Ever since the first gameplay footage leaked out many moons ago it was clear that EA were aiming for a completely different target than Neversoft’s annual series. Eschewing the somewhat over-the-top mechanics of Hawk and friends, Skate is all about the connection between the skater and his board, and provides more grounded tricks and goals to reinforce this ethos, although not entirely successfully. So, with the latest Tony Hawk game due in a week or two, just how does Skate hold up against the juggernaut around the corner?
Initally, Skate has something of a learning curve regardless of familiarity with other skating games, mainly due to the control methods: the left stick controls your body, and the right stick the board, with pushing a manual action (via two face buttons) and the triggers mapped to your arms, enabling crouching and vert grabs. So, as examples, to ollie it’s a simple down-up on the right stick (and the reverse for a nollie), a kickflip requires a diagonal upstroke, manuals demand a careful half-way balance off center and grind transfers the appropriate circular twist.
The left stick controls obviously include steering, balancing, pre-loading a ramp transfer and spins in the air, with combinations of both sticks and triggers for grabs and tweaking vert tricks. Some of the more complicated flips require convoluted right-stick-action but there’s a limited set of tricks (something approaching Pro Skater 2) so you’ll not struggle to always come up with something, even if it’s not always the trick you actually wanted to pull off. Grinds are automatic (you don’t have a ‘grind’ button) and there’re no flatland tricks outside of the manual – in Skate linking tricks together is all about lines: rapidly moving from object to object tricking on them in succession, rather than preventing all four wheels from touching the concrete as in Hawk.
The smaller trick range sadly extends to the inability to actually get off your board. Whilst most berated Neversoft for introducing the capability to run up walls and other parkour-style tricks, Skate suffers from a teeth grinding flaw – your skater cannot get up even the smallest of curbs without a huge detour in a circle to try to gather some speed to ollie up an inch-high pavement, which normally results in not only collision with a car but the game then resetting you right in front of the same problem you were trying to get around. Even a ‘hold R1 to walk’ option would have sufficed – some of the challenges are far harder than they should be in the game because you have to keep skating around trying to find a ramp or slope to get to where you know you should be.
To their credit, the developers have added an option to quickly set your starting position and return to it, but the ever streaming environment means that even a five second skate away from the point results in a ten second load time before you can try the trick again. This, coupled with an at times shocking frame rate results in seriously frustrating missions that would only have been half as annoying with a few gameplay tweaks before release – they’re not too hard, it’s just the actual mechanics of fighting with the frame rate, the controls, the close camera and the load times extends the game length in the worst possible way.
However, that’s the bad stuff out of the way – the rest is all good. Firstly, the skateable area is massive, the biggest we’ve ever seen and probably the same sort of scale of post-GTA sandbox games, with loads of secret spots tucked away amongst the various districts. It’s at least 5 times that of Project 8, and although many of the areas are similar with repeated buildings and ideas, once you’ve found your way around there’s always some recognisable landmark to ease navigation, and the superb map feature works brilliantly in relating your position, direction and any unfinished missions, of which there are plenty.
The story (told initially by real life video and then on with in-game cutscenes) is always centered around the player, and is engaging and believable, with you already filling the shoes of an experienced skater getting back into the business and making a name for himself via various magazines and competitions. It’s a welcome break to have the whole trickset and map open at the start of the game – your avatar doesn’t improve in skill, but the player does – it’s never patronising and always assumes at least some knowledge of skating lingo but it’s a better way of letting the gamer loose at the offset, even if the game could do with a little more direction.
Frame rate aside, the graphics are great too – the environment is solid and the lighting is superb, with some cool visual effects at the edges of the screen and subtle use of motion blur and depth of field throughout. All the motion capture is top notch, and there’s enough animation blending to ensure that the camera, whilst always aimed at your feet, gives off a convincing video-like atmosphere, although the low position does mean that you can’t always see where you’re going. Likewise, the audio ambience is clever – fading in and out as you skate past busy areas and with a decent range of licensed music for those of us without custom soundtrack options.
Skate has some clever online options, including the uploading of editable replays and photographs, as well as full online play, but at the time of writing it’s impossible to link your PSN id with the EA one, meaning that outside of the game you can’t actually find the movies you’ve uploaded. From within the game’s menus you can search for, share and rate other people’s attempts though, Youtube-style, which is a nice community feature.
So, Skate – clearly aimed at skateboarding enthusiasts rather than gamers brought up on the Hawk series – has tried hard enough to make an impression but isn’t fine tuned enough to be the best it could have been. The PS3 version isn’t as smooth as the 360 version, which is a shame, and there’s a hell of a difficulty curve but if you’re willing to put the effort in there’s a decent enough simulation-ish game here as an alternative to Activision’s more arcade-like Hawk series. The sequel could be amazing, though, so we’ll see what happens next year.