I tend to lump skateboarding and snowboarding games into the same category, not just because you stand on a board. You work your way along a long shallow learning curve in which your thumbs make cool things happen: flips, twists, booger grab reverse wind kickback hippie grinds. Expect a lot of trendy flash, usually with DJ Atomica, purchasable baggy pants and sideways caps, and as many nods to youth culture as a big publisher like EA or Activision can manage (i.e. licensed music, 90% of which I’ve never heard of). The better games have a lot of collectibles, challenges, unlockables, and minigoals to keep you going. But unless you’re one of those Tony Hawk aficionados, your thumb wizardry will soon enough plateau and you’ll have seen all of the game you’re ever going to see without practicing a whole lot of booger grab reverse wind kickback hippie grinds.

However, as I rediscovered SSX, which has been away for far too long, I realized that this is no Skate, Tony Hawk, or even SSX. I love EA’s Skate series all the way up until my thumb wizardry plateaus. But the genius of this latest SSX is that it might never plateau. It might never throw up the usual brick walls. It is as vast as the mountains, as heady as flying, as generous as the sky, as easy as falling, as inexorable as an avalanche. And the more I play, the more I realize that this is nothing like a skateboarding game. What was I thinking? It is quite literally the difference between kicking a board down a sidewalk and falling into gravity’s embrace from the top of Mount Everest.

After the jump, gravity rules

I didn’t realize how much I missed the virtual mountains. When it comes to skateboarding, you can’t expect much spectacle, Shaun White Skateboarding’s ridiculous attempt at trippy urban nonsense notwithstanding. Bam Margera is a poor substitute for alpine majesty. That majesty is the first hook in SSX. These grand peaks, sometimes bare and open, sometimes littered with trees and broken bits of civilization, sometimes dark, sometimes bright, sunny or stormy, all presented as steeply inclined icycool playgrounds, equally lovely and deadly and poised for you to range their width and hurtle their length. If only Sir Edmund Hillary knew what he was missing by going in the wrong direction, mankind never would have reached the peak of Mount Everest!

The pace and thrill of SSX is closer to a driving game than a skateboarding game. But in a driving game, the landscape is something on either side of the road. In SSX, the landscape is the road. I don’t believe for a second whatever guff EA is pushing about real NASA satellite topography in SSX, because these drops — that’s what you call a “level” or “track” in a snowboarding game about a helicopter dropping you off at the top of a mountain — are marvel worthy fantasies, designed for gameplay first, foremost, and perhaps only.

Like the tracks in Codemaster’s brilliant Dirt 2, these drops have their own local flavor and gameplay. Alaska isn’t like Africa, which isn’t like the Himalayas, which isn’t like Antarctica. SSX draws and colors them differently, and thanks to some clever gimmickry based on lighting, bottomless pits, altitude sickness, deadly obstacles to forward momentum, hard icy surfaces, and even lethal temperatures, the locations play differently. This is not your older brother’s SSX. EA refuses to just do this latest SSX the way every other SSX did it. EA takes chances, which isn’t something EA does very often.

But where SSX really blows the lid off its own smart and varied design is that it lets you ignore any gimmick you don’t like. As awesome as outracing an avalanche might sound, I’m happy to never have to do it again. And that’s cool with SSX, a game without plateaus or brick walls, a game built to let you play on your mountain playgrounds however you like, however developed or underdeveloped your thumb wizardry. You can embrace it as a mostly linear series of “keep trying” challenges in World Tour (each of which can be skipped), or as a free-form play-however-you-want sandbox in Explore mode, as a scoring challenge against your friends and/or the wide world in Global Events, or even as a character-based RPG grind, complete with loot and power-ups. It’s your call and they’re all viable choices, in whatever combination you want. You can choose whether to focus on speed, style, or just making it to the bottom of the mountain, each goal with its own rules for rewinding the action when you mess up. Take note, Forza 4! Just because I can rewind mistakes doesn’t excuse you from the art of balancing your game! Or you can just casually scud around, searching for collectibles or even dropping your own collectibles, like hiding Easter eggs for other players to find. As I said, this is not your older brother’s SSX. It’s hardly even EA’s SSX. It is your SSX.

It reminds me that as big and clumsy as Electronic Arts can be, sometimes they really know what they’re doing. Here they hit the perfect balance between their grindy drawn-out system of borderline meaningless upgrades (hi, Syndicate!), or the in-your-face megaslam You-Win-Something-Every-Single-Goddamn-Time-You-Play-Bitches unlocks (hi, Burnouts and Needs for Speed!). They even manage to neatly insinuate into the game a system of one-shot baubles that are effective because a) they’re not too rare, and b) the game is constantly shoving money into your pocket like a tipsy big-hearted millionaire stumbling through a fancy hotel. It’s a game with loot that works because it doesn’t have a borked economy based on bilking you for real world micropayments (hi, Mass Effect 3!). Even EA’s forced social networking nonsense (hi, almost every game EA has made in the last three years!) works to SSX’s benefit. RiderNet, as it’s called, is a supposedly adaptive neural networking blah blah blah, which is about as convincing a bullet point as that stuff about NASA topographical data. But whatever they want to call the voodoo that supposedly runs RiderNet, it works beautifully. This is basically a set of leaderboards that feed seamlessly into your gameplay sessions. EA’s been flirting with this concept for a while, mostly as the Autolog system for their driving games. But RiderNet gets it exactly right.

That’s actually the overall takeaway I get while playing SSX: sometimes EA gets it exactly right. Sometimes their experience from a dozen misguided games, and a half dozen decent games, and two or three really good games is distilled into one perfect example of how some AAA titles are every bit as awesome as they’re supposed to be.

5 stars
Xbox 360