While it is certainly concerned with nailing the big picture and succeeding in pulling players into the icy entrails of its fantastic universe, it also displays a rarely seen level of craft in the design of its smallest traits
One mountain, three peaks. That is the concept around which the third installment of the SSX franchise is built. And like any games that portray extreme sports while supported by very effective mechanics, it could have easily gotten away with making that sentence be nothing but an empty marketing ploy; one that tries to give a special edge to content that is tried and true, yet presented in a way that is all too familiar to any gamer who has ever gone through a title of the sort. SSX 3, however, is far from being just another sports effort that justifies its existence by executing small alterations on the framework that was put in place by its very successful predecessors.
With it, EA Sports Big – the branch of Electronic Arts that, during its life, dedicated itself to creating sports games that merged realism with the exaggeration of arcades – blatantly went out of its way to craft a unique experience that although certainly packed with a boatload of excitement, spectacular races, and tremendous tricks, goes above and beyond that familiar scope to deliver a product that significantly challenges the boundaries of what a title pertaining to its genre can do. And as a consequence, the Gamecube as well as the other consoles of its generation ended up being the home to an obvious apex of that gameplay style.
For SSX 3, the organizers of the famous competition set their sights on a massive snow-covered mountain range made up of three progressively tall peaks whose wildness and danger increase notably along with their altitude. And in this paradise of pine trees, ice tunnels, glaciers, villages, rocks, frozen rivers, and obscene slopes, they proceeded to create the scenario of their next event. Tracks, either for racing or for executing eye-popping maneuvers, were set up with all the necessary infrastructure, including stands for the spectators and properly delineated turns, railings, and jumps that take advantage of the natural environment while also being supported by what good old human engineering can do.
At the same time, in-between those areas where competitions are to take place, the SSX personnel went about constructing transition zones in which fans and athletes alike can enjoy their downtime by resting in a lodge, shopping at a store, following the sings to the nearest tracks, or accessing the air transport that can take them to any other checkpoint on the mountain. Finally, the most distant and isolated regions of the peaks were preserved in their untamed and unpredictable natural state, standing as the ultimate test of skill for those brave enough to face them. With that all done, the world’s best riders were invited to the party.
SSX 3 could have exposed that concept via the traditional format of menus, showing all the available facilities on a map and allowing players to select where they want to go. It is clear, though, that EA Sports Big was not satisfied with that approach. They wanted more, and they gave life to their creative inspirations by actually building all of that, effectively birthing a game that can best be described as open-world snowboarding.
Surely, for the sake of efficiency and to the delight of those who prefer to get to the meat of the game in a flash, the option to use a menu to head to any of the events does exist, with the caveat that once the location is picked and the rider is transported to the place, a little bit of riding is still necessary for one to access the competition zone.
However, to those that prefer to relax, enjoy the journey, take in the sights, and explore, SSX 3 leaves the door open for one to simply freely ride all the way to their destination. And that is possible because, from the avalanche-ridden and snowstorm-plagued top of the tallest peak to the urban landscape that lies on the foot of the mountain range, all courses, transition zones, and wild expanses found in the game are somehow connected across a unified and seamless world map that has no loading times whatsoever.
It is ridiculous. It is delightful. And the mountain comes alive spectacularly well with the aid of small details, like an always-active radio station that plays songs and spins gossip as well as a portable device in which the rider receives messages from rivals, including texts telling the protagonist that a record time or score they had set was broken.
Ultimately, however, those alluring frills would have been meaningless if the heart of SSX 3 was dull. It is quite fortunate, then, that the stones that make up the game are anything but boring. Its eclectic soundtrack, constituted of licensed tracks that cover multiple genres such as pop, rock, hip hop, and electronic music, wonderfully pumps an extra dosage of energy into the already thrilling events.
