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SSX (PS2) Review

Background Info

Screens(6)

By now, gamers everywhere should be familiar with this PlayStation 2 snowboarding game from EA Sports. As one of the few must-have launch titles for the new 128-bit system, SSX is quite simply a breathtaking experience. My first gameplay session with the game at E3 2000 left me craving more. Now, after spending many long hours with the game, I can safely say that my craving has been more than satisfied. With tight gameplay, huge environments, and stunning graphics, SSX is the most enjoyable snowboarding game ever made, and it is easily one of the best games available for the PS2.

Presentation/Graphics : 97
I can spend all day talking about SSX's spectacular graphics, especially since they contain a remarkable amount of detail and plenty of nuances. However, because the game's other aspects are equally impressive, I will try to focus on the most important graphical elements.

The first thing you will notice about SSX is the lack of an FMV (Full Motion Video) opening. Instead, an energetic intro that uses the in-game graphics engine delivers the introductory sequence. After viewing more FMV intros on the 32-bit PlayStation than I could possibly take -- and dropping $300 on a next-gen system -- I was relieved that EA Sports put its wonderful game engine to full use. (I only wish I could say the same for the PS2 version of Madden NFL 2001, which uses stale FMV for its opening.)

Character design is fresh and varied. All eight of the game's snowboarders are fictional, and each has a unique personality. The selection of cool outfits (four for each character) even let you carve the mountains in style. In addition, the character lineup does a good job of appealing to everyone. Characters range from an annoying "valley girl" to a hip African-American rider from the UK, with almost everything in between. Indeed, gender, ethnicity, and nationality are all well represented in SSX. The detail level of each character model is amazing, with lifelike movements that further enhance the characters' personality traits. Just watching the characters go through their pre-race ritual and warm-up is a feast for the eyes. Speaking of eyes, the one problem with the character models is their spooky-looking eyes, which exhibit a zombie-like stare. This is a little disconcerting at first, but you eventually get used to it.

Like the characters, the snowboards are fake but look great nonetheless. Each character has eleven snowboards, all of which vary in shape and design. Depending on your character's riding style -- Alpine, Freestyle, or BX (all-around) -- most boards are either long and narrow or short and fat, with the all-around snowboarders having an even mix of both. The logos, too, vary from character to character; some have more exciting designs than others. And since the game runs in high-res, you can clearly see the slick logos during gameplay, which makes doing tricks even more enjoyable.

Character animation is superb and very smooth. The characters carve through the snow realistically, and their outrageous spins, flips, and tricks are extremely fluid. During races, characters react to their performance and surroundings. For example, when another snowboarder is on your character's tail, he or she will look behind. Furthermore, the characters gesture enthusiastically after completing wicked tricks and combos, adding much panache to the game. Then there are the fight animations, which add a little Road Rash flavor. Subsequently, the exaggerated crash animations complement each bail nicely. Winning and losing animations are also quite good and supply a great finishing touch to the race.

Level design is perhaps SSX's most graphically pleasing aspect. The game's eight fictitious levels are huge, colorful, and bursting with detail. Locales range from a lively US city landscape, complete with cars and bridges, to a crazy pinball-esque obstacle course in Japan. None of the tracks have any visible pop-up -- allowing you to have a clear view of the horizon -- and there is little to no clipping or collision detection problems. Each course also has a variety of animated and destructible objects that help immerse players further into the game world.

Other graphical niceties such as realistic-looking trees, beautiful waterfalls, and awesome lighting effects will surely cause many jaws to drop. In fact, the environments contain so much detail and graphical effects that you are sure to notice something new every time you play. The four third-person camera angles offer a range of views, each of which does a wonderful job showcasing the terrific graphics. Add in splendid firework effects that rival those in Fantavision, as well as awesome TV-style replays, and you have one helluva great-looking game!

Unfortunately, SSX does have some graphical shortcomings, albeit minor ones. Although the frame-rate zips by at silky 60 frames per second, there are points where it drops considerably (mostly during sharp corners). Luckily, the frame-rate never drops to the point where it affects gameplay, and the drop does vary among the levels, modes, and camera views. Another problem with the graphics is jagged edges (a.k.a. "jaggies"). While the graphics are mostly smooth, some noticeable jaggies do detract from the overall graphical presentation. I was also expecting the crowd to look better than it does. As it stands, the animated spectators that fill the stadiums are quite ugly -- but they still manage to look better than the ones in most other games. Finally, I feel the last two courses in the game, Pipe Dream and Untracked, do not compare favorably with the other six...but that is just my opinion. Nevertheless, SSX's many positive graphical qualities easily overshadow these flaws.

Presentation/Audio : 98
You know that crappy, outdated stereo system you have? Well, feel free to smash it into a thousand pieces, because SSX demands a new high-end stereo system. Okay, so maybe it doesn't demand one... But you will definitely receive a better aural experience if you have a bad-ass system dishing out the game's mad beats and powerful sound effects.

