The original SSX was arguably a system-seller for the PlayStation 2 back in 2000, defining a new generation of control and customization in extreme sports games and backed by stellar next-generation graphics. It has been five years and we've now come to the fourth iteration of SSX games and, once again, the series is making its debut on a Sony hardware platform: the PSP handheld. SSX On Tour for the PSP, despite being a mishmash of the two most recent console entries in the series, manages to be a fun, fast-paced game all on its own, and one that is well worth playing.
If On Tour for the PSP feels familiar, there's good reason for it. The artistic look and feel of the game comes straight from the console versions. And this look consists of sloppily drawn--in a good way, mind you--black-and-white sketches that give the entire menu presentation a sort of fanzine look. There are goofy UFOs, snowboarding cats, sinister dragons bursting from snowy peaks, and grinding skeletons--which all take some getting used to but ultimately serve the fun and free-spirited nature of the game (or at least the sports on which it's based) to great effect. In addition, several key components of On Tour for consoles are here in the PSP game--most notably the addition of skiing. The PSP game also has roots in SSX 3, as it borrows tracks from the previous version.
Unlike SSX On Tour for consoles, there's no huge resort trail map from which to choose your tracks. The game's main single-player mode, known as "the tour," is more conventional and has you unlocking events as you go, earning gold, silver, or bronze medals based on your performance in each event. Events are split between either snowboard or ski styles and further divided into three event types: race, slope style, and big air. Race events are all-out desperate shoots to the bottom of the mountain either against artificial intelligence-controlled opponents or rally style (against a preset clock). Slope style has you nailing tricks as you careen down the slopes, and big air gives you a chance to show off your sweetest grabs and tweaks on a handful of specially designed big-air courses. These three distinct event types all require considerably different approaches and, taken as a whole, they make up the core variety that gives On Tour a big chunk of replay value. After all, there's always a way to shave one more second off your trail time, or add one more trick combo in a big-air event, right?
As you progress through tour mode, hoarding medals along the way, you'll also be rocketing up a leaderboard that you can access at any time to check your development in the game. Completing certain events will earn you new outfits or equipment for your created character, some of which will improve crucial attributes such as edging, tricks, acceleration, and stability.
On Tour's controls are accessible and responsive the moment your board touches the powder. Steering your boarder is as easy as using the left analog stick or directional pad, while tricks are pulled off with combinations of the d-pad, triggers, and face buttons. Once you've built up enough boost, you can launch into big-air tricks by mixing in the left trigger, the result being some truly impressive-looking stunts that usually involve your character pulling off a ski or board and contorting his body while flipping in midair. Linking combinations is the key skill for success in big air and slope-style events, as you'll not only get the points you earn for each trick, but you'll also benefit from a running combo tally that builds up for each successive stunt you successfully pull off.
Monster tricks, a key component in On Tour for consoles, are here in the PSP game as well. Unfortunately, it isn't always clear exactly how to execute them, and as a result they feel a bit random. The game manual is, of course, no help here, and while it could be argued that finding the exact combinations that result in monster tricks is part of the fun, it can make for some frustrating times in events where points are at such a premium and time is so short.
The addition of skiing to the SSX mix is a welcome one, and even though the controls are identical between the two styles, it's a lot of fun to see an entirely new slate of ski-based trick animations that really keep the game feeling fresh. It seems like it takes a bit longer to recover when on two planks rather than one, but then again, recovery feels like it takes too long anyway in On Tour, especially compared to previous games.
Graphically, On Tour for PSP is bright and colorful and, for the most part, a joy on the eyes. Player models aren't as visually sharp as those in the console game, but thanks to some nice variety in clothing and equipment, they still manage to convey personality. Other visual highlights include some dramatic light and shadow effects and a vivid color palette that looks like it's straight out of the Las Vegas strip, all bolstered by a frame rate that hangs in at a solid clip throughout the entire game (except when the overwhelmingly annoying EA Pocket Trax logo pops up and announces the next song on the playlist). It's fine to have bands highlighted in a game--especially, in On Tour's case, when one of those bands is '80s metal act Iron Maiden--but not at the expense of frame rate or valuable screen real estate. Either fix it, or get rid of it altogether.
On the graphical downside, we noticed some fairly frequent clipping issues on the slopes, and the camera has a tendency to be a bit too close to the boarder for comfort. It's tough to tell exactly where you need to be going on very twisty parts of the trails, so sometimes you feel as if you're merely along for the ride in these sections, as opposed to in control of the action. Also, unlike the open-ended mountain in On Tour for consoles, the more-closed nature on the PSP game means you won't be running into random skiers and boarders on the tracks. There is some dynamic character to some trails--miniature avalanches, falling trees, toppling rocks, and the like--just not as much as in the console games.
Real skiers and snowboarders enjoy the peace the mountains can provide. Being on the slopes with no one around creates a sense of tranquility and is a big part of the sport's popularity. SSX On Tour is a video game and, thankfully, the same sense of stillness is nowhere to be found here. Sure, you can still clearly make out the gentle sound of skis on snow as you schuss your way down the slopes, but it's all accompanied by a certifiably rocking soundtrack that includes the likes of recent hit-makers like Bloc Party, Hot Hot Heat, Jurassic 5, and classic rockers such as Motorhead, the aforementioned Maiden, and Ronnie James Dio--to whom we can only raise the horns and say "Hell, yes." It's a great soundtrack marred only by the irritating EA Pocket Trax logo that insists on intruding in the game.
Creating a character in On Tour for the PSP is really as simple as choosing a gender and whether you wish to hit the snow on skis or boards. You won't be tied to the latter, however. As you unlock new modes in the tour mode, you'll have the option to choose either skis or boards at any time. New equipment comes with attribute modifiers, so you'll want to make sure you're dressed and equipped properly for each event. It's a shame the creation options aren't more flexible here, because the beauty of creating a character is in making him or her an individual, not simply choosing a look based on material benefits.
Still, it's nice to be able to take your created character into a variety of Wi-Fi-enabled multiplayer modes. All event types--race, slope style, and big air--are available to you, and players can mix and match boards and skis depending on their preference. The frame rate holds steady in multiplayer matches, and acceptable (if not zippy) load times keep the action moving nicely. Our main gripe with the multiplayer is that once a race ends, it dumps you directly to the main menu--where you'll have to go through the setup rigmarole all over again to get to the next match.
SSX On Tour is an accessible mix of the last two SSX games that offers plenty of challenge, an alluring, likable style, and enough long-term appeal to keep you busy for quite a while. The game is probably not reason enough to buy a PSP, but if you already own one then you're guaranteed to have a good time with SSX On Tour.