In the real world, with its boring-old Newtonian physics and respect for gravity, I can get a pathetic three-foot of air off the most pitiful looking kicker you've ever seen. In SSX, however, I can launch myself off monstrous ramps, spend a good seven or eight seconds in the air and then pirouette towards the white powder below before falling into a perfect landing. For my money, the SSX series has always struck the perfect balance between realism and ridiculousness, and that trend isn't going to be bucked here.
The realism side of the game is mostly derived from the mountain itself, the weather effects and the way the snow reacts to your board. This is in no way a sim, I hasten to add. If you've yet to read my SSX preview from E3, where I explain how EA Canada is using NASA satellite data to create levels from any mountain range in the world, be sure to give that a gander before reading on.
What's new since then, then? At EA's conference at gamescom, the social features encasing the game were announced. RiderNet is the snowboarders' equivalent of Autolog, which tracks your scores and times and compares them with friends. It's a recommendation platform, essentially, letting you know when your scores have been beaten (and by whom) and giving you the required kick up the backside to go and do one better. EA Canada has worked with Criterion to ensure this side of the game has made the jump from cars and racing to boards and scores without any hiccups.
Also falling under the umbrella of RiderNet are ghosts, which - while not a new mechanic in the grand scheme of things - offer a lot to the snowboarding experience. You can upload ghosts of your best runs, which friends can then download and compete against. When big scores are involved, this will be vital in adapting your route down the mountain to accommodate for higher scores.
Given that the game is still very much in the pre-alpha stages, I wasn't able to experience the social side of things. Still, I was able to get my hands on the game for a second time, and things have progressed considerably since I played at E3. Crucially, Mac has been added to the character roster since then (as well as Psymon, Moby and Eddie - the latter of which will be available exclusively through a pre-order scheme at GAME), and as he's clearly the best character in the game, I made sure to give him an appropriate test drive. He didn't disappoint.
Boarders handle much like they did in previous games, except there's now a stick alternative to buttons. Pulling back on the right analogue stick, you can pre-wind a jump before pushing it forward to pop your rider into the air. Once there, you can flick in any direction to bust out a trick. As an old-school Tricky addict, I ignored this in favour of buttons, but many people will prefer the more organic nature of sticks. After nailing a few tricks, your tricky meter will fill, and you'll be able to unleash your character's signature Uber moves.
Frustratingly, the grind mechanics still haven't been finalised, which made it hard (often impossible, in fact) to snap to rails and pipes. Strangely, the mountain I was boarding, a slope in Alaska, was incredibly pipe-heavy. To reiterate, though: the game is still very much pre-alpha, and this - alongside a bevy of UI and control features - will be changed in the coming months. When Mac did snap to a rail correctly, however, the usual trick-modifiers could be applied mid-grind. The build I played had grind mapped to the LT button, which felt odd. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this will be swapped to the Y (triangle) button before launch.
Grind issues aside (which really aren't issues at this stage in development anyway), the controls were immensely satisfying. Muscle memory allowed me to do much better than I should have for a second-time player of the game, and the score bug hit me pretty quickly. I watched the dude who played before me rack up 130,000 on his run, and I finished the same stretch of mountain with a mere 115,000. Score jealousy is at the heart of SSX for me, and RiderNet looks set to compliment this side of the game perfectly.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I learnt during my time with the game concerns the soundtrack. Using a technology called Harmony, the way you play SSX will directly affect the music accompanying your descent. So, let's assume you hit a rail - the whole time you're grinding that bad boy, the song might scratch, as if the DJ were doing that thing DJs do when they massage the vinyl on their decks. Or if you're grabbing some particularly phat air, the music might drop out, before kicking back in with a boom when you hit the powder.
Impressively, this technology will work with any of your own, imported songs. So, I could be bombing down the mountain to Enter Shikari or Funeral For A Friend or some other band you hate, and Harmony will mess with these songs in ways I've never heard before - all depending on how I play the game. Again, this is hugely innovative stuff from EA Canada.
I've been trying to curb my fanboyish enthusiasm for SSX during this preview, but then I figured, why bother? I've spent a good 40 minutes with the game now and the simple fact is that the SSX reboot is heading in the precise direction us fans have been wanting for years. There's still a long way to go, but even at this stage it's a safe bet to assume that SSX will be the most innovative, feature-rich snowboarding game of all time.
SSX is due for release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in January 2012.