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SSX 3 (Xbox) Review
By Cliff O'Neill -- Staff Writer
Published 11/16/2003

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The original SSX helped launch the EA Sports Big brand (and the North American PS2), which has been successful in delivering all sorts of wild sports gaming experiences, from turbocharged snowboarding to fast-paced streetball. After a long hiatus, the darling of the Big’s line, SSX, returns for its third outing, and it does not disappoint. While some considered SSX Tricky more of an add-on than a full-blown sequel, SSX 3 truly takes the series to the next level.

Presentation/Graphics: 90
SSX 3's graphics contain all the necessary improvements and enhancements one would expect from a major sequel, but the graphics are not an extraordinary leap from previous SSX titles. That said, character models have been noticeably improved, and animations are slicker than ever. In fact, SSX 3 has new bail animations and crazy new Uber tricks, all of which are wonderfully animated. The four new characters are not quite as memorable as the original boarders, but they bring extra diversity to the roster.

Undoubtedly, though, the true star in SSX 3 is the enormous mountain on which the action takes place. The mountain has three expansive peaks, each with its own personality and visual charm. There's a great deal to see on each peak, and you generally have a good view of the horizon--unless you're riding through a heavy snowstorm or thick fog, that is. Moody lighting, varied weather conditions, and cool special effects give the peaks pleasing atmosphere, and progressive scan and wide screen display make things look all the more marvelous.

Unlike Tricky, SSX 3 rarely has any frame-rate issues. The frame rate runs smoothly throughout the entire game (even during split-screen play), with only minor stutters here and there. Texture quality is fairly sharp, though there are some bland textures detracting from the visuals, and not everything fully meets Xbox standards. This is no doubt due to the game's multi-platform roots. Otherwise, SSX 3 is an extremely good-looking game and easily the best looking in the series.

Presentation/Audio: 95
Do the letters T-H-X mean anything to you? If they do, you will be especially pleased with SSX 3, since it is the first game to have THX-certified audio. The THX certification ensures everything sounds just right, while the game's excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix lets those equipped with the proper audio setup become further immersed in the action. SSX 3's robust 5.1 audio lets you hear sounds from every angle, adding extra drama to the proceedings. It also creates a livelier sound stage, replete with low-frequency sounds that put the subwoofer to work.

The sound effects in previous SSX games were topnotch, and they are equally solid here. If you choose, you can disable the arcade-like sounds and enjoy the rich ambiance of the mountain. SSX 3 contains most of the sounds from SSX and Tricky, as well as a host of new ones. One thing you won't hear, however, is the "tricky" sample (from SSX Tricky) when doing Uber tricks, as it's been removed.

Rahzel, the hip announcer in previous SSX games, has also been removed. In his place is DJ Atomika, who does a good job clueing you in to the goings-on in the SSX circuit and the happenings on the mountain. (There's an option to shut him up if you find him to be annoying.) Additionally, Atomika hosts SSX 3's virtual radio station, Radio Big, which keeps the grooves spinning nonstop.

While you cannot upload your own tunes, you can build your own playlist using songs from the available artists, including Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, and Overseer, among others. Some songs on the soundtrack have been remixed by the likes of Paul Oakenfold and the X-ecutioners. Even though not all the music will appeal to everyone, it has been tightly integrated into the game, altering in real time to reflect your position on the courses and amount of hang time.

SSX 3 does not include the high-profile celebrity voices from Tricky, but some of the voices remain unchanged. For instance, Lucy Liu no longer voices Elise, but Bif Naked reprises her role as Zoe. It seems each new SSX game introduces a different cast of voice actors, with only a couple of characters (like Mac) maintaining their original voice-over. Nevertheless, the voice overs get the job done, despite a few highly annoying characters and repetitive comments.

Interface/Options: 95
The front end in SSX 3 is not as colorful as Tricky's, but it is neatly arranged and loads quickly. Aurally, the background music changes according to your menu choices, which is an excellent touch. Of course, you have complete control over the sound levels, and since this is a THX-certified game, a couple of test patterns are included to help you adjust your TV's picture. In addition, owners of projection televisions will be glad to know the heads-up display (HUD) can be completely removed.

Unfortunately, you must manually load/save the changes you have made to the options. Expect to visit the options menu upon each new session to load your custom settings. Likewise, you must manually save game progress. Someone needs to tell the folks over at EA Sports that the Xbox has a built-in hard drive.

SSX 3 has 10 initially playable characters, four of which are brand new. Returning favorites include Elise, Mac, Moby, Zoe, Psymon, and Kaori, while the new characters range from the bratty (Griff) to the sultry (Allegra). Beyond that, you can unlock several hidden boarders, including characters from SSX and Tricky not featured in SSX 3's main lineup.

Boarders share the same initial stats, covering the areas of acceleration, edging, speed, spin, stability, toughness, and tricks. You can dress up characters anyway you see fit, as long as you have enough dough to shell out for extra clothing and accessories. Sadly, you still cannot create your own boarder from scratch, but the new customization options give you a good amount of control over a character's appearance.

The controls in SSX 3 differ slightly from Tricky's to accommodate new control functions. Two control configurations are available, default and pro, both of which may require an adjustment period for those new to the SSX series or unaccustomed to the Xbox controller. The default layout, however, should satisfy most gamers after a few practice sessions. Plus, the Single Event and Multi Play modes can be adjusted to suit a player's skill level.

Regarding the default controls, the left analog stick or digital pad controls steering, while the right analog stick handles weight distribution. You use the digital pad to pre-load before jumps and press combinations of the X, Y, B, and R-trigger buttons to perform grabs. The A button controls jumping/crouching, and X enables turbo boost.

