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.
SSX 3 offers miles upon miles of what real-life snowboarders can only dream about.
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) 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.
This is about as epic as snowboarding can be: a half-hour run down Mt. Everest's big brother.
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.