It's been eight years since SSX 3...eight years! I haven't backflipped off of a mountain to some seriously loud Run-DMC in over half a decade! Some would call this criminal - that a series so unashamedly over the top and ridiculously fun that EA had to create a whole new stable for games of its ilk (EA Sports BIG) should have simply vanished from our lives. Of course, there might have been a reason for that, as Tony Hawk found out; but even the Birdman really had very little on the original SSX and its legacy. a wacky and wonderful, tongue-in-cheek mini-franchise that was really all about sticking a middle digit up at hipster arcade titles and going for absolute broke.
At least that's how I remember it, and a quick fire up of SSX 3 reassures me of that too. So it's a little disappointing to report that the reboot I held in my hands out in LA felt a bit too, well, normal. But normal doesn't necessarily mean bad...
Part of this is designed: EA have undertaken a huge task in trying to faithfully recreate mountain ranges from across the globe, using data sourced from NASA to give the impression that you are actually boarding down the slopes of Everest, or tricking it up in Antarctica. Of course, it's not that realistic - this is still no simulation, the developers have gone and plonked a load of ramps, constructed features and race lanes down on the snow - but there's a notable absence of glaringly obvious grind rails, the idea being that if a natural surface has an edge to it that you can tame it with your board.
Our demo starts at Kilimanjaro, or rather inside Kilimanjaro, as we begin a downhill dash from various starting points inside the Kibo crater at the summit, all of the players converging on the tunnel that forms the start of the track. From here it's actually a pretty freeform race to the end, EA Vancouver taking pains to highlight the multiple routes to the bottom, hoping that hnuting for shortcuts will provide an incentive for replayability. The race's end sees you careering off of the edge of a massive cliff, flying over a gaping chasm and grabbing onto the runner of a helicopter.
Of course, other players aren't the only thing you'll be racing in SSX. 'Survival' pits you against the fearsome elements, the developer demo showed off a chase sequence with an avalanche, emphasising a requirement for precise control as you try and plot the quickest route down the mountain without making the snowy leviathan behind you any more angry. The helicopter is your biggest friend here, fulfilling the role of transportation and also helping to guide you through levels with tips, advice and illumination (literally when it comes to night-time levels).
When news first surfaced of the series' return, it was suffixed with the phrase 'Deadly Descents', and much that was contained within that early concept has been retained in these 'boss battles' of sorts. Speeding down Mount McKinley, being harassed by a demonic cloud of murderous snow, we're alerted to the fact that these freak phenomena are procedurally generated. Every trick you pull, every landing you snuff, skids you can't help and other motions that carve up the snow, affects the landscape and its stability. This means that the face of the mountain is somewhat malleable thanks to the physics engine but, more pertinently here, that your activities can ultimately bring about your character's snowy demise as well.
We didn't get hands-on with this aspect of the game, but it's clear to see that the developers have tried to create an experience that's bursting with epic, sweeping and cinematic shots. The camera pulls back to fill our gaze with the mountainside, a third of the screen heaving and churning as the avalanche descends. The camera swings around to look the player in the face and allow us to fully appreciate the magnitude of the forces at work behind him. It's impressive stuff to behold, but it's anybody's guess as to how it'll actually handle and play.
Of course, the SSX I remember had ridiculous tricks, splendid stunts and wacky wonderment. What happened to all of that? Well the former is covered pretty spectacularly as we're whisked away by chopper to Everest (where else?!) to get our Shaun White on. At a lower altitude - the emphasis is not on speed here - squished somewhere on the Tibetan-Chinese border, we're soon leaping about to our heart's content, and goofily grinding our way along bits of the Great Wall of China.
It was this bit with which we managed to get a little bit of hands-on time later on, flipping around like it's 2003 all over again. It's not quite as arcade-y as some of the games past, but it is very intuitive indeed. Like a snowbound middle ground between Tony Hawk and Skate, SSX provides two controller options - allowing you to choose between the face button input of yesteryear, and a smooth system that incorporated the dual sticks. It's graceful and yet still intuitive, deep and yet still accessible. There's a fluidity to the game's mechanics which echoes the progression all of EA Sports' recent attempts to cut down on canned animations and give control back to the player, and here it's realised beautifully.
The cartoonish nature of the game might have changed, and there'll be some whose first impressions of the game might be skewed a little by nostalgic expectation. But this is no sim, not at all. Described by Creative Director Todd Batty as hopefully being an experience with connotations of 'Burnout on snow', we're optimistic of such a vision being realised, and intrigued by the deadly descents themselves. At its heart, the series has always really been about taking these giant snowy peaks and turning them into exciting, and occasionally dangerous, playgrounds. If looked at from that angle, EA Vancouver are well on course for what should be a very solid addition to EA's 2012 lineup.