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'SSX' is (the real) 'Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Online'

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You can go ahead and think of “SSX” as the new “Sonic the Hedgehog,” if you’re the kind of dude that really knows what was good about “Sonic the Hedgehog” - which excludes everyone who currently works at Sega (ha!). It’s not, really, about snowboarding; it’s about flying at as ridiculous a speed as possible while trying to cling to some shred of stability. Each of the game’s mountains even starts to take shape like a “Sonic” level, filled with loopy, branching paths, some vague optimal route hiding underneath the knots.

Other major, less-expected inspirations come from, of all things, “Demon’s Souls” and Facebook. Eccentric multiplayer mechanics ditch simultaneous racing and opt instead to stick ghosts of every one of your runs into every one of your friends’ games. This is definitely awesome, especially if you’ve got a couple real-life friends playing alongside you. A friend of mine just beat one of my times on an early track by 0.03 seconds, (“Just smoked your time, bro.” “Does 0.03 seconds really count as a smoking?” “YES.”) and yeah, there’s his ghost, following the same paths I took and just barely edging me out in the end.

It’s infuriating, but in a good way. We support tiny leaderboard cultures, and player ghosts in “SSX” are the natural evolution of the leaderboard. There’s even a handy in-game Facebook wall that happily notifies you every time one of your records is broken. Worldwide tournaments ditch the player ghosts and instead challenge you to pay an entry fee and then make the best run you can; other players randomly pop up alongside you as you fly down the mountain. You’ll even come across a big red X once in awhile if you’re in a survival competition - that marks the spot where some dude just ate it, an iteration of “Demon’s Souls'” blood stains. You can even hide trinkets around the mountain, and if your friends don’t manage to find them you can make some cash. It’s all totally bizarre. I love it.

But, OK, there’s also a terrible amount of nonsense trying to poison the game. It all has to do with numbers. The worst offender is the “buy credits” button hanging out in the corner of the screen. It lets you use your real-money-purchased fake-money Microsoft XBuxx to purchase fake-money “SSX”-dollars. So all you have to do is take a few hours of your time and run them through like five layers of abstraction and you can get that sweet one-time use mod that adds a maybe-significant (but probably insignificant) boost to your trick stat. Mods, yeah, those are the second-worst offenders, offering you the chance to pick from a group of randomly-selected stat boosts for a handful of dollars - but only for one race. Yuck.

The numbers pile up too quickly. You can buy boards, suits and pieces of equipment, but they pop up in random groups before each run, and eventually you’re keeping an eye out for a way to grab some tiny boost to some nebulous stat - like an extra two points to the quality of the oxygen in your oxygen tank - and it’s hard not to hate everything (just for a second).

It’s an extra bummer because it feels like this is just what we’re going to have to put up with when we play games like this. The game underneath all this number-grindy nickel-and-dime nonsense is nearly fantastic, but since it’s part of the big-budget mainstream it’s practically mandatory that it have a bunch of number-grindy nickel-and-dime nonsense on top of it. I hope I’m wrong. “SSX” feels great - I could write a thousand words on the sound your board makes against ice as opposed to snow (and another 500 on the awesome, probably-revolutionary custom soundtrack options) - and it has four or five actually groundbreaking ideas about online multiplayer. It’s got enough going for it that it’s worth punching through the thick layer of hatred on top, but man, if it gets any thicker we might have an issue.

three stars (out of four)

Ben Hornsby doesn’t want to get started on EA’s “Online Passes.” He should probably be boycotting by now.

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