Simultaneously, the title’s graphics could not really have been better. The scenarios, whether natural or artificial, are not only grand but also surprisingly varied, and the wildest confines of the peaks are a masterclass on reproducing untouched environments, as they carry an uncanny edge while immersing players into their organic spell. Furthermore, the visuals flow by with such smoothness and boast a draw distance that is so impressive that even though, in purely technological terms, SSX 3 cannot compete with more contemporary games of the sort, its graphics still show no sign of aging. More important than those, however, is both how SSX 3 gives control over the riders to the players and how it organizes its high-quality content. And on the two fronts, the game is absolutely victorious.
In spite of the huge array of moves the athletes can perform, accessing them is equally simple and intuitive. Tilting the control stick forward accelerates, moving it in the opposite direction reduces speed, and riding the high amount of absurdly designed rails is just a matter of sliding or jumping onto them and maintaining equilibrium. Jumping is executed with the A button, and once in the air, gamers can pull off stunning tricks either with the D-pad (which is responsible for spinning maneuvers) or the shoulder buttons (which trigger a myriad of grabs), with nearly endless combinations of the two being available.
The C-stick, meanwhile, carries out stylish moves related to how the rider stands on the board, and it can be employed at any time as a way to string together combos containing an infinite quantity of moves, as sliding down slopes whilst holding one’s balance on a tilted board keeps sequences alive. Finally, given SSX has always had a liking for the absurd, the R or L buttons can be used for pushing rivals and the X key allows the athlete to do a hand-plant on a railing in order to gain a temporary speed boost.
With those responsive commands, gamers will have access to two main modes. The first is a Free Play option where up to two people can take on any of the unlocked events, and the second is by all means the star of the show: Conquer the Mountain. After selecting one among the available riders, who will all start out with their stats at the bare minimum, players will be transported to the very top of the mountain’s first peak, from which they will ride until they reach the transition zone that has the gateways to the initial competitions.
As a rule of thumb, events are divided into two types: racing and freestyle, with the former – obviously – being about who reaches the bottom of the course first and the latter focusing on accumulating the biggest amount of points by performing tricks and extending combos. Inside that standard and limited spectrum, SSX 3 unearths incredible variety.
On all peaks, gamers will tackle three kinds of races: one or two that, set on actual courses, will take place in a three-round format, with two qualification heats and a final run for the podium; a one-on-one contest against the local champion on the uppermost portion of the peak, where nature roams free and the duel feels like a rally on snowboards; and, finally, a lengthy race against the clock (which lasts for over ten minutes on the first two peaks and almost half an hour on the third) that begins on the peak’s summit and extends all the way to the foot of the mountain, going through various tracks and transition zones.
Similarly, the freestyle matches also come in very different flavors: the three-round format appears in competitions that happen on a longer course filled with opportunities for various tricks, a shorter slope where the focus is on high jumps, and a half-pipe; whereas, as it happens in the races, the top area of the peak is used for a duel to see who scores the most amongst the wilderness, and the culmination of the point-accumulating craze comes in a long run where, starting on the summit and ending at the lowest edge of the world of SSX 3, the rider must beat a certain score.
Smartly, advancing to the next peak does not require players to outright win all events. What they have to do, instead, is clear all competitions of one type, and in those that are decided in three rounds, earning a bronze medal will suffice. There are two important ramifications that stem from that setup. Firstly, it gives gamers freedom, as they can choose to focus solely on racing or free-styling as well as decide to switch between the pair of formats when they get stuck.
Secondly, it allows SSX 3 to be hard, because since a third-place standing is enough in events broken into multiple heats, EA Sports Big was able to push the AI to a very high level, as getting a gold demands that one excel so much in racing and in landing tricks that, chances are, finishing first even in the easiest of the events of the simplest of the peaks is an achievement many will only attain after they have spent many hours with the title; traveled to the trickiest bowels of the most brutal of the summits; and significantly improved the stats of their chosen character, an activity that – alongside buying clothes, boards, and other visual-altering goodies – can be done at lodges.
