When SSX creative director Todd Batty took center stage and compared the SSX revival to J.J. Abrams' revival of Star Trek, it certainly left an impression of sorts. While the comparison was made as a way to explain that he wants both new and old fans alike to find things they enjoy about this reinvention of SSX, it shows a certain level of confidence to point to one of the better reboots in quite some time as a way to explain where you think you can take this formerly dormant snowboarding franchise.
Whatever the intent of the comparison may or may not have been, it's hard to tell if this SSX reboot will be more Star Trek or Clash of the Titans at this point. Since the release date is set for January 2012, the version of the game on display at this event was a very early build. Beyond seeing a snowboarder, some snow and a couple early gameplay ideas, it was all about listening to a developer's vision and trying to imagine what a final product will look like down the line.
What Was Here
While there were not a ton of completed ideas and mechanics on display, it was still easy to pick out some elements that will certainly be of key importance moving forward. First off, the game seems to be about vertical gameplay more than horizontal gameplay. Obviously, going down a mountain, you will be going downhill most of the time, but the vertical gameplay I'm talking about more has to do with dropping into holes in mountains, or using every piece of the mountain as a way to get to different layers of the slope.
The folks working on the game have trumpeted the idea of "no boundaries" as a big selling point, and while it's a good tagline, it distorts the overall strength of these early levels a bit. In the original SSX games, I thought of boundaries as just running into gates or the side of a mountain. These barriers essentially stopped you from going anywhere but down the mountain. However, in the demo given at the event, going from side to side was not the intriguing aspect of what was shown, rather it was finding a little nook to dive down into, or flying sky high into the air so you could use a wing suit or grab on to a helicopter so it could take you to your next potentially dangerous (but no longer deadly) declivity.
What no barriers seems to really mean in terms of horizontal gameplay is that you will no longer run into a gate and be steered back to the action. Instead, it seems like these barriers will act more like physics-based trick spots and so forth to naturally steer you back towards the middle of a mountain or to a new portion of the mountain. In the demo, one of these barriers-but-no-longer-a-barrier elements was a rock formation that your snowboarder could go up the side of in a very natural way based simply on your momentum -- no button presses needed. The snowboarder flew up the side of this rock face and came off it while doing a trick.
This physics-based interaction was a simple but effective way to show off a way to always keep you in the action, and when speaking with Todd Batty later on, he mentioned Trials HD as an inspiration of sorts when it came to that portion of the game. In Trials, the controls are incredibly simple, but the game is incredibly hard. The only two buttons used are for braking and accelerating, but there's also an intricate leaning system in place whereby you must balance your racer with the left control stick as he lands or jumps to ensure he does not wreck in a fantastic fashion.
The same idea is coming over to SSX. While I don't know what the controls will be at this point (there are most likely more than two buttons in use), it is clear that balancing your snowboarder as he lands will be important. If you land on the back part of your board, you can lean forward to get back on solid ground.
Beyond the gameplay, the technology behind the mountains in the game -- and the reason why the team working on SSX is promising that there will be 18 mountain ranges, 90 fully open mountains and 200-300 drop points in this title -- was also a main part of the presentation. The technology is called Mountain Man, and this technology basically allows the developers to generate any real mountain in about 30 seconds. While that is rather amazing, SSX is about going beyond the realm of the possible, so these real mountains are simply used as a basis for taking some creative liberties to make the real-life topography more exciting.
It's impossible to say how well that concept will pay off as of now because the mountains I saw were, while already impressive in scope, rather plain and lacking character at this point in the proceedings. There's not much graphical flash, and the snowboarder was generally just going down a powder-drenched mountain with a vista in the background. This should not be construed as a negative, just a flaw of showing off such an early build of the game. But even if the mountains end up looking a little plain, with the philosophy being to make this one of the biggest games ever, I presume there will always be a new route to find or a new place to jump from during your quest to dominate the most famous mountains in the world.
Finally, the "world view" screen was shown off. Because the game is aiming to go the elephantine route, the developers decided to go with an overview screen that tries to mimic something most people are familiar with these days: Google Earth. Some might feel like there is probably a more immersive way to handle the solution of leap-frogging from mountain to mountain, but inevitable load times make this seem like a sensible way to handle the process of searching the globe for mountains to subdue.
What Was Not
It would be easy to just say "a lot" was not here and move on, but a couple things I could just not get a read on at all included what the heads-up display (HUD) will look like, as well as what will happen with the camera.
While speaking with Todd Batty, it seems like the HUD will be based around being dynamic and attempting to mimic the look of a 3-D interface. The dynamic nature of the HUD makes sense because the game is based around another tagline of "race it, trick it, survive it." In other words, you might not need to see a trick meter on the screen if you are just trying to get down a mountain without being walloped by a falling boulder. However, it's a little harder to understand a faux 3-D HUD. While Todd doesn't mean you will need 3-D glasses to see the HUD correctly, it does seem like this portion of the game might be relatively unique.
The in-game camera is also a question mark. Most of the time the camera was pulled relatively far back during this demo session, but in the final version the camera, much like the HUD, will probably be dynamic. Nothing is final yet, but it would seem to be a waste if the camera did not zoom in on your snowboarder during those really intense or breathtaking moments.
What To Expect
The developers obviously have a lot of time to reveal things, but that does not mean I did not find out about some things that will be coming in the future. First off, it seems the first "true" gameplay will be unveiled at E3. I presume this means we will also be playing the game at E3, which would help provide the first real basis for an opinion on the game.
Beyond that, some elements of the game that were not shown but were talked about include the philosophy behind the game, as well as some of the not-yet-shown features. For starters, Batty was quick to point out that he believes SSX is at its core about racing. So while I only got to see a single rider bounding down a mountain, it will be interesting to see what will happen when there are a bunch of snowboarders flying down a mountain, all using different paths, and all crashing and interacting with each other. And, while it does not seem Batty wants to go anywhere near Road Rash and have a game where you are punching and kicking the other riders, the racers will certainly be colliding and bumping into each other one way or the other during the course of a race.
Dealing with death and crashing is something else that can be tricky in these types of games, but it seems like the team is leaning towards a rewind feature similar to the one made famous by Prince of Persia. Everyone at EA also seems to love Autolog -- a feature found in the new Need for Speed and Shift titles -- because of the social aspects, so don't be surprised if something like Autolog arrives in SSX to enhance the online experience.
Finally, as far as characters are concerned, while long-time mainstay Elise is the only confirmed snowboarder as of now, both new and old characters will be in this game. EA is planning to reveal one of the new characters relatively soon, and the developers will also be looking for community feedback to figure out who else should be in SSX when it launches in January 2012.