|By Andrew Raub||Monday, 10 Mar 2008|
The history of skateboarding video games is nearly as old as video games themselves. In the 1980′s, skateboarding and videogames were gaining popularity in parallel. At the time gaming was in its technical infancy, and skateboarding was not nearly as advanced as it is today. Games like 720 Skateboarding, Skate or Die, California Games, and T&C Surf Design all made unique attempts at capturing the art of skateboarding. For the time, I think 720 was the best shot, but still not entirely perfect.
With the new generation of 3D gaming, gamers were treated to a new generation of skateboarding game: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. It wasn’t perfect either, and it certainly deviated even further from realism than before, but it was extreme and fun. The success of THPS led to many other attempts at skateboarding games. Hot on the heels of THPS was Grind Session, which was for the most part a copy cat game, but still a decent attempt. Another slightly more realistic game was released titled Thrasher: Search & Destroy. It was much more realistic in its trick book, but the physics of the game were sluggish and the controls were awkward compared to the standard THPS style.
Nearly a decade later and the THPS series is still dominating the market, but thankfully EA’s Skate has brought us not only a contender in the skateboarding games arena, but possibly a successor to the reigning champion. Featuring realistic skateboarding, a huge GTA-like city, and a brand new control scheme, Skate brings a lot to the table. The question is, does it deliver on the fun?
That is a difficult question to answer, and truly can only be answered by giving the game a solid chance. A decade of THPS has gotten us used to huge, unrealistic tricks and combos, and strange objectives that have little to do with skating. Skate tones it down to an almost perfectly realistic level, providing tricks that are actually doable, and objectives that have everything to do with skating.
I’ll start off with the most important part of any skateboarding game: the soundtrack. Ever since THPS hit shelves, licensed soundtracks have become a must in skateboarding games. Skate features a huge soundtrack spanning many genres. There’s lots of rap, hip-hop, and funk, along with some classic punk, rock, and metal. There’s big names, there’s relatively unknown names; there’s high intensity, there’s low intensity; there’s hard, and there’s soft. This game has it all. There are two ways to listen to music in skate. The first is what you would expect, music just plays all the time. The default though, is much more unique. Music plays as you start landing tricks, or if there are spots to skate near by. You can pretty much keep the music going at all times, but it comes to the foreground when there is action.
The controls are a unique perspective on the purpose of the controller. To ollie, you don’t press a button, you pull down (or push up) on the right stick and flick it the opposite direction to jump. At first it is awkward and difficult, but as someone who spent almost everyday skateboarding for five years, this is about as close to feeling like real skateboarding as possible with a controller. To perform flip tricks, you just have to make gestures with the right stick that are in some way similar to how your feet would perform the trick with a real board underneath you. To do a kickflip, angle the stick back and to the side, and then flick it up and to the opposite side. It sounds simple on paper, but becoming an expert with the right stick is a challenging and rewarding experience. Grabs are performed with the left and right triggers, mimicking a skateboarders arms. Grab the right side of your board with the right trigger, and the left side with the left trigger. To perform different grabs, pull the right stick in different directions, and tweak your grabs by changing the right stick’s direction mid-flight. Manuals are performed simply by pushing the right stick forward and backward about halfway, creating an excellent feeling of balance. Spins are done simply by pressing the left stick in a direction as you ollie. To land, you must have a sense of how your body is spinning and stop at the right time or else you will either spin too far or stop early. These are by far the most realistic controls I’ve ever felt, and it’s amazing that it’s taken this long for the idea to come into light.
While the controls provide a solid back backbone to the game, the environment is what really brings out the feeling of great skateboarding. There are four areas to skate in. The Suburbs is the modest but fun area where you start the game. It’s a hilly suburb with a large school and community center. The Res is the residential area and features long hills, and lots of traffic. Old Town has lots of cobblestone and old architecture that you know you shouldn’t be skating on. Downtown is a large urban area with lots of modern, shiny, and smooth stuff to shred up. Each area has a unique feel, but you will never feel the need to go to a specific area to skate a certain type of terrain, as all areas feature just about every type of skating you could want. The areas are all connected, but since they are so huge, there is a map that allows you to warp around to specific spots.
The key to enjoying Skate is realizing how the controls and map work together. There aren’t huge obstacles waiting for you everywhere, and sometimes it seems like there is just nothing fun to skate on. But if you keep a sharp eye out, and go off the main roads, you will unravel some awesome places to rip up. Using the ambient music and the radar (which shows skaters zooming around) is the best way to really find where the best spots are. After beating the game, I’m still finding new places to skate. It’s not about just riding around and hitting whatever comes at you. You have to find the beauty in what you find. A small ledge on along a building isn’t just a ledge, it’s a canvas for creating all sorts of tricks.
Objectives are placed all over the map, and unlocked as the game progresses. There are two main “storylines” in the game, revolving around the Skateboard Mag and Thrasher magazines. The Skateboard Mag challenges are more technical in nature, while the Thrasher challenges are based more on skating on “no-skate zones” and bombing down hills in races. There’s a lot of variety in the challenges, and as you climb the ranks, you will be offered to do photoshoots for magazine covers, pick sponsors, and get footage for spots in your sponsors’ videos. There are also various hidden spots around the map that, when beaten, are unlocked for party play. Most of these aren’t too hard to beat, but finding them is another story.
Multiplayer offers two modes of play: S.K.A.T.E. and Spot Challenge. S.K.A.T.E. puts players up against each other to perform and match tricks. If you don’t match your opponents trick, you get a letter. You know the drill. Spot Challenge is a best of 3 rounds challenge for the best score on an obstacle. There is a lot of variety on these spots, ranging from the small and technical 30 stair rail to the balls-out X-Games ramp and Compound. There is decent online play available, allowing you to match up with players, or free skate with friends. Free skate is a great way to just casually show off your moves without any real pressure.
The graphics in Skate look pretty spectacular for the most part. There are some unpolished areas, but overall it’s a great looking game. The animations are great, until you fall. Tricks look beautiful, and you can really feel the contortions in the body when watching your character pull them off. But falling, for whatever reason, turns into a ragdoll physics comedy routine. It’s not bad, but it’s just out of place, in my opinion. Sometimes it justs seems like your character goes lifeless before you even hit the ground (or rail, or side of a building).
There are some other somewhat lacking areas of the game as well. Being able to teleport around the map is great, but you can only go to spots that the game lets you go to. What happens when you find a really sick hidden area? Well, you had better remember how to get there, because you can’t mark it on your map. And you know all of those awesome objectives you completed? Well, if you want to do them again you had better start a new game. It’s not a big deal, but it would be a simple and fun way to relive your progress in the game. And what about flat land tricks? You can do tricks into and out of manuals, but stylish flatland tricks that the THPS series added about 5 years ago are missing completely from Skate. Finally, the worst part of the game is the camera. It isn’t always bad, but it’s always unpredictable. The camera rests somewhere around your knees, and slightly behind you and to the side. This keeps the camera in the action, and lets you focus on the tricks you are performing. This is good. What isn’t good, however, is that sometimes the camera goes haywire and puts itself in a position where pulling of tricks is virtually impossible. It isn’t a common occasion, but it isn’t rare either.
Despite its flaws, Skate has plenty going for it. The graphics are gorgeous, it’s got a great soundtrack, and best of all, it’s got a totally unique control scheme that works. This game is all about skateboarding, and it does a great job at showing what skateboarding is about. Sometimes you’ll be trying tricks over and over, but eventually landing a sweet 360 flip nose blunt across a ledge feels much more satisfying than a million point combo in that other skateboarding game. In my opinion, EA has taken the crown from Activision.