In comparison to its illustrious predecessors, the current generation of consoles has been numbingly vapid when it comes to snowboarding games. Where the 32-bit generation brought us the likes of Cool Boarders and 1080 Snowboarding, and the successive sixth console generation provided the genre-defining SSX Tricky, PS3s and Xbox 360s have given us Amped 3 and Shaun White's Snowboarding. The former was a bland time sink amongst an otherwise thoroughly disappointing launch line-up for the Xbox 360, while the latter was a master-class in how not to execute open world design. And so, as the gaming world prepares itself for Wii Us, Xbox 720s, and PS4s, it all comes down to this: the first SSX game to have landed on current-gens as we enter the seventh year of their tenure (and no, SSX Blur doesn't count).
For a publisher that's known for farming its successful game series like battery hens, the current-gen absence of SSX seems somewhat uncharacteristic of EA. Quite why it's been hiding away the series like a rotting corpse is anyone's guess (likewise for Burnout), but it's back now and we should all be happy. We should all be happy because EA Canada has done a bang-up job on this one. It's not just loyal to SSX games of the past – offering up classic control options, sticking close to the precisely choreographed courses that made its name, retaining its synonymous 'Tricky' meter, and bringing what must surely be an ageing DJ Stryker along for the ride – but it's also a fresh approach to extreme sports games in general. It's a fresh approach that departs from the endless grinding chains made popular by the deluge of Tony Hawk iterations from PS2 days of yore (yes, I understand that you got eleventy gajillion points once, but a part of you died in the process).
Instead, SSX uses a combo meter. It's not gameplay rocket science by any means, but it just allows the overall experience to be that little bit more expressive, laid-back, and creative. You're not spending all your time learning the precise transition points for grinds that send you on a banal snowboarding roller-coaster any more; you're not worried about breaking your trick chain and going back to a deflating zero as if crashing from a sugar rush. Instead, all you're worried about is keeping the pace lightning fast and making sure those incandescent oranges and yellows of the Super Über Tricks flow like the salmon of Capistrano. Be sure to keep the speed up and tricks coming to increase the multiplier of your combo, and you'll melt the snow beneath your feet – slow down for a second and that multiplier will plummet like an anvil with GAME Group share prices attached to it (too soon?).
But it's not all Massive Airs, x20 multipliers, and Super Über Tricks either – SSX is also a frictionlessly waxed smörgåsbord of gameplay variation. Through the nine Deadly Descents of the single-player campaign – each one dedicated to a geographical region of snowboarding hyper-fantasy (The Himalayas, Antarctica etc.) - you're introduced to a new gadget with each mountain range that tweaks gameplay and adds a little extra spice. Whether it's the wingsuit, which can be used to glide across glacial canyons like an alpine Batman, or pulse goggles that reveal slope gradients amid a white-out, there's always a new technique to master. Each Deadly Descent has been designed around a specific threat too, so that in Antarctica you have to stay out of the shade to avoid freezing, while on Alaska's Deadly Descent you'll view the action from a top-down perspective as the frozen sarcophagus that is an avalanche gnaws at your board's bindings. This gives each mountain range a character all of its own, which is so essential for games of this type – after all, you can't fall in love with the tricks unless there's an inspiring course to perform them on.
Admittedly a short single-player campaign of around 6-8 hours soon subsides into the secondary modes, but thankfully you can grind out an additional 15+ hours with this supporting cast. EA Canada could easily have just tacked-on conventional multiplayer at this point, adding little more than online race and trick competitions alongside some kind of cursory levelling-up process ('You came third! Have some kind of irrelevant costume' and so on...). Instead, what they've produced adds far more depth and compulsion to play on. The two additional modes, Explore and Global Events are effectively little more than the same range of courses and event types from the main campaign re-served without a driving storyline. However, when combined with RiderNet (the SSX equivalent to Need For Speed's Autolog), these events become a social network of one-upmanship. You'll receive updates of people on your friends list setting scores and times on specific Events and be invited to beat their ghost, or tempted to gamble Credits on the Global Event competitions. Even more intriguing are the Geotags, which can be dropped anywhere on a map and set as challenges for other players to retrieve and receive a Credit/XP bonus for their troubles. EA has been pioneering the lobby-less multiplayer experience for a few years now and RiderNet is possibly the best implementation of this kind of technology to date, long may it continue.
But after all this, you are left yearning for a bit more from SSX. While the limited range of event types – Trick It, Race It, and Survive It – are actually pretty elegantly laid out and don't necessarily require any additional modes, it's perhaps the overall design that falls just short of 'stellar' and descends soberingly back to earth as a mere 'righteous' instead. There's just a sense that SSX doesn't quite manage to fully disengage from previous-gen extreme sports game design regardless of how hard it tries at times. That's not to say that it should have travelled the route of obvious alternatives, such as open-world mountains or freeform events, but just to say that it still feels like there's a generational leap within reach that SSX falls desperately short of.
Nonetheless, it's still the best snowboarding game you'll find for an Xbox 360 or PS3 and by quite some margin too. More than that actually, amid a generation where the Tony Hawk series has died and precious few young pretenders have risen to challenge for its throne, SSX sits alongside EA's Skate as one of the only worthwhile extreme sports games of its time.