While the PSP has been praised as a marvellous piece of gaming hardware, the lack of games has been hard to ignore. Lucky for us EA has begun to phase in UMD versions of its huge line which includes the excellent SSX series. In the latest version of EA's downhill racer they've decided to stress a wacky presentation and pump the rock n' roll. Making an entire mountain portable has resulted in some sacrifices, but on the whole 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 and it adds a little more variety to the races.
New to the series on the consoles is the ability to customize a character. This feature did not make the PSP version instead there is a male and female character to choose from at the beginning of the game and a slew of unlockable riders later.
The single player On Tour mode is arranged into different series including Board Races, Board Slope Style, Board BigAir, Ski Race, Ski Slope Style, Ski Big Air, and SSX Legend. Players need to accrue medals and points to unlock more difficult challenges. With over 100 challenges there is plenty to keep gamers busy in On Tour but it lacks some of the kooky additions of the console version. For example the trails include far fewer obstructions and mountain traffic.
Gameplay wise, the Uber tricks have been thrown out of the window in favor of On Tour tricks. In order to pull off the most ridiculous stunts, players must chain together specific moves and earn boost to trigger a prompt at the bottom of the screen that explains how to pull of an On Tour move. Because there is no right analog stick these manuevers are accomplished through the use of the left shoulder button and a face button.
Other bits of gameplay abide 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. The only thing that never becomes complex is landing. In this way SSX easily appeals to both the hardcore and the casual gamer.
SSX was originally designed around the Dual Shock for PS2 so the limited buttons of the PSP do not perfectly accommodate a direct port. This isn't to say that it doesn't work on the PSP, it just feels more natural on Sony's trusty pad. Also, controlling the action using the PSP's analog "nub" feels a little too sensitive, especially when compared to controls on the Xbox and PS2. Again, it's not huge, but it's a noticeable difference.
Visually, On Tour on PSP isn't as spectacular as its console brethren. It's a good looking game on its own, no doubt, but there sure are differences. For starters, the PS2 and Xbox versions include more explosions, trees, rails, and scripted events. The mountains in the PSP version feel sparse in comparison. So that teary eyed, wind burn inducing speed from the console edition feels a little more tame on Sony's handheld.
And then there's the multiplayer ad-hoc mode. On Tour lets four players tear it up wirelessly using the PSP's w-fi functionality. Since the console versions of the game only function two player split screen action, the PSP actually supports the largest available On Tour multiplayer games. Thankfully, setup was quick and painless. Better still, the races themselves benefited from minimal lag. One thing holding SSX: On Tour is the lack of an infrastructure mode. True, most PSP games don't feature online play, but SSX in particular would truly benefit from the feature.
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. Plus, the PSP version lets you listen to these tunes "on the go" using EA's Pocket Traxx feature.
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