Based on my hands-on demo session at E3, it seems like things are progressing well. There are still quite a few questions about how the game will turn out -- EA showed off just one example of each of the game's three play types, and what we saw was far from a final version. But there's a solid plan for the game, and some interesting choices are already evident.
Fans of SSX's past wackiness or SSX 3's open world-esque approach will both be a little disappointed -- this SSX is based on the real planet Earth, and EA used real NASA geographic data to model the maps. It's far from realistic, however -- one of the race levels we saw was modeled after a Pacific volcano, though when the snowboard racers were dropped off of the helicopter above, they then zoomed down right inside the volcano cone into a huge cavern filled with marked off jump ramps and race lanes. You won't actually be standing on a real simulation of Mount Everest, but EA is at least hoping it feels like it -- the data is there.
The game's menu is ingeniously categorized by scale -- after entering the "Explore" mode (there was also a "Campaign" mode, but I didn't see any of it), you're presented with a Google Maps-style globe, with highlighted mountain ranges all over the world, from the expected Himalayas to peaks in Siberia, Greenland, and even one down in Antarctica. After choosing a range, you're zoomed in to pick a peak out of the two or three highlighted, and then after going close-up on each peak, there are a few different "Drops" where your own personal helicopter will drop you out the side and let you board down the mountain to your heart's content. And after setting up your gear (board, "kit," and a few various bits of accessories and equipment), that's exactly what you do.
The actual gameplay is built around three different branches. Race modes are of course timed dashes. Unlike past SSX games, these races are all taking place on unpopulated mountains rather than official courses, so instead of a starting gate, you'll see racers sometimes start on opposite sides of the peak from you, but you'll eventually meet up on the course below. At the end of the race, you pull off a pretty spectacular jump right back onto the helicopter, which then whisks you away off to the next event. There's probably more to learn here about that heli, but EA only teased at the role the heli will play in the game, saying that it would eventually help you while racing, doing things like dropping flares or scouting the route ahead.
Trick mode was next, and we took off to the Chinese mountains in Macau, where the developers decided (again, despite the NASA data, reality isn't really a constraint here) to recreate parts of the Great Wall of China for grinding and doing tricks off of. This was the mode I played -- the game will support both flicking the right stick as well as just pressing buttons for grabs and flips, and while I didn't get a lot accomplished in my short time with the game, the system seems deep enough to echo old-school trick games like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and the old SSX titles. "There hasn't been a great game out of that mold in a long time," creative director Todd Batty told us, "and that's what we're aiming for here."
Finally, there's one more mode, called Deadly Descents (the feature the game was originally named after). There are only nine of these levels in the game, and they're designed, says Batty, to be like boss battles, each focusing on a different element. The few he listed were cold, ice, rock, wind, thin air, fog, and darkness, but the only one we got to see in action was "snow," which featured a dynamically driven avalanche system.
This mode played differently than we've seen any SSX play before -- the camera turned around and zoomed out, so that you were actually looking backwards at your racer getting chased by an avalanche of snow. The goal of the course was to make it down the mountain a certain distance, with various meter measurements are actually projected behind your boarder on the snowy surface. It looked exciting, but it's tough to see just how a mode like that will control. And that's the only course where the gameplay switches up in that way -- Batty wants these single descent courses to stand out from the rest of the game, like the AC-130 missions in the Call of Duty series.
There's still a long way to go -- the game isn't set to come out until sometime next year -- but the plan for a new SSX is solid one. Here's hoping the team at EA can sculpt that idea, just as they did with the real geographical data from NASA into a quality experience.