SSX On Tour Hands-On

We fly down the mountain in the PS2 version of EA Canada's latest snowboarder.

EA showed off a playable version of SSX On Tour, the latest entry in the acclaimed franchise, at a recent press event in San Francisco. We had the opportunity to check out a presentation of the game and get our hands on a work-in-progress PlayStation 2 version at the event. Although the demo was obviously limited, it covered all the expected bases for an SSX game, and it provided a promising showcase for the new look and feel of the fourth entry in the series.

The evening began with a presentation that covered the new direction in which the team is taking SSX On Tour. We got a taste of these new elements a little over a month ago in the first trailer for the game, which featured a flashy mix of gameplay clips and line drawings that appeared to be taken out of someone's sketch pad. One of the most pleasant surprises from the presentation is that the scribble-inspired artwork is actually an integral part of the game's menu system. The menus you'll go through once you start all maintain the cohesive squiggly look that gives the game a decidedly different appearance from its predecessors. This difference extends all the way to the game's heads-up display, which sports a scrawly makeover for all of its displays.

The next element of the game highlighted in the demo was the single-player tour mode, which is basically your career mode. This mode follows the same basic concept of the standard career you've played--you'll race against groups and individuals as you try to become the best of the best--but this time, there is a stronger narrative element. You'll start out as a small-time wannabe who has to crawl his way to the top of the heap. There is a character-creator feature that's getting to be standard in most of EA's games these days. You'll be able to tweak a number of elements on your virtual self in the game, most notably your character's clothes.

The last element highlighted in the presentation was the gameplay, which is being tailored to offer players more flexibility in how they race. In addition to being able to use a snowboard, you'll now be able to use skis when racing. The actual gameplay mechanics are undergoing some enhancements and additions that mostly stem from player feedback from the previous entries in the series. A new physics system is being added, and the trick system is being tweaked to offer more options, including a more-dramatic presentation with the addition of "monster moments." These moments are dramatic sequences where you catch big air and pull off cool tricks that are flashy and big on points.

The trick stick will help you modify and extend your tricks when you catch enough air.

However, the biggest addition to the game mechanics is the "trick stick," which incorporates the use of the right analog stick while performing tricks. You'll simply tap it in any direction to execute different tricks that you can modify and extend. As with SSX3, you'll be doing your racing on courses set across a massive mountain. The dev team members giving the presentation also noted that the mountain will offer a much more-seamless experience, thanks to an improved streaming system.

The demo of the game we played featured two events: a group race against other competitors and a one-on-one race against Elise, a familiar face from the previous games in the series. The races had day and night variations that showed off the enhanced lighting and level of detail. We were able to play as a male or female racer, and we could choose between either a traditional snowboard or the newly added skis. We tried out both races as a snowboarder and a skier. As you'd expect, our experience as a snowboarder was like wearing a comfy pair of old jeans. The handling was spot on and made it easy to experiment with the new mechanics that have been added to the gameplay. We were pretty impressed by the feel of the new course, which seemed tailor-made for insane leaps that were just begging to be explored.

The interactivity was pretty much in line with what was said during the presentation: If it looks like you can break it, you can. Although we'd like to warn prospective players now about those cool video screens you'll see to one side of the course. The ones that are begging to be smashed to bits as you leap through them in Die Hard fashion? Yeah, those don't actually break. If you're looking to bring your racing groove to a complete halt as you smack into an immovable object a la Wile E. Coyote, then go crazy, but the screens won't break no matter how many times you slam into them... Believe us, we tried. The game still handled well when using the skis, and there were some cool things to do, like skiing backward. But we reckon it will take a bit of time for players to get as crazily proficient with skis as they are with snowboards. The handling didn't feel too different with the skis, and it appeared that the only minor difference was in the timing.

On Tour's graphics are looking mighty sharp and appear to sport even more polish than the visuals in SSX3. Racer models feature good animation and a satisfying level of detail, enough to show off the various clothing lines that will appear in SSX On Tour. However, as is the case with all the SSX games, the real star of the show is the mountain you'll be racing on. The environment we saw featured a great level of detail and a winning sense of scale that made us feel like an ant as we made our way to the end. Best of all, the gorgeous surroundings offered a satisfying level of interactivity, such as letting you snap off the tree trunks when passing overhead during one of the many leaps you'll be making as you tear to the finish line. One of the most striking aspects of the visuals is the significantly improved sense of speed, which borrows a few elements from EA's racing titles, such as Need for Speed, and incorporates distortions around the edges of the screen to sell the sensation of tearing through snowy hills at insane speeds. On the technical side of things, the PlayStation 2 version we played ran wickedly fast without a hint of inconsistency in its frame rate, regardless of what was going on.

On Tour moves faster than any SSX before it.

The audio in SSX On Tour sports an extreme makeover, like many other aspects in the game. The core goods, such as voice and the assorted sound effects, are in line with what you've heard before in any SSX game. However, the soundtrack is making a pretty radical departure from club-style tunes that have been a staple of the series. This time out, hip-hop and rock will form the gist of the music, which actually complements the new look of the game.

Based on this early play session, it appears that SSX On Tour should offer up yet another winning entry in EA's well-established series. The new art style gives the game a fresh look that's complemented by the gameplay and music. The addition of skis helps beef up the gameplay options, and the new tour mode sounds as though it will mix the right proportions of old and new. At this point, our only real gripe is the lack of online play for the multiplayer modes, which was a gameplay element we'd hoped to see expanded after the promising start in SSX3. Hopefully the single-player and offline multiplayer modes will have enough engaging content to keep players as hooked as they were with SSX3. SSX On Tour is currently slated to ship this fall for the GameCube, PlayStation2, and Xbox.

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