mostly an aesthetic one given that both modes of transport handle similarly. On The Tour, your character must complete a series of challenges in order to become the most popular snowboarder possible. Most of these tasks involve racing and doing tricks just as in the first SSX, but there is some variety within these missions. In addition to standard race/trick challenges, there are certain one-on-one challenges in which you must beat your opponent by a specific amount in a certain amount of time (i.e., get 300 meters or 300,000 trick points ahead in 3 minutes). Tricking is also an integral part of racing; doing tricks earns you ?boost? which provides a temporary increase in speed. Once your ?boost meter? is full, you can then perform ?monster tricks? (formerly known as ?uber tricks?) which grant more boost and look totally sweet. If you fill your boost meter twice, you have unlimited boost until your character falls. Boosting can make or break a race but performing tricks slows you down, so racers must always gauge whether the boost they will receive is worth the inevitable and immediate lag.
Besides the race and trick challenges, other challenge types are more esoteric, including: staying off of the snow and grinding rails for as long as possible, collecting tokens that have been scattered throughout a course, knocking down skiers, and evading the ski patrol. While these challenges are usually fun and do a good job of breaking up the race/trick routine, some can become rather annoying (the token-collecting missions spring readily to mind). As you complete challenges, your character moves up in rank on a list of several hundred competitors. At first, the challenges can be fairly easy, but once you?re ranked 25th or higher, there is a sharp increase in the difficulty level, so be prepared. Thankfully, the controls are intuitive and tight, making it a breeze to explore the mountainside and its generous smatterings of secrets and shortcuts.
Visually, the game is gorgeous, though not a revolutionary jump from SSX3. The character models practically glow with graphic glory, especially when running in Gamecube?s progressive scan mode. The mountain features seamless transitions between powder, ice, and wet snow and it all looks great. Of particular note are the particle effects on the falling snow: you can see individual flakes shine as they turn through the air and fall to the ground. The graphic engine also does a superb job of conveying a sense of blistering speed. Boosting down an iced-over road never felt so raw and visceral, and you can actually see snowflakes melting on the lens of the ?camera? that follows the gameplay.
The sound of the game is also immaculately conceived. Again, you can discern a definite difference between the gritty grinding noise your board makes on ice or the softer swishing your board makes cutting through waist-deep powder. The music in the game is a pleasant blend of punk/rock/rap artists which somehow come together to make the perfect soundtrack. Not only is the music enjoyable, but it?s even used to enhance the gameplay experience. When doing an aerial trick, the music will fade into the whistling of the wind only to come back in at full blast upon landing. This effect, along with a well executed trick, can literally take your breath away and is yet another example of how this game gets it right.
There are a couple of rough spots in the game. As I mentioned earlier, the last few tasks are incredibly difficult and can get frustrating. Unfortunately, this version of the game suffers from occasional slow-down, but only when there are absurd amounts of things happening on the screen. The game also includes a rather weak two-player mode (although the single player game takes at least 20 hours to complete). The two-player mode pits players against each other using the challenges from the single player game. The biggest problem comes in the form of the two-player race. If one player gets too far ahead, the game automatically resets the lagging player a few meters behind the player in the lead. This makes two-player racing somewhat pointless since a huge lead over the other player makes no difference at all.
As I stated earlier, SSX On Tour feels very similar to its immediate predecessor, SSX 3. To a certain extent, SSX On Tour is simply more of the stuff that made SSX 3 so great, but in this case more of the same isn?t a bad thing. The ?tour? aspects aside, there are enough innovations here to warrant a purchase. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this game.