Genre: Extreme Sports
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Black Box
Release Date: September 14, 2007
Skate is not one with the concept of instant gratification — the feeling of immediate accomplishment that distinguishes the vast majority of games that can be described with the term "pick up and play." That's not a knock on the game itself or its many distinct design choices; it's just a hurdle that most gamers will have to overcome out of the box — doubly so if they're longtime fans of the Tony Hawk's series of skateboarding games.
I first got my hands on Skate at Electronic Arts' pre-E3 event in Los Angeles in June. Amidst the stack of games I was sent to cover, I found a few minutes to sit down, give the game a whirl, and hear the developers' pitch. As someone who has played every Tony Hawk's game under the sun (and most of its major competitors from the last eight years), what I experienced was absolutely foreign to me. And while that's likely to hold true for every gamer who gets his/her hands on Skate, it's especially rough for those of us used to mashing buttons for tricks, grinding rails for 15 seconds at a time, and racking up single-combo scores in the six-digit range.
But Skate isn't particularly concerned with fudging the details so that you can have a better time right out of the box. Skate is an unflinchingly realistic simulation of skateboarding culture, from common street and vert styles of skating to downhill racing, merging it all into a singular, albeit expansive, experience that truly captures the essence of the sport and the people who love it. And sure, there are annoyances that never subside, such as having to ollie over every curb and miniscule gap or losing momentum, whether on a grind or after smacking into an object. But that's real skateboarding. Depending on your skill level, it's either beautiful or brutal — and oftentimes, it's a combination of both.
Five minutes spent in the middle of a demo won't endear anyone to the Skate experience. Instead, a series of excellent tutorials kicks off the game (as they do the Xbox Live demo) and endear players to the FlickIt analog controls. Essentially, the right analog stick controls the skateboard, while the left stick is tasked with body orientation. To ollie (jump), players must simply move the right analog stick down before flicking it back up (reverse to perform a nollie). Kickflips and heelflips come with a flick to the right or left on the upswing, while a Pop-Shuvit takes but a carve in either direction along the lower edge of the analog stick (after flicking down, of course).
The FlickIt-focused control scheme is not complicated, per se, just wildly unfamiliar and fresh, compared not only to other skateboarding titles but also to modern games in general. What makes it a tricky system to grasp at first, aside from the sharp physical movements needed on the analog stick, is that players will have to use the FlickIt controls in conjunction with other aspects of the Xbox 360 controller. Either A or X can be used to push (three pushes typically bring the player to full speed), while the triggers are tasked with grab tricks. Every button on the controller comes into play at some point in the Skate experience, but for the most part, it's analogs, the A/X button, and the occasional trigger pull.
What reinforces the excellent feeling of interactivity in the control scheme is the way each tiny movement is represented on the screen. Your player will shift on the board with each movement of the sticks, whether preloading or performing an actual trick, creating a visual experience unlike any seen in an extreme sports title to date. When you perform a flip trick or enter a grind, it looks exactly like you'd expect it to in real life. The sharp combination of an analog control scheme and a proper visual representation grants Skate this important distinction over other genre entries: It's not about racking up points, it's all about pulling off tricks.
It's the difference between taking joy in the process and admiring the results. In most extreme sports games, you're executing tricks ad nauseam, but it's merely a means to an end. Skate, much like skateboarding itself, is a game of simple pleasures. As the game is deeply rooted in realistic movements and outcomes, the objectives are similarly less ridiculous or outlandish in nature, challenging players to use the existing skill set (Skate has no skill/trick unlocks — it's all there from the start) and put together an impressive line or transition between tricks. It may take a few tries — or a dozen, or 50 — but when it all comes together, you feel like you've really accomplished something. And better yet, you feel improved by the process, as the barrier between knowing the tricks and truly understanding them is broken in time.
