The thrill of purposely flinging oneself down a mountainside is captured like never before in SSX 3, the third entry in the popular snowboarding series that originally debuted on the PlayStation 2 in 2000. While SSX 3 doesn't fundamentally change the series' signature gameplay, which combines near-vertical downhill racing with a completely over-the-top trick system, it does change the structure of the game by offering a freeform, open-ended environment to experience, compete in, and explore. This huge, fully realized snow-covered mountain provides some incredible scenery and no shortage of high-speed entertainment. Fans of SSX should have expected as much, though this is a game that is highly recommended not only for veterans but for novices.
As in previous SSX games, in SSX 3, your trek to become the fastest, flashiest snowboarder begins with your choosing a persona from the game's cast of young, smart-alecky hipsters. Fans will recognize most of the cast right off the bat, though there are a few new faces as well. It doesn't really matter who you choose, though. Aside from some cosmetic variety in their respective arsenals of trick moves, each character begins with rock-bottom ratings in stats like acceleration, tricks, speed, and stability. These ratings are strictly relative, though. Immediately in SSX 3, you're capable of some impressive stunts and surprising speeds.
The game offers a straightforward "single event" option, as well as a vertical two-player split-screen variant (the PS2 version also supports online play, explained later) that allows you to compete in any of the race or freestyle events you've previously unlocked. You unlock events in SSX 3's main attraction, the new "conquer the mountain" mode, which lets you participate in race and freestyle events at your leisure; it also lets you explore the game's expansive environments. SSX 3 takes place on a fantastical mountain consisting of three progressively steeper, more intimidating peaks. These truly are the main characters of SSX 3, as seemingly every square foot of them is unique. They offer so much to see, so many chances to practically fly, and so many hidden pathways and shortcuts that you could easily spend weeks learning their ins and outs. For good measure, each peak has a "back country" section that's unfettered and apparently not intended for snowboarders like you; so, shredding down these uncharted slopes has a very different feel to it than the manufactured and ostentatious racing lanes you'll see more often.
Initially, only the first peak and its basic races and freestyle events are available. As you place in the top three (out of six) in these events, you'll gain access to more events, and, eventually, you'll gain access to the other peaks. Each peak, in turn, has its own events for you to participate in. Most impressively, you'll be able to unlock a race from the top of any of the peaks--right on down to the bottom. Peak one's top-to-bottom race takes 10 full minutes or more, while peak three's race takes an entire half hour. Thanks to the quality of SSX 3's visuals and course design, the game's convincing sensation of speed, and the responsive gameplay that fans of the series know and love, these endurance runs are just breathtaking.
Half-hour runs down the mountain are possible thanks to the streaming technology used by the game. Loading times are carefully concealed, not just in these events, but, in general, during the game. During most of the race and freestyle events, you can instantly restart from the beginning if you decide that you've messed up too badly. Also, at any time, you can access the start menu and freely transport yourself between any of the peaks or events you've unlocked. In a great touch, you'll briefly see your boarder patiently anticipating his or her next run while heading up the slope on a gondola, or even on a private plane, as the new area loads up. Only when first loading the conquer the mountain mode or when leaving the lodge (which is where you upgrade your character and buy new outfits and things) is there a noticeable delay before you hit the slopes again. Even here, some pumping beats keep you company while you bide your time. These may be subtle things, but the attention paid to what happens in between the races and freestyle events goes a long way toward making the whole game even more enjoyable.
The races and freestyle events have the same, basic goals as ever: Respectively, you're either trying to make it to the finish line first, or you're trying to make it to the finish line with as many points as possible (points you earn by executing tricks and trick combos). In addition to these two main types of events, you'll find other things to do just by exploring the mountainside. You can collect icons that give you more cash, and you can also ride on to challenge beacons which let you attempt "big challenges." These are essentially minigames which set such goals as having to jump through a series of hoops or demanding that you run into a series of punching bags on the way down that part of the slope. It can be difficult just to find and run into these beacons on your way down, and, generally, the minigames offered aren't as exciting as the main events. Even so, it can be a lot of fun exploring the three peaks, and the game rewards you for doing so: In addition to the goals associated with the main events, there are goals based on how many challenges you've completed, how many cash icons you've collected, and how much cash you've earned on a peak overall.
