Skate (Xbox 360)
Posted by Kuang on Fri, 11 Apr 2008.
The release of ‘Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater’ for the Playstation back in 1999 brought skateboarding as an extreme sport to the attention of gamers worldwide and offered the first attempt to produce a realistic game based on the sport. There have been quite a few attempts at skateboarding games in the meantime, but many have met with criticism over their lack of realism (or in the case of ‘Thrasher’, accusations that it was too realistic) and control methods. Skate by EA attempts to take a very different approach to the genre by turning the conventions laid down in the Tony Hawk series on their heads.
The biggest criticisms aimed at skating games by real life skaters are that the moves you can do are unrealistic, and the architecture and skateable terrain are often geared towards fantasy stunts rather than real life tricks. Skate tackles both of these problems with style, and takes quite a few risks in the process. Skate takes place in the fictional city of San Vanelona, which is a huge living city formed from four suburbs. The entire city is open for you to explore right from the start, although in-game challenges will open up competitions and skate spots in previously secure places (warehouses, skate shops, etc). As you skate from one side of the city to the other you’ll meet precisely the sort of architecture that street skaters love, with lots of painted kerbs, walls, drop-offs, huge sweeping hills and banked buildings. There are also a few custom built skate parks and ad-hoc ones made from ruined drainage works and dilapidated industrial complexes. You’ll also come across ‘spots’ along the way which are pieces of ground or buildings that offer great opportunities for tricks. If you can pull a trick on one of these that scores highly enough, you’ll ‘own’ the spot and raise your profile so that photo shoots for skate magazines and sponsorship opportunities will start to come your way.
The realism angle is one where Skate excels – the skater you design at the start will not change throughout the entire game and there are no statistics, no improvements, and no special unlocks that will raise your abilities. You’re given the entire toolkit to rack up great scores in the form of the control method, and it’s up to you to refine your own performance in order to progress. This is a brave move in light of the Tony Hawk approach, but it’s arguably a lot more engaging because you feel you’ve earned your achievements. It also limits the abilities of your skater to a realistic level - believe me, you won’t be jumping any buses or grinding power lines in Skate.
The controls are likely to be the biggest shock to Tony Hawk fans, as the ‘flip button / grab button / ollie button, etc’ scheme has been completely thrown away. Skate makes full use of the two analogue sticks to control your skater’s body and feet – the left stick handles rotation, balance, steering and crouching, and the right stick is used to enter tricks and change your stance on the board. To ollie you pull the right stick down to put your feet in place, and then flick the stick straight up. A nollie works the opposite way, and kickflips and heelflips are handled by flicking the stick upwards and slightly towards to either side. Gently moving the right stick to forwards or backwards of centre will place your skater into a manual, and moving further after this will ground out the nose or tail so you can slow down or stall. Grabs are handled by both of the triggers, one for each hand, and you can use the X and A buttons to push the board, one for each foot. You can also use the B button to brake by dragging your foot, and this doubles up as a modifier for no footed airs and coffins.
How far you choose to progress in Skate is completely up to you – you can happily trundle around sessioning places that catch your attention or you can attempt to grab sponsorships, enter competitions and earn appearances on magazines and in videos. Each one of these will earn you money that you can use to buy new clothes and board components, but as this won’t alter your skating abilities it’s purely for show and preference. You’ll meet photographers who’ll offer you cash and coverage if you can pull of a particular trick for them at a given spot, and you then get to pick the photo that’ll make the magazine feature from a series of ten or so. Video makers will ask for similar feats ranging from making a particular jump to annoying a security guard and then tricking off a particular obstacle whilst skating away. Completing these events brings you to the attention of local skate shop owners who will then introduce you to their in-house team and start to put publicity your way. Eventually you’ll be set challenges by pro skaters who will offer you sponsorships if you can complete them, and when you’re good enough you’ll earn your place in the X Games competition. For people who aren’t into competition and just want to skate, you can either go it alone or connect through Xbox Live, buzz a few of your friends, and then all go and session a particular favourite spot.
So, how well have the chances EA have taken paid off? With mixed success, I’d say. The realism and natural feel of the controls is lovely once you get used to it and you can happily roll around the city skating for the joy of it without being competitive if you don’t want to be. Unfortunately precision isn’t the control system’s strong point so once you’re asked to pull a very specific move on an obstacle you may find yourself shouting at the screen after the 30th attempt. Put simply, there are so many moves crammed into subtle difference in the way you tweak the right stick that the chances of hitting the desired one time after time with no real reference points is pretty slim. Because of this system there are also a surprising number of moves that are omitted – you can’t pull any sort of handplants, bonelesses and no complies are out, and the number of air variations seems strangely limited because an air isn’t just a matter of grabbing with your left or right hand, but of where that hand goes. On the plus side, grinds and slides are beautifully handled, with the board freely slipping over the surface rather than locking on until lack of speed topples you as with other games. You can slip from one position into another mid-slide and the game allows stalls too if you time them right – pulling a hardflip into a kerb, 5-0 grinding along for a few feet and then twisting into a blunt stall before hopping off is perfectly possible, and it all happens at a speed consistent with reality. One of the nicest touches is that the skater will wobble, stumble a bit and twist around to regain balance in a scarily realistic way, so you really know when you’ve only just landed a trick by the skin of your teeth. Couple this with brilliant array of realistic screeches, rattles and scraping noises and you can feel like you’re in your own skate video within a few minutes of playing
One of the issues you’ll also hit is that the game world treats you as the street would in reality, so you will have to ollie each kerb or keep a look out for drops and ramps. The problem with this is that if you need to make another run at a challenge spot but you’ve dropped off the kerb or run down a flight of stairs, you may find yourself having to skate a long way out of your way to get a run up and ollie back. The realistic approach demands a ‘get off and walk’ option for these situations, but this hasn’t been implemented.
There is one final issue that I haven’t yet mentioned, and this one can really kill your enjoyment of the game in certain situations. The game camera (which can’t be changed) takes quite a low down skate video type position, with a narrow field of view and even includes a bit of a vignette and lens distortion. This looks great, but unfortunately it means that it can be really hard to see the obstacle you’re trying to hit and you can quite easily crash into pedestrians and cars without seeing them even though they’re right in front of you. The panning is quite loose and lazy too, so carving around a corner often leaves you with no idea of what’s coming, and if you make a tiny adjustment in the run up to a trick it can be hard to see if your new position is lining up well. On one occasion I pulled an ollie to grab off a bank, and the camera stayed so low that I vanished off the top of the screen for a moment and couldn’t judge how far to spin in order to land correctly. Having this camera really is a great idea, but it shouldn’t be the default one – you’d probably just want to switch it on for effect during free skate sessions and when you’re editing video replays, and return to a slightly higher and tighter view for precision during challenges.
Gripes aside, Skate is a fantastic game with great visuals and sound, and offers a superb example of how to turn a genre on its head by referring to reality rather than convention. I’m not sure it’ll appeal to non-skaters who love the precision and character progression of the Tony Hawk series nevertheless, but people who skate in real life will be delighted by the little touches that bring the game back down to earth and will probably find themselves loading it up so they can just skate around for the hell of it.