The immaculately crafted and decidedly lived-in world of San Vanelona assists in this process, providing a vast wonderland of possibilities for the digital skater. Designed as a digital amalgamation of Barcelona, San Francisco and Vancouver, San Vanelona maintains a sense of realistic interconnectivity between the collaborated elements, yet the settings never cross into the extreme realms of bland or outstanding. That is, you'll never see carbon copies of houses or half-pipes, but at the same time, artificial kickers and ramps haven't been grafted onto the city streets of a sprawling metropolis. Like the gameplay itself, the world of San Vanelona feels real from top to bottom, but subtle in its representation of the world. A helpful map-accessible subway system can be used to eliminate the ride between objectives in the campaign, but it's a blast to discover an unknown spot and drop lines for a bit.
What isn't subtle is the sheer beauty of the visuals, from the create-a-character to the world in which he skates. Like previous EA Black Box-developed next-gen titles (Need for Speed: Most Wanted), the visual elements of Skate are sharply rendered with fantastic (if overly saturated) lighting effects, though the game won't blind you with an Amped 3 level of bizarro cut scenes and in-game items. Skate's respectful depiction of the culture continues into the visuals, including the recognizable pro characters who are never shown via real-life video footage — they never need to be. Skate's engine can reproduce their movements with enough visual authenticity and angled camera shots to negate the use of quick cuts and slapped-together footage. By far, the best element of the visual experience is the rock-solid frame rate, which never dips or wavers, even when vehicles and pedestrians (which, admittedly, repeat and lack detail) fill the frame.
Skate's narrative isn't especially inspiring or original — the concept of working your way up from a nobody to a pro is familiar ground in the genre — but what Skate does well is avoid the annoying pitfalls of attaching a storyline to an action sports game. As such, story elements only pop up when needed, usually to deliver another heap of objectives or alert the player to pick a sponsor (which leads to some excellent apparel choices). The main objective in Skate is to find your way to the cover of both "Thrasher" and "The Skateboard Magazine," with the cherry on top being gold medals at the X-Games. A wide variety of challenge types, including Best Trick, Own the Spot and S.K.A.T.E. (like H.O.R.S.E, but with tricks), vary the experience and generally allow gamers to play to their strengths and find their own path to the glossy pages of the aforementioned skating rags.
As with actual skateboarders attempting to find an audience or sell sponsor films, shooting footage in Skate is an imperative aspect of many goals, but more impressive is what you can do with the video clips and saved photos following each replay. The Skate Reel feature allows players to assemble 30-second clips comprised of recent footage, with a smattering of special effects and available camera angles to differentiate one bro's clip from another's.
When completed, a limited amount of videos and snapshots can be upload to the EA servers, allowing the world to view your exploits either via the game or the official Skate web site. The undying thrill of one-upmanship makes this an insta-community feature, ensuring that hardcore players will stay glued to Skate for months — allowing EA further opportunity to shill T-Mobile Sidekicks, "Smallville" Season Six on DVD and anything and everything else via dynamic in-game ads. It's laid on a bit thick at times, but it's not as if Tony Hawk hasn't been pushing Jeeps and Nokia phones for the better part of a decade.
Such insta-community features are well integrated with Skate's online user interface, which creates a handy profile for each player with tracked statistics and experience points for online play. Xbox Live matches are divided into Trick and Race categories, with support for up to six players in most events. In addition to event types carried over from the campaign, the online-exclusive Spot Race provides a solid combination of each major play category, tasking players with speeding from spot to spot to complete a simplistic objective in record time. EA's servers have been heavily populated since release, but playing Skate online is rarely a lag-free experience. It's typically not enough to ruin a match, and significant lag will briefly pause everyone (thus eliminating any advantage), but it can hurt momentum in races and some trick events.
Despite minor issues, Skate absolutely does for skateboarding what Fight Night Round 3 did for boxing early last year — it delivers a true, undeniable next-generation experience in nearly every significant way, from the visual presentation to the sheer scale and structure of the environments. Sure, analog controls could have been replicated on the original Xbox or PlayStation 2, but would it have been worth it without the vast wonderland of San Vanelona as the backdrop? Electronic Arts is often criticized for its yearly sequelization efforts, but with a blueprint as unique and refined as Skate, we can only hope that the EA Sequel Machine is already mashing together the necessary bits and bytes for a follow-up.
More articles about SKATE