As mentioned, the actual gameplay of SSX 3 is similar to what's been seen in the series thus far. Obviously, the presence of completely new and much longer courses considerably changes the tone of the experience, but the mechanics won't take long for returning players to get reacquainted with. You can duck down to build speed, or you can check yourself to make sharper turns. You can plant your feet for a jump, and, while airborne, you can execute several different types of grabs by pressing and holding various buttons on the controller. You can also tweak these grabs for bigger points.
Points aren't necessary in the racing events, but executing tricks also earns you more boost, which lets you speed up, jump higher, and, in turn, execute even crazier tricks. Once your boost meter is full, you can perform ubertricks in midair; you can also execute ubergrinds. Pull off four ubertricks in a single run, and you'll gain access to a second tier of even more ridiculous tricks. Pull off five of these and you'll get unlimited boost for a while. The trick system is still quite simple. None of the tricks are harder than any others to execute, but the flashier ones take longer to perform, so it may be harder to land them. Landing in SSX 3 is easy enough: Just ease off the trick buttons and stop flipping head over heels. And, as long as your board lands before your body does, you'll stay on your feet. The game controls about as well using the PS2's, Xbox's, and GameCube's stock controllers, though the four shoulder buttons on the PS2 pad make it especially well-suited for the game.
Even if you bail, it's easy to keep going, as there's next to no downtime. If you crash into something, mashing on the jump button causes you to quickly right yourself--sometimes even in midair--before landing. And, should you take a horrendously wrong turn and fall off someplace you weren't supposed to, you'll almost instantly restart on the track. The main disadvantage isn't so much that you lose time, since you don't lose much, but you lose a good chunk of your boost.
The convenience of being able to quickly re-spawn on the track, either automatically or at the touch of a button, gives rise to one minor issue, and it conceals another one. For better or worse, since you can't actually injure yourself or get knocked out of a race (let alone get straight-up killed because you landed on your head from a 200-foot drop), the reset option all but eliminates the sense of danger you'd otherwise feel racing down these slopes. The game has an intimidating look to it but feels more like an interactive roller-coaster ride. An optional, more-punishing penalty for screwing up would have been cool. Also, the auto-reset conveniently kicks in whenever you go somewhere you're not supposed to. The game's environments do offer multiple paths, but the choices aren't limitless. Sometimes you'll be reset on the track for venturing where it looks like you should have been able to go. Considering the game beckons you to find shortcuts labeled "out of bounds," it's too bad that the real out-of-bounds areas can't be made noticeable until you run into them.
SSX 3 also features the same sort of combat previously found in the series. You can attempt to block incoming attacks, and you can punch to the left or to the right in an attempt to knock down the other riders. This can be pretty satisfying, and it also rewards you with more boost. Unfortunately, the rider on the receiving end might not appreciate a clobbering, so he or she will often try to get you back. That is, if he or she manages to catch up to you!
In general, the computer-controlled snowboarders provide a satisfying challenge. Too bad you never get to race against more than five of them at a time, and that the freestyle and free-ride sessions are devoid of other boarders. There's no gross rubber-band AI to be found during the race events, as there is in some other racing games. This means that if you're blowing the competition out of the water, they won't magically appear right behind you in the last few seconds of the race. In a similar vein, you will be unable to catch up to the competition if you're racing terribly and fall behind. The game's open-ended structure and relatively simple starting events work well to keep the game easy, at first, but there's plenty of replay value and long-term depth for those aspiring to be experts. Unlocking all the events isn't so tough, but getting a gold medal in all of them is. Doing so rewards you with lots of unlockable goodies and still more cash, which can be spent on things like hidden characters and outrageous outfits once you're satisfied with your boarder's stats. SSX 3's trick system also has a bit more depth than before, thanks to the ability to execute handplants by using one of the face buttons. There's also the ability to execute manuals by using the right analog stick. Along with air tricks, manuals can be linked together in continuous combos. Though pulling off individual tricks is easy, this is still the sort of game in which you'll find yourself getting more and more proficient the longer you play. More likely than not, you'll want to figure out even more complex strings of tricks and more ideal paths to take down the slopes.
