It's easy to get caught up in next generation hype and shift focus to an array of games that won't be on store shelves for months to come. EA is a company that is large enough to boast a full line-up of sports sequels that are both scheduled to launch with Xbox 360, as well as close out the current generation. While we've come to expect a continuous flow of sequels from EA sports titles, we've recently begun to question how much new content is required to make a sequel worth buying. Other titles this year have brought just enough to the table to justify their continuation. While On Tour isn't exactly an original experience, the core gameplay of SSX is such a blast that we're happy to hop on the lift one more time.
In case the entire SSX phenomenon has passed you by a little back story might be in order. The series kicked off as a PS2 launch title, which we loudly proclaimed the best piece of software to come out with Sony's second console. SSX Tricky and SSX 3 added more and bigger tricks, longer runs, and ironed out nearly all of the technical wrinkles. So while the series has avoided tinkering with the original formula, it has also held our interest over the years.
None of the changes made to On Tour are earth shattering but for the most part they are positive. This time around players are not just racing champs, they are also high altitude rock stars seeking to build hype and dominate the mountain. Rock and roll has been infused into every aspect of SSX, from the wacky menus and icon system to the excellent soundtrack. The overall presentation looks like a fully animated sketchbook found in the locker of a rock n' roll obsessed adolescent. There are guitar playing unicorns, dancing amoebas, and so many visual non sequiturs that just staring at the menu screen can be a joy.
This edgy artistic approach extends into the gameplay. There are sketchbook icons, an announcer taken straight from an arena rock show, and excellent replays that freeze frame from multiple angles and throw in more crazy illustrations. SSX: On Tour should be commended for its excellent sense of style. While the rest of EA sports offerings are always stupendously functional in their presentation, On Tour is the only title that exudes such personality and fun.
Besides the funky new presentation, EA has also added twin-tip skiing to the mix. The mechanics are basically the same as snowboarding but with different trick animations. Skiing also has a slightly different flow than riding. It's difficult to describe the difference but skiing feels technically more difficult and slightly less intuitive. This addition is great for those of us who have been waiting for an alternative to Johnny Moseley Mad Trix but in itself is not a reason to play through the game twice.
Also new to the series is the ability to customize a character. The creation tools are not as advanced as say Tiger Woods, but still let players inject their personality into the game. There are 10 separate male and female personas, 10 more face types and variable heights and weights. There's also the option to change facial hair for men and the makeup of women. My character is already equipped with a fake mustache and eyebrows but players can also save up for new tops, pants, boots, gloves, goggles, and bolt on costumes like a giant panda head or a 70's Leisure Suit. Forget upgrading equipment, the goofy costumes are the real reason to save your cash.
The open mountains from SSX 3 have been replaced with a main single player experience called The Tour. This presents players with a map of the mountain and a few icons representing open challenges. As each challenge is completed more events are unlocked giving the game a very free-form composition that fits the rockin' presentation perfectly. There are 135 challenges and 49 medals to be won on one gigantic hill that includes 13 new tracks. Outside of races, trick events, and collection missions, SSX mixes up the single player game with a ton of variety. Some of the inventive game modes challenge players to stay off of the snow for a specified amount of time, escape ski patrol, knock down tourists, grind for huge distance, and pull off huge tricks. So while the core of SSX is racing, there are a hundred other activities which are almost always entertaining.
Each event on The Tour rewards players with money and hype. Hype allows players to advance in the world rankings, giving players a reason to race with style. Hype isn't just accrued through winning events but is also rewarded for knocking down other skiers and opponents. The crowded slopes make the mountain feel more alive, and allowing players to whack tourists as they go by goes right along with game's winning attitude.
Gameplay wise, the Uber tricks have been thrown out of the window in favor of Monster tricks. In order to pull off the most ridiculous stunts, players must build up their boost meter through aerobatics and grinding. When the boost meter is full players can then hit the right analog stick to pull of Monster Tricks that involve aerial maneuvers that could only be pulled off in virtual reality. Normal gameplay abides by the normal SSX rules of preloaded jumps, tweaked grabs, and a combo meter that allows expert players to link together large parts of their exhibition for more points. Monster Tricks, Monster Grinds, and almost every other move can be tweaked to earn more points. The only thing that never becomes complex is landing. In this way SSX easily appeals to both the hardcore and the casual gamer.
The only control problems that arise in SSX are derived from the fact that it has obviously been designed around the Dual Shock for PS2. This isn't to say that it doesn't work on the other systems, it just feels more natural on Sony's machine. And don't be scared away by the depth of the trick system because even a gamer such as myself who is more comfortable with the controls of Amped on Xbox was pulling off Monster Tricks in no time.
Visually, On Tour isn't hugely different from SSX 3 but there have been some improvements. The game is based on streaming technology, so the loading times have been shaved way down. There are also more explosions, trees, rails, and scripted events. The mountains are so crowded with objects that it can be difficult in some areas to find open powder. All of these objects along with a motion blur dramatically increases the feeling of speed when burning some boost. We're talking teary eyed, wind burn inducing speed that makes you rock in your chair while carving.
The one thing holding SSX: On Tour is the lack of an online mode. It's not often that a feature of this magnitude is dropped from a series, but the most offered in SSX is a two player split screen mode from the quickplay menu. There is still plenty of action in the tour mode but online competition brought the series so close to perfection that it's a shame to see it missing from this installment.
Are You Ready to Rock?
When a game's main theme is by Iron Maiden, you know you're in for something special. The crazy characters of SSX were already portrayed as rock stars and now they have a worthy soundtrack to back up their high altitude posturing. EA has assembled one of the most excellent assortments of licensed tracks in recent memory. This isn't a Burnout 3 compilation that highlights pop-punk flashes in the pan. The On Tour artists are respected and cutting edge musicians that transcend the TRL crowd and should appeal to anyone with decent musical taste.
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