SSX on Tour Review (Xbox)

I have fond memories of SSX. It's what got me back into gaming. I played the original game on a friend's PS2, and the incredible graphics, speed, and fun is what got me all hot 'n' bothered to get into the next generation of consoles, and the rest was history. Strangely enough, it's now one of the old men of gaming, with SSX: On Tour being the fourth installment in the franchise. It ushered in this generation of gaming, and now is ushering it out. Has SSX stood the test of time?

One new wrinkle in this edition is that the eternal slope war of skier versus boarder is making it's way to the SSX mountain. You can outfit your character with either skis or a snowboard, and while there doesn't end up being a whole lot of difference in practice (other than the need as the skier to use the right stick to pivot when you land backwards), it brings new animations and some variety for series vets. However, one of the early steps in character creation is choosing between a skier and boarder, and there's no way to go back and forth once you've chosen.

Though various editions of SSX have tried to heighten the importance of tricks, it has never disguised the fact that this is a racing game, first and foremost. The best feature of the series has always been speed, and lots of it. I don't know if I'm merely nostalgic for the original SSX, or whether games like Burnout have redefined my expectations, but SSX: On Tour just doesn't feel like it has that incredible velocity that made the series an adrenaline junkie's perfect fix. The courses are well-designed, and the trick system remains fun, but that missing speed moved the game down the scale from "insanely addictive" to "mighty fun", and that's a huge difference.

Course design has always been a high point of the series, and it's constantly had some of the best and most innovative environments in videogaming. In many ways, SSX: On Tour does not disappoint when it comes to the slopes you're racing on: there's a great deal of interactivity, absolutely massive stretches of real estate that boggle the mind and exhaust the reflexes, and there's new quirky environmental pieces like racing through a construction zone or tricking off oncoming snowplows right in the raceway. One of the hallmarks of the SSX design has always been the shortcuts, and it's here that On Tour makes its big misstep. The shortcuts are more prevalent than ever, and will decide many races. Many times I can't even see my opponent as I swap places with them, taking a 10 meter lead before the other racer is instantly ahead by 300 meters or more. Not only is racing against players you can't see not a lot of fun, but it makes shortcut knowledge and memorization the primary element in winning races, not your skill with the controller. It's almost become an odd puzzle game where it's all about finding the shortest path down the mountain. Pathfinding as a key gameplay element might feel at home in Extreme Street Boy Scout , but it feels woefully misplaced in an SSX game. The game that brought speed-twitch gaming to a high art now has put game guide material over sheer reflexes, and it's a disappointment.

"The Tour" is the meat of SSX: On Tour, and it's gotten a fresh coat of paint from the previous versions of the game. It consists of main events where you will need to medal, and also a constantly shifting menu of "Shred" events that aren't necessary, but provide opportunity to build your "Hype". Besides completing the challenges set out by each event, you'll also be earning "Hype" points through your style on the slope, like collecting certain power-ups, or terrorizing the tourists. The events themselves (especially the "Shred" events) keep things well varied with objectives ranging from simple racing to collecting items to escaping from the Ski Patrol and many others. Since the entire tour takes place on a single mountaintop, with many courses being reused again and again, that variety is necessary. And event variety is really all there is in On Tour: your progression up the ranks is shown through nothing more exciting than a text box, and in a departure from some earlier games in the series, your competition is almost completely devoid of personality. So, to recap: racing monotonous drones through repetitive courses to climb a ranking list with all the personality of an Excel spreadsheet. Thank god for knocking down kids and being chased by cops, though even that event variety starts to wear off a short ways into the game.

Taking a cue from popular road racing games like Burnout, SSX has added "traffic" to the game. As you compete in the various events that make up your climb through the TransWorld Snowboarder rankings, there are plenty of civilians on the course, slowly making their way through these treacherous environs. Heaven knows why they don't stick to the bunny slopes, but they've chosen instead to idle through the raceway on a major sporting event. It's much like the way you'll find weekend duffers holding up Tiger at the 18th at St. Andrews, or soccer moms taking the shortcut to ballet class that runs right through Talladega on race day. What's that you say? You don't ever see that? Maybe because letting complete idiots on the course is a great way to mess up highly skilled professionals? The traffic metaphor doesn't translate too well, and other borrowed elements like Ski Cops who will chase you down after creating too much ruckus don't make the transition, either. The additions certainly don’t ruin the game, but they don’t add enough excitement to offset the tricks they’ll ruin for you.

The technical execution is, as usual, excellent: the lighting is astounding, the animation fluid and complex, and the sound design is among the best that games can offer.

What's most fascinating in the presentation is that SSX has completely reinvented it's style and aesthetics. The earlier games always relied on a high-tempo hip-hop-pop soundtrack and vibe, SSX: On Tour has a graffiti and rock grunge feel to all the proceedings, with artwork (like guitar-playing unicorns) seemingly stolen from the notebook of Napoleon Dynamite. Part of the reliability of the series was simply that brightly colored trippy world that it lived in, and that's been traded for something that feels much closer to earth. Whether you like it or not will largely depend on your personal choices in music and style. However, if you liked the previous games for their music and vibe, you'll be missing that experience in On Tour.

My initial reaction when opening the envelope that my review copy arrived in? My jaw dropped, and I thought perhaps I had been sent some kind of mistake printing. I scanned the spine of the Xbox Live logo, checked the back of the box, ripped open the cellophane and looked through the manual. It seemed impossible that there could be no online play, that long after online play had been introduced to the series we were still limited to the boundaries of our disconnected Xbox.

There was no mistake. It was not a bad printing. There is no online.

Shame on you, EA. Shame.

SSX: On Tour is by no means a failure, or a bad game. It’s technically excellent, and really only suffers in comparison to its strong legacy. I just can’t figure out who I’d recommend it to as anything other than a rental. If you’ve never played the series, you would certainly enjoy SSX: On Tour, but why not buy one of the older versions at half the price? If you have played through the series, and enjoyed it, you won’t find all that much here that you haven’t seen before. I suppose if you’ve always liked SSX, but thought it needed 100% more Iron Maiden and guitar playing unicorns … then On Tour is for you.

SSX on Tour Score
out of 10