The option to play against others online may stretch the lasting value of the PS2 version of SSX 3 even further, though it's pretty straightforward. It lets you challenge only one other player at a time in any of the game's standard race or freestyle events. A quick match option allows you to quickly find a random opponent, but it may be even faster just to jump into one of the player lobbies and challenge someone, done simply by highlighting their name and pressing a button. Players' stats are recorded (you can play unranked games if you wish, though), and you can carry over your character from "conquer the mountain" to the online arena--here's where you can show off whatever fancy outfit you've purchased, for instance. There's a fairly significant loading time as an event is loading up, though the actual matches we experienced were relatively lag-free; the controls may be slightly more sluggish during online play, but compensating for this wasn't difficult. The game provides USB headset support in case you want to talk to your opponent, but after a match, it doesn't afford you with the convenience of being able to challenge that same player for another go-round, instead dumping you back to the main menu of the player-matching service. From there, it's back to the lobbies for more. Online play in SSX 3 certainly works, but since it's pretty stripped down and limited to two players at a time, it's probably best suited for expert players and their bragging rights.
SSX 3 is an incredible looking game, especially on the Xbox and GameCube, where it runs at a higher resolution, and the colors are richer and more vibrant. Regardless of the platform, SSX 3 presents some of the most convincing-looking snow effects ever seen in a game (the snow actually glistens in the sun, and it's practically mouthwatering), and you'll intuitively be able to recognize certain types of snow. Sometimes it'll be thicker or thinner, thus becoming more or less advantageous for reaching top speeds. While some of the ubertricks are completely preposterous, the boarder animations look great overall. Really, however, it's the scenery that never ceases to amaze. Each of the three peaks has its own style. You'll know it when you're on peak three, for instance, and you'll practically be able to feel the thinner air. Of particular note is the fact that each version of the game occasionally seizes up a little, mostly occurring during transitions between main sections of the peaks or between the peaks themselves. These occasional frame rate issues are hardly a problem, though, as much more often, SSX 3 runs extremely smoothly and looks extremely good. You might be a bit put off by the presence of a few advertising spots for sport utility vehicles and soft drinks, but it's more or less what you'd expect to find in a sponsored racing event.
The game sounds remarkable as well. The celebrity voice acting from SSX Tricky is gone, but that's no big deal, since the character voices are still appropriate. Some of the characters' one-liners and the banter between pairs of them can be pretty amusing. Meanwhile, the sounds of the boards on various types of snow, as well as the assorted ambient effects, are all appropriate. The music, however, is truly one of the highlights of the experience. Featuring an eclectic yet cohesive soundtrack of dozens of songs, from The Chemical Brothers to Jane's Addiction, SSX's musical score is perfectly suited to the game. It's not just your typical licensed soundtrack, however. The music subtly changes, depending on your performance and what exactly you're doing. If you catch major air, the vocals might cut out, and the percussion might go muted, only to kick back in with a major bang the instant you make your landing. The way the soundtrack layers in with the racing is very well done, and it contributes heavily to the intensity and excitement of playing SSX 3. You may edit the playlist, if you wish, and may also choose whether or not to listen to the game's DJ, who presents the various songs like a good disc jockey would. He's not abrasive, in the slightest, and will "magically" provide some contextual tips about whichever event you're about to take part in.
SSX 3 delivers a rush like few racing games or action sports games have ever achieved. The game's new, open-ended structure, excellent audio, enhanced trick system, and improved graphics combine to make this a superlative sequel to a series that's always had high standards. Regardless of whether you've played SSX or care much about snowboarding, you'd be doing yourself a favor by checking this game out.