Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Black Box
Release Date: January 21, 2009
For years, the only skateboarding game worth playing always started with the words Tony Hawk. The shredding legend pioneered a franchise that saw countless millions in sales and innumerable sequels and spin-offs. Last year, a challenger to the throne arrived in EA's upstart Skate series. While many considered the original game to be a solid offering that still needed a bit of brushing up before it could claim the crown held by Hawk, it was obviously enough to make the folks at Activision squirm in their seats just a bit. This year, there is no new Tony Hawk game, leaving Skate 2 alone with the opportunity to prove that it's the way of the future. As it turns out, that may just be the case.
For anyone new to the franchise, the biggest difference between this game and others you may be more familiar with is that nearly all of the tricks are somehow mapped directly to the right thumbstick. For example, to perform an Ollie, players must first pull the right stick straight back and then flick it directly forward to make the skater jump. Various flips are added by flicking the thumbstick at differing angles, and a simple pull on one of the trigger buttons turns the trick into a grab.
While it's a very clever and intuitive system, many gamers are likely to find a lot of frustration in trying to learn the timing of tricks and the various motions needed to pull off a specific move. Since the amount of time you hold down the thumbstick and how fast you flick play a role in determining how high you jump, many gamers will likely find themselves constantly launching too late and thereby eating rails or ramps rather than pulling off sweet moves. Also frustrating are the challenges that require you to pull off very specific moves, such as the S.K.A.T.E. matches against the pros. Since there is such a large trick set and each flip or grind is so hard to call up on demand due to the precision needed with the control stick, these tasks often prove to be next to impossible. Thankfully, most challenges require you to perform the more general "Do three grabs" or "Land a 540-degree flip trick" rather than demanding specific tasks. Still, those skills that do force you into a predetermined trick can be immensely frustrating.
Skate 2 picks up five years after the original, with your character emerging after a stint in prison to New San Vanelona. It turns out the old city was completely destroyed and rebuilt from the ground up by the gigantic evil conglomerate, Mongocorp. That means all of your favorite old spots are gone, but in their place are some brand new locales, just itching to be skated.
It's not as easy as jumping on a board and hitting a rail, though, as the fellows and Mongo have made life decidedly more difficult on skaters. Many rails and ledges have been capped, making grinds impossible, and most of the city's pools have been filled with water for, get this, swimming! Even worse, security guards now roam the streets, and if they catch you skating anywhere in the city, you're in big trouble.
Thankfully, you are the resourceful type, and with the push of a few buttons, you can whip out your phone and call up Mike to "liberate" the capped spots, Sammy to come drain any pool or fountain you may find, or even Big Black himself to provide some personal security to make sure those self-important guards don't ruin your fun. The whole setup feels much more rebellious than the original game, but I suppose that's fitting for a game starring an ex-con who's trying to restore his reputation by pulling off ridiculous tricks on a skateboard. Yeah, yeah, the rise of counterculture and all that ….
The career structure of Skate 2 is very similar to its predecessor, with your character skating around the city to do magazine shoots for Thrasher and The Skateboard Mag, film spots to send off to sponsors and performing in demos and competitions. Those who love technical skating can run through a series of street competitions, while gamers with a preference for big air can touch the sky in transition contests. If you have a pure need for speed, then maybe I can interest you in some Death Race, where the only rule is that you have to be the first one to the finish. Here's a hint: They call it Death Race because in order to be any good at it, you're going to need to go real fast, which makes for some spectacular wipeouts if you aren't employing lightning-fast reflexes.
Actually, the game rewards those who aren't particularly good skaters and tend to lend themselves to gnarly crashes and horrible disfiguration. Thrasher has a whole set of challenges in the "Hall of Meat," where injuring and maiming yourself in creative ways can earn you some big bucks. Points are awarded for the speed of your wipeout; how long you spent freefalling through the air; number of bones broken, dislocated or bruised; and many other factors, such as how many rotations you did while falling and if you used any props during your painful death. Some of the challenges are pretty creative, and it can be more fun to just come up with new way to wipe out spectacularly than actually playing the game proper. There truly is something for everyone.
When you tire of playing alone, Skate 2 supports a whole host of online options to prolong the fun. In addition to standard competitions that one would expect, the title also features spots uploaded by other users as well as an entire selection of co-op missions. For those who enjoyed the co-op experience present in Burnout Paradise, this will be right up your alley, and in a lot of ways these contests are more fun than the tension-fueled bouts as you try and land more tricks or pull off the most amazing line.
While all these innovations are great for the franchise, there are a few new ideas that would have been better left on the drawing board. First off, you can now get off your board and walk around which was, admittedly, a much-needed improvement. However, the controls while walking are downright awful, and it's actually harder to navigate your character when he's off a board than when on one. The clumsy movement system is vaguely reminiscent of the "tank controls" from Resident Evil and Tomb Raider, and there's a reason we left that scheme behind in the early ‘90s.
Also frustrating is the new prop-moving mechanic wherein you can drag and pull certain pieces of the environment around in order to set up a particularly sweet line. When this concept really works, it's a thing of beauty, but unfortunately it fails far more often than it succeeds. Trying to line up specific pieces of scenery just so can be immensely trying, and if you accidentally forget to add your newly positioned creations into your session marker, all your hard work can be gone in a snap. Furthermore, the game only requires you to move stuff around for a handful of challenges, so most players will likely spend most of the game forgetting it's even there. Honestly, I don't mind the professionals setting up the pieces and letting me figure out the lines, and while I believe they had the best of intentions by giving gamers the chance to move stuff around themselves, the whole thing just doesn't quite come together.
In spite of Skate 2's flaws, it may just be time to crown the Skate franchise as the new king of the skate park. The game manages to be thrilling while eschewing some of the more ridiculous aspects of the Tony Hawk titles (grinding a telephone wire, really?) , and the motion-based trick system is much more immersive than pressing buttons once you get the hang of it. If you loved the original Skate, then pick up the sequel. If you haven't played the first game, skip it and go straight to this one because everything is bigger and better. It's a hard game, so steel yourself for some frustration, but when you finally complete a challenge that you've been agonizing over for hours, there are fewer things in gaming more satisfying. Drop in and get gnarly; this franchise is here to stay, and I, for one, am thankful for that.
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