To tweak a trick or perform an Uber move, you simply pull the left trigger while holding down a grab button. Pulling the left or right trigger lets you attack other riders; holding them together allows you to block attacks. Lastly, the black and white buttons execute handplants, and the Back button resets your boarder.

Gameplay: 95
Perhaps the first thing SSX vets will notice about SSX 3's gameplay is the addition of new trick features. The most significant of these are board presses, which enable you to link tricks and build combos in a manner similar to a Tony Hawk game. You can do nose and tail presses by pushing up and down on the right analog stick, respectively, and tweak them by pushing the stick left or right. Although using the right analog stick for these maneuvers might seem a bit strange at first, it does not take long to pick up. However, as with manuals in a skateboarding game, you must balance board presses and time them properly.

The second major addition is the handplant. You can execute handplants on various surfaces, but you will use them mostly in half-pipes. Handplants also let you transfer to different areas. For example, when riding in a half-pipe, you can transfer to an adjacent half-pipe by doing a handplant and shifting your weight toward the other pipe. Overall, the inclusion of handplants nicely complements SSX 3's greater emphasis on half-pipe riding.

Next up are the improvements to the Uber tricks. Uber tricks have been enhanced from Tricky, and they play a much bigger role here. As in Tricky, you need to fill the Adrenaline meter completely before you have access to Uber tricks. There are now two categories of Uber tricks--regular and super--as well as Uber-fied rail tricks. Regular Ubers are not quite as breathtaking as Super Ubers and tend to end quicker.

Conversely, Super Ubers are simply insane, and most of them require considerable height to pull off. You must do a series of regular Uber tricks before you can do Super Ubers. Knowing which type of Uber trick to perform in a given situation is vital. Once you bust out enough Super Ubers, your Adrenaline meter will become fully loaded for a limited time.

Not all the improvements in SSX 3 apply to the game's trick component. Combat still plays a role during races, and luckily, you can now block attacks from other riders by holding down both triggers. For those times when you are knocked down, SSX 3 has a "recovery" move, whereby you rapidly tap the X button to recover quickly from a bail or knockdown.

Once you adjust to the controls and become familiar with the new gameplay elements, you'll be ready to take on SSX 3's brand-new Conquer the Mountain mode. In this mode, you must make your way through three peaks of a menacing mountain. You start on the lowest and most calm peak and have to strut your stuff to earn passes to the other peaks.

Fortunately, the game gives you several ways of obtaining those passes. Whether you prefer participating in freestyle events, engaging in races, or completing skill-based challenges, you advance at your own pace, using your preferred style of play. Along the way, you will earn cash to purchase stat points, clothing/accessories, new Uber tricks, and much more.

Standard races consist of three heats, with the top three riders advancing between heats. The first two heats are usually easy to pass, since the AI saves its best for the final round. In other words, there is very little room for error during the finals, though you can find power-ups, shortcuts, and alternate paths to gain the upper hand. Unfortunately, like in previous SSX games, it's pretty easy to become stuck in sections of the environment, causing you to lose precious seconds.

Medalling in the standard races on a peak opens up its backcountry challenge, in which you race against your character's rival through natural terrain. After you manage to beat him or her, you must then race solo down an entire section of the mountain to top his or her best time. These particular types of races range from 10 to 30 minutes in duration. Simply put, endurance is a necessity!

If racing is not your thing, you can stick to freestyle events. SSX 3 has three basic types of freestyle events, including slopestyle, big air, and super pipe. Each event challenges you to attain a high score in order to earn a medal. Winning gold medals demands mastery of the controls and various trick functions. Power-ups are not present, but you can grab special icons to multiply your trick score by a set number.

Completing special challenges is yet another way to advance through the game. Every peak has a series of free-ride sections littered with "Big" challenges, which invite you to attempt feats of various nature and difficulty. One challenge may have you riding through a series of gates, while another may have you performing a set of tricks. The Big challenges are diverse and make a great supplement to the racing and freestyle events.

All in all, SSX 3's gameplay contains a good deal of variety and addictiveness. The improved trick system affords you a near endless amount of creativity, and the courses are filled with the tightest layouts and trick lines the series has seen. Some events may frustrate certain types of players, but with several ways to advance through the Conquer the Mountain mode, there is always something else to do. And while a few of the same problems that have plagued the series (e.g., schizophrenic AI, sticky environments) remain, they do not spoil the fun.

Replay Value : 90
As with EA Sports' other Xbox titles, SSX 3 does not support Xbox Live. This alone does not hurt the game's replayability too much, because the single-player experience has a lot to offer. However, the split-screen multiplayer options are limited to just two players, and system link is not supported. Despite all this, the multiplayer mode is still quite enjoyable, letting you and another player go head-to-head in multiple freestyle competitions and races.

The only other factor that may potentially reduce the game's long-term appeal for some is the lack of variety between characters. While you need to play through with each character to unlock everything, the riders share the same riding style, abilities, Super Uber tricks, and Big challenges--only their appearances, board graphics, clothing options, and rivals differ. Rider-specific challenges and Super Ubers would have made things a little more interesting (a course editor would have been cool, too). As it stands, though, SSX 3 will keep most gamers entertained for numerous hours.

Overall: 93
Obviously, not all gamers like all games, but it's hard to imagine SSX 3 not occupying a spot in every Xbox gamer's collection. If you enjoyed SSX Tricky, you will love SSX 3--it's as simple as that. Even if you hated Tricky, you still might dig this sequel. Try it for yourself, and don't be surprised if you find yourself yelling the opening lyrics to Jane's Addiction's "Mountain Song" within minutes of gameplay. (Which begs the question: Why wasn't that song included on the soundtrack?)


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