Skate Review (Xbox 360, PS3)

For all the grief Electronic Arts has taken in years past for powering through sequels, the company has made strides recently to introduce a bevy of new franchises. One of those new games, Skate, is EA’s attempt to do nothing less than dethrone the heretofore skateboarding-game champion “Tony Hawk” series. Dominance is a tall order for any new series, but it’s particularly ambitious to go head-to-head against the skateboarding king. But amazingly, not only does EA’s Skate offer something different, it actually manages to breathe new life into the skateboarding genre.

The irony of EA breathing new life into anything isn’t lost on us, but the Tony Hawk series had for better or worse jumped the shark. Literally. As the game evolved from a skateboarding purists” title to one that was more approachable to the masses, the series began introducing outlandish jumps and stunts, things that could never be done in real life. In many cases these stunts were fun, but playing through Skate reminded us just how much we actually missed the traditional feel of real-world skateboarding. You know, while we sat on the sofa and all”.

Skate is often billed as a “hardcore” or “simulation” skateboarding title, but that language is far too off-putting. Players can still get big air, do insane combos and grind down rails for hundreds of feet. The only caveat is that the big air, combos and grinding requires a bit more skill, and it’s always based on what skaters could actually (or feasibly) do in real life. For instance, on-screen skaters can definitely pull off backflips, but it takes some massive air out of the deep end of a pool to do so. Likewise, grinds and manuals can go on for hundreds of feet, but they require players to find just the right area in one of the game’s hilly districts (think San Francisco or Seattle).

The sheer number of flips, jumps and tricks in Skate is amazing, but it’s also clear that this is where Skate fairly or unfairly earns its “hardcore” label. Skate uses both thumbsticks to execute tricks in a freeform way, and these “Flickit” controls require players to move the thumbsticks in a certain pattern for one move, and a different pattern for the next. Being able to string together multiple tricks in a single jump or run really does connote a sense of lifelike freedom. However, the minute differences between certain tricks can be frustrating in some of the game’s challenges, and especially when skaters engage in games of S.K.A.T.E. (like H-O-R-S-E in basketball).

The absolute thumb precision necessary to replicate exact tricks can be ludicrous at times, and although every trick is available from the beginning, it’s not until players have dropped upwards of eight to 10 hours into the game that they’ll really feel comfortable pulling most of them off. The game is fun enough to warrant that length of play time, but gamers who don’t have that many hours to invest into honing their skills may find the Flickit controls a bit maddening. For gamers who play Skate long enough, the reward of being able to pull off hundreds of tricks is great; for casual skateboarding fans, the sad reality is that they’ll probably only really use a couple dozen.

Skate’s in-game city rivals that of many open-world games when it comes to size, and players are free to roam the streets trying to locate the various photo, video and trick challenges sprinkled throughout. Considering this vast amount of real estate, there’s never a shortage of areas in which to do tricks, and the differences in districts are sufficient enough that players will actually skate from one district to the next for different reasons. Fortunately, EA has included a subway system for those players who just want to breeze through the campaign without skating through town, or they can simply highlight the next challenge or objective on their map and travel directly to its location. These features do a good job at opening Skate to all gamers” available time, much like the warping feature in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion helped that massive world seem somewhat more approachable.

Each of these districts looks remarkably different, much as you’d expect in real life, and the game (and skaters) are each brought to life with great graphics and animations. All isn’t perfect when it comes to those graphics, though, with the usual suspect (the camera) being the biggest pain. Skate’s camera is pulled in tight to the skater, presumably to show off the game’s eye candy. Since gamers can’t move it, however, the on-screen character definitely suffers from some frustrating bails and accidents simply because the gamer couldn’t see obstacles in his or her periphery. For a game that’s designed to be a bit more realistic than its competition, it seems odd to not be able to move your head (or in this case, the camera) left and right to see what’s around.

The camera also gets in the way occasionally when the skater changes his orientation on the board. In addition to suddenly shifting the skater’s momentum and screwing up that “perfect line,” this can lead to some frustration in tight spaces, near stairs or near other small obstacles, because with no momentum, players are often left to skate around the area’s perimeter until they locate an entrance. It sounds simple, but if EA had just incorporated the ability to pick up the board and step up one or two stairs or curbs, the game would feel that much more “real,” and it would be much more enjoyable in tight quarters.

Fortunately, those tight quarters don’t pop up all that often, so gamers are left with a pretty game that’s refreshingly realistic yet offers plenty of chances for bigger-than-life combos. Skate has a back to basics feel, but not in any sort of “crippled” way that will leave gamers wanting for more. In fact, if gamers are left wanting more of anything when it comes to Skate, it’s probably going to be more play time. Skate’s first outing is fantastic, and with a bit more work on the camera and some refinement of the Flickit controls, we could very well be looking at the new skateboarding-game champion.

– Jonas Allen

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