Whether it is in racing or in free-styling, there is not enough amount of praise out there to be thrown at the design of the courses of SSX 3. Their slopes, turns, jumps, tunnels, and obstacles make up for an extremely thrilling experience. And their scenarios hit on a fine balance between natural landscapes and man-made structures. What is most impressive about them, though, is how open-ended they are, because they offer so many branching paths – sometimes cleverly hidden and occasionally in plain sight – that it is unlikely for one to cover them all, just as it is impossible to identify which of the routes is better, as they all come off as being equally breathtaking and efficient.
Furthermore, in spite of their unbelievable width and insanity, the tracks boast so many intricacies and details that it is quite clear every single inch of their area was put together with the utmost care. And nowhere is that quality more visible than in how the racing tracks combine speeding thrills with trick opportunities. One could reasonably think that crazy maneuvers and going as fast as possible are not a good match; after all, not only do those wild moves often require excessively high jumps, but they also come with the danger of falling down and losing time. SSX 3, however, makes tricks be valuable in the context of races.
In the game’s combo system, after every single trick, a visual timer will be triggered. If another trick is performed within that short time period, a combo will be started; and the total of points one will get from those moves vastly increases whenever a new maneuver is tied to the sequence. As usual with all sports games of the kind, the bigger the combo is the more risky it is to add another trick to it, since a stumble will cause all those accumulated extra points to wash away, generating a tight balance of risk and reward. In free-style competitions, combos and tricks have the obvious benefit of producing a bigger score. They do, however, also fill an adrenaline gauge located on the right edge of the screen.
Once it is completely filled, it can unlock the execution of even crazier and more productive moves, and if enough of them are performed, players can raise the level of the meter twice. In racing the adrenaline gauge comes into play because it also works as a boost reservoir. With the press of the B button, riders can get extra speed; its activation, though, slowly drains the tank, unless it in level three, in which case gamers will have access to two minutes of unlimited boost. Those mechanics make it almost imperative – especially to those who are looking to break records and earn gold medals – to match velocity with audacity, taking the intensity of races to an unforeseen height.
The final touch that makes SSX 3 so special is seen in how the game finds a way to give value to the expanse of its world, making it more than the perfect materialization of a beautiful concept. All of the mountain’s tracks feature two distinct portals: one that lets riders enter them for the sake of competitions, and another that allows players to tackle them as a freeride, in which they can simply leisurely descend the slopes, train, and explore the area.
That mode, however, is also ideal for the clearing of the game’s two biggest slices of extra content: hundreds of collectible tokens that will only be found in their totality if gamers truly comb the scenarios, and almost ninety mini challenges. The former are available in races and other events, but due to the liberty of freeriding – including the ability to automatically be transported to any segment of the track – they are easier to gather that way. The latter, meanwhile, are exclusive to the mode, and they shine not only in how some of them will truly push players to their limit, but also in the way they smartly take advantage of the design of certain parts of the courses, showing they were created with a lot of care.
It is possible to, perhaps, argue that the dedication SSX 3 puts towards the creation of a massive mountain with seamlessly connected courses and areas ends up leading it to have a somewhat small number of tracks, as the game carries slightly less than twenty of those. Nevertheless, such a complaint hardly holds when faced with how big and impressive the title feels. Where most sports games often rest on previously acquired laurels and are satisfied with implementing a few alterations in order to justify a sequel, SSX 3 goes the other way. Sure, at heart, it still presents the mixture of thrilling races and exaggerated arcade features the franchise is known for. Yet, the work it does in terms of world-building is so stunning and pushes so many boundaries that its scope still comes off as utterly flooring.
And while it is certainly concerned with nailing the big picture and succeeding in pulling players into the icy entrails of its fantastic universe, it also displays a rarely seen level of craft in the design of its smallest traits, whether they are snowy bumps on one among the hundreds of slopes of one of its three peaks or a blood-pumping avalanche that will only be seen by a small portion of its players. It is through those means that SSX 3 achieves its status as nothing but the tallest pinnacle of extreme sports as portrayed by the gaming medium.