To begin, the music, a mix of funky electronic songs, wonderfully captures the feel of the game. Mix Master Mike and Rahzel supply the rockin' theme song, "Slayboarder," which plays during the opening. The other songs are just as good, if not better, and they fit the arcade-style action perfectly. I did, however, find the song "Shake What Yo Mamma Gave Ya" to be slightly annoying, as that stock phrase, which is repeated throughout the song, is so 1997. Nevertheless, you can change the song that plays during the level in the pause menu. Even if you are not a fan of electronic-based music, you will appreciate the quality of each song. Now if only someone would release an SSX soundtrack...

Sound effects are well done and are of especially high quality. Some sound effects are very hard hitting, while others have a cartoon-like quality. During hang time, the music, crowd, and assorted sound effects slowly fade out, and the calm sound of the wind slowly fades, producing a very soothing effect. Once you hit the ground, however, the music and various sound effects are back in full swing. This is a very innovative use of sound, and it is something I would like to see in other extreme-sports games.

Accompanying the snazzy sound effects are some great voice samples. Not only do the characters have their own set of one-liners, but each level in the game features a different race announcer. Announcers range from the jive-talking Rahzel to a full-on robot announcer on the final race level, Aloha Ice Jam. The race announcer is also very informative, providing pertinent information -- such as your race position and how much boost you have left -- as you traverse the track. In fact, you can minimize the HUD detail and still be well informed about the race happenings. You can also expect to hear a few different types of languages throughout the game, which serve to reflect the location of the levels and the nationality of the characters. The neat thing about the snowboarders is they react to what happens during the race. For instance, after you bust a sick combo, your character unleashes an ego-boosting comment. Likewise, if your character mixes it up with another boarder, expect to hear some trash talking between the two. Unfortunately, even with the many voice samples, repetition still occurs.

Overall, the music and sound effects are every bit as good as the graphics, and in some cases, they are even better. While not everyone is guaranteed to enjoy the electronic-based music or arcadey sound effects, there is no denying their quality.

Interface/Options : 98
Like many EA games, SSX has a stylish menu system that looks great and is easy to navigate. Among other basic options, you can choose between two control configurations (default or pro), set the number of opponents for races (1-6), and adjust the sound levels. Widescreen television owners can even enable a widescreen mode. Another option worth mentioning is the 'Advanced Replay,' which lets gamers customize the replays after races. However, you must select this option before you begin an event if you want to take advantage of it. Finally, if you have an 8MB memory card (280KB of free space is required), you can enable an auto load/save feature, or opt to load and save manually.

During character selection, you can read brief descriptions about the characters' riding styles and personalities. The game rates the characters in the following four statistical categories: Edging, Stability, Speed, and Tricks. Besides their stat levels, the characters also have one of three unique riding styles -- Alpine, Freestyle, and BX -- as well as an overall ranking. Every character begins as a Newbie, but as you take him or her through the main mode of the game, World Circuit, the rank will steadily increase to Master, the highest ranking of the game.

After selecting your character, you can choose an outfit and snowboard and have a look at the trick book. Initially, only two outfits and snowboards are available for each character; you must unlock the rest through World Circuit mode. The trick book has pictures of all 50 of your character's tricks, with the proper button combination listed below each picture. Tricks are divided among three categories, from easiest to hardest, and the game highlights the ones you have already done. Upon completion of a trick category, you will unlock one of your character's extra outfits. Final pre-race options let you select an event, set the difficulty level of the race, and choose from available courses.

Loading time varies throughout the game, with the longest load times coming before races/events. While the pre-race loading screen features a cool audio sample and a helpful game tip to keep you distracted, it cannot hide the twenty-second load time that separates you from the start of the race. In addition, there is also some in-game load time before the countdown of the race, not to mention another loading screen you must endure upon exiting the race. Strangely, your character's complete bio is posted on this loading screen, which is the only place in the game you can read it. Although the loading time itself is not that bad, this is the PS2 after all, so I was expecting things to be quicker.

SSX's default control interface is not the easiest to adjust to, but it does offer exceptional control over the snowboarder. Thus, this is not a game that you can pick up and master immediately la Pro Skater, but you will appreciate the reward of mastering the control. The D-pad or left analog stick controls movement, speed, and spins and flips while in the air. You use the X button to jump (hold to crouch), with longer button presses resulting in bigger jumps. (Naturally, timing your jump off a ramp is equally important.) Once you hold the X button, though, you cannot steer your rider unless you are using the Pro configuration. You can also cancel a jump anytime by pressing the L3 button.

Regarding tricks, the four shoulder buttons execute a variety of grabs, and you can use the Square button to tweak each of them. Now here is the tricky part: To do flips and spins, you must pre-wind before jumps; i.e., you must hold the jump button and a direction on the D-pad or analog stick before a jump. When you reach the highest point of a ramp, release all buttons and enjoy the wonderful results. Longer pre-winds will result in bigger, faster spins and flips. While in the air, you can continue to flip and spin by pressing the D-pad in a particular direction. Likewise, you can add more grab tricks by pressing the shoulder buttons. Just make sure you have enough hang time. Rail tricks also require practice, since there is no dedicated rail button, and you must perfectly align your character with rails, fences, fallen trees, etc. before jumping on them. Once on a rail (or other object), you balance with the left analog stick and rotate with the D-pad.

Other control functions include a camera button (Triangle), a reverse-camera button (Circle), a speed boost button (Square), and a reset button (Select). You can push snowboarders who get in your way by moving the right analog stick left or right. Although the Square button has two functions -- boosting and tweaking -- it does not interfere with gameplay, since you can only do boosts on the ground and tweaks in the air. On a final note, the reset button is very useful, as it repositions your rider after he or she gets stuck somewhere. And trust me, you will get stuck plenty of times.

Gameplay : 96
SSX contains two main modes of play: Single Event and World Circuit. Both modes share three of the same sub-modes: Warmup, Race, and Showoff. In addition, Single Event has a Freeride mode and a head-to-head mode. Since Single Event is basically a watered-down version of the World Circuit mode, I will focus on describing the latter.

World Circuit mode is for one player only, and it revolves around winning three medals -- gold, silver, and bronze -- on each of the six venues in the Race and Showoff events. Before you begin either event, you can learn the basics of the game in the Warmup mode, which I highly recommend. Here, one of the game's characters, Mac, describes the many game functions while guiding you through a practice track devoid of other snowboarders. Only one practice track exists, and you can replay this mode as often as you like.

When you are ready for the Race event, you will need to pick a character and snowboard that you feel is right for you. (Remember, each character and snowboard has its own advantages and disadvantages.) Unlike the Single Event mode, only one venue is open in the World Circuit mode. The races in World Circuit mode consist of three rounds -- quarter, semi, and final -- in which you must finish in the top three to advance. If you make it to the finals, you must finish third or higher to earn a medal and unlock the next venue. Should you fail to do so, you must restart the entire race competition -- no mid-race restarts here. Although the first two rounds are a cakewalk, the final round can become very frustrating, as the competition is very ferocious. Luckily, some good ol' speed and trick power-ups, as well as a truckload of shortcuts, help balance things. Glass SSX signs mark most of the shortcuts, but you can find others that will shave precious seconds off your time, too. As you win races, you will earn experience points, which you can use to increase your character's stats (earning gold medals will unlock the extra characters). You will also earn new snowboards and receive new levels of rank.

Showoff mode is similar to the Race mode, in that you must unlock the other venues as you go along. However, Showoff mode revolves around tricks: Instead of competing against other snowboarders, you must meet a preset score within a set time limit (passing checkpoints adds time to the clock). To make things easier, "Snow Crystals," which act as multipliers, are scattered throughout the levels and will multiply your trick/combo a set number of times. Three types of Snow Crystal multipliers exist -- 2x, 3x, and 5x -- each of which is a specific color to help players identify the difference between them. All the tricks in the game lose value over time, so variety is especially important in this mode. Most gamers should not have too much trouble earning bronze or silver medals on every venue. Earning a gold medal on each, however, is another story...

The two-player mode lets two players go head-to-head in any Single Event mode except Warmup. Although competing against a friend in the competitive Race and Showoff events is fun, you can also enjoy the Freeride mode together. Still, the two-player Race mode is arguably the most fun for two players. Thanks to the mighty PS2 hardware, the split-screen action does not contain any drop in graphical detail or performance. Cool spotlight effects even provide visual cues that show where the other player is.

One of the most important elements of the game, regardless of mode, is the 'Adrenaline Boost' meter. Your AB meter, which you fill by completing tricks, is located on the right side of the screen. Each trick and combo will increase your boost level, enabling you to use the boost button to pick up some extra speed. There are three levels of boost: Yellow (weakest), Orange (medium), and Red (most powerful). When the AB meter is completely filled, brace yourself for some intense speed -- and a great motion-blur effect, to boot! The boost level decreases over time, however, and each fall also decreases your boost.

Replay Value : 96
With eight huge courses filled with shortcuts, an awesome trick list, and several characters and boards to unlock, SSX's one-player game is very strong. In fact, the Freeride mode itself provides plenty of enjoyment. Adding to the replay value is a fun and highly competitive two-player mode. Unfortunately, SSX does lack a few things that would have given it even more replay value. For one, the game does not have a track editor or a create-a-rider feature. The included characters and courses are great and well varied, but as with any game, you will tire of them eventually. A dedicated half-pipe level is also sorely missing, although some levels do have half-pipe sections. Still, with so much to see and do on each level, this is one extreme-sports game you will continue to play just to see what else you can discover.

Overall : 97
Simply put, if you own a PS2 and do not have a copy of this game, you might as well trade your PS2 for a standalone DVD player, because only non-gamers could possibly shun this game. Although snowboarding purists may dislike its unrealistic, arcade-like nature, SSX is by far the most entertaining snowboarding game available. Even if you hate snowboarding, SSX is the type of game any gamer can enjoy. A must-have snowboarding game from EA Sports?!? Who would have thunk it?

By: Cliff O'Neill 11/29/00



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