The skiing and snowboarding season is still well over a month away for most of the country, but that doesn't mean it's too warm to hit the slopes on your PlayStation 2. The SSX series has always been one of the premiere franchises on the system, but after three years and three games, it finally got a much-needed break. After a year off, the series is back, and while it's a solid game, the trademark charm of the past games just isn't there.
There are 135 challenges, almost 50 medals to be won, and twelve all-new tracks. The action takes place on a single mountain, but it is divided up into many different runs, many of which join together with other runs as you get further down the mountain. One of the bad things about everything happening on a single mountain is that you see a lot of the same stuff over and over, and the levels don't have a very distinct feel to them. This is because you'll start a longer run that has new scenery, but as you get further down, you'll end up back on a run you've done dozens of times. As you'd expect, there are tons of shortcuts and alternate routes to take on every course in the game.
Instead of just doing a race and trying to get a gold, silver, or bronze medal, On Tour gives you lots of other things to do. Yes, you'll be competing in medal events, earning money that can be spent on attributes, tricks, and gear, but new this year are Shred Events. Sometimes you'll need to grind a certain amount of rail, while other times you just need to beat a person to the bottom or get a certain distance ahead of them. One particularly cool one was where you have to get from point A to point B while only staying on the snow for 15 seconds. You have to get creative, hopping on rails and making big jumps to get to the goal; it's challenging, but in a good way.
Many of the new events are fun, but other goals simply fall flat because they are uninteresting or too difficult. There are times where you'll need to run the same course three times in a row, trying to get the best overall score. This can take 15 minutes (not including time between events) and it's the same course three times in a row. If you blow it in the third heat, you've got to do it all over again. Needless to say, this is cumbersome. Collecting things isn't fun, it never will be, and with few exceptions, it never has been. Sadly you'll have to waste your time collecting stuff in some of these challenges for no real reason other than the game wants you to. The score challenges are often unbalanced, though there are some that aren't In particular, when you've got to beat another rider by 85,000 points, and you only are up by 70,000 points – you lose. You beat them, they're doing tricks too, but 70,000 just isn't good enough. The focus should be on boarding or skiing, not little menial tasks that give the game artificial length. Fortunately, the game's load times are fast, so you won't be spending tons of time staring at a load screen when waiting to start an event over for the tenth time.
When you start, you can choose from a male or female character, and change up their looks using the game's extremely limited character editor. Later you'll be able to customize your character with licensed gear and clothing, and then select whether they are a snowboarder or a skier. There's actually not a huge difference in how it feels to board or ski, though it's pretty easy to end up backwards on your skis. You can still ski when backwards, but you'll have to find time to spin around so you can get maximum speed and air off of jumps. One big addition to the way the game plays is that you can now recover from a trick that has gone awry. If you screw up a trick, mashing the square button repeatedly will prevent you from taking a nasty spill. You don't get any points for the trick, but you do save yourself lots of time if you're able to stay upright. It feels right at home here, and it's something so simple that you wonder why it wasn't in the series from the get go.
The trick system is largely unchanged; though the few differences there are make you do the same tricks over and over again. Now you've got to unlock moves, and for whatever reason, they're quite expensive. You can still do basic moves but the monster moves (like Uber moves from before), which are mapped to the right analog stick, must be unlocked. The controls are just as smooth as ever, and it's easy to pull off tricks by simply holding a direction and tweaking it with the shoulder buttons. Even riding rails is smooth – something most games don't get right.
Despite the fact that SSX 3 had online play, On Tour is strictly an offline experience. It's no great loss, but it's worth noting since its predecessor had it. You can play split-screen multiplayer, and other than some minor framerate issues, it's just as solid as the single player mode.
SSX On Tour actually has some pretty cool menus. They're hand drawn and mostly in black and white, with splashes of color here and there to bring out the options. It almost looks like a 5th grader's sketchbook come to life, and it just looks cool. Unfortunately, this is one of the only changes to the game's style that works well. The characters don't have much personality, and while you won't miss them yelling out catchphrases every time they do a trick, it would have been nice for there to be some way that they for them to feel alive. Despite there being 200 people ahead of you in the rankings, you never feel like you're competing against them – the same goes for the people you go up against head to head. Sure you get to see a little cut-scene before you race them, but that's it.
The courses have the traditional SSX feel to them, with plenty of fireworks, lots of casual skiers and boarders meandering down the mountain, and other effects to distract you along your way down the mountain. It's not always snowing, but when it is, the snow looks great, filling the screen, and giving you a nice sense of speed. The game doesn't feel blazing fast, but it's fast enough, and faster than most snowboarding games. You can also see to the horizon, as the game sports a healthy draw distance – an important part of making you feel like you're atop a huge mountain. The skiers and snowboarders add some life to the proceedings, but for the most part they just get in the way. It doesn't seem like your opponents are hampered by them, but you'll smack into them with regularity.
Speaking of running into things with regularity, there are too many trees and rocks to hit, which is made worse by your inability to get out from behind them. The camera gets wonky when you're stuck in a group of trees, and while you can hit select to teleport back on course, it would be nice to just hop up and move around the tree. Even when you're not stuck, the camera often doesn't show the action from the best angle, making it tough to see which way you're heading.
The music is just what you'd expect from an SSX title. This is one of the few games where the much-maligned EA Trax add to the game – there's lots of punk, rock, and hip-hop to keep you grooving down the mountain. Def Leppard, Hot Hot Heat, Jurassic 5, Goldfinger, Queens of the Stone Age, Blackalicous, and many others are part of the well rounded soundtrack. Most of the tracks are pretty good, but the game's main theme is one that will grate your ears in no time. Gone are the celebrity voices, so David Arquette fans will have to look elsewhere for their fix. I actually really enjoyed the celeb voices in SSX 2, but On Tour is no worse off without them.
SSX: On Tour isn't a bad game by any means; but it just didn't captivate me like the other SSX games have. Most of the changes to the way the game is played feel like they're there just to make the game longer, and I really didn't enjoy the courses that much. There's more to do than ever before, but sometimes having more to do isn't the best thing. The game also feels like it's lacking polish, with tons of clipping, some bad camera work, and several other minor issues. If you haven't played an SSX game in a couple of years, On Tour's worth a look, but you might want to rent it to see if the magic is still there for you. It hurts to say it, but unless something can be done to make it feel fresh again, SSX's next ride needs to be off into the sunset.