It's like watching a high school basketball pickup game right after watching the Lakers clinch the NBA title. It's like taking the stage after James Brown. It's like trying to play charades after watching The Godfather.
Yep, ever since the original Tony Hawk came out, developing a new skating game has been the most daunting task in the industry. Still, company after company cranks out knock-off after knock-off in an effort to steal some of the Birdman's thunder. So far, no one has really succeeded.
Sadly, the buck doesn't stop here.
In fairness, ESPN X-Games Skateboarding currently does at least one thing better than Tony Hawk; namely, it's out, and just in time for the real X Games taking place in Philly. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 isn't going to hit until the holidays, so the folks at Konami and ESPN the Games figured there was a nice big window in which to powerslide their latest. And while it isn't a total faceplant, this game just feels like a mere appetizer to the tasty main dish we've all been awaiting.
ESPN X-Games Skateboarding serves up what has now become standard skating game fare. You've got an Arcade mode featuring 6 levels with 6 'licenses' (requirements) to fulfill on each one, an X-Games tournament mode, Score and Time Attack games, a few multiplayer options and a Free Skate mode. Toss in a group of 8 current skating pros including stars like Bob Burnquist, shake well, pour into a highball glass and chill.
The gameplay borrows heavily from THPS. This isn't a bad thing, though; if you're going to borrow, you might as well borrow from the best. However, a few small tweaks and a choppy graphical engine makes the whole thing less fun.
For one thing, you accelerate WAY too quickly. It's like you've got rockets strapped to your shoes. This makes it hard to pinpoint specific rails or ramps, often leading to you slamming into the side of the thing you wanted to trick off. Pulling a manual - a trick that brought down the house in THPS 2 by leading to insane trick linking - is neither intuitive nor particularly useful.
Rotation, on the other hand, moves in 180-degree chunks and automatically rights itself so you don't have to make minute adjustments in mid-air to nail a landing. It takes some getting used to, but after a while it's actually pretty smooth.
The same can't be said for the graphics. The first level features a rough slowdown spot about 20 yards in front of your starting position. Someone punch the testers. Admittedly things pick up from there, but there's still plenty of anti-aliasing issues and seemingly random framerate chugging. There's also excessive distance pop-up. Maybe rushing this out in time for the X-Games wasn't the best idea.
On the other hand, the skaters look great, particularly their shadows, and the textures are nice and smooth. Plus, the crash animations are well done. You'll fly off a ramp, land leaning too far forward and proceed to somersault along the pavement. Ouch.
It's now clear that one of the most important aspects of a skating game is level design. THPS set the bar pretty high, and X Games can't quite make it over the hump. That's not to say that the levels are bad; in fact, some are downright cool. The Museum level, for instance, looks great and lets you grind down big dinosaur skeletons, which is fun. The Passenger liner level (think Titanic) also looks neat, but both levels suffer somewhat awkward placement of ramps and whatnot. You'll inevitably find yourself ramming into a step or a wall that, while seems fine with the architecture, is just annoying as a gameplay feature.
None of the levels feel as open-ended or explorable as THPS. You don't get the sense that you can trick off everything...and as it turns out, you cannot. The lines are overly obvious and take some of the fun out of discovery - you just start grinding one rail and whammo! you've bounced onto another one.
The X-Games tournament is a nice breather from the Arcade levels, though the vert ramp is pretty dull. It's just back and forth trying to come up with new tricks to avoid the repeated trick penalty. The street park is much better and looks very good - it really feels like you're a skater in the X-Games.
The two player modes are very basic. You can either compete against one another by taking turns in the X-Games tourney or go for it split-screen style. Very standard.
The music is predominantly MTV pop-punk or metal. The soundtrack is crawling with all manner of hipness, from Sum 41 to Voodoo Glow Skulls to Linkin Park. I know I'm an old fart, but how about setting yourself apart from the pack by tossing in some old Black Flag or Suicidal Tendencies? Something, anything for the old-schoolers? Ah flimshaw, you dadburned whippersnappers and your pop-punk hooey.
Unfortunately, there really isn't much more meat on the bones here. No create-a-skater, no skater statistics to flesh out or tweak, not even a bunch of new outfits or anything. Considering the depth of Winter X Games Snowboarding, it's surprising to see so little extra here.
For that matter, it's surprising how generally tame and bland X Games Skateboarding turns out to be. Sure, it's facing an uphill battle trying to compete with the THPS fixture in everyone's mind. But it almost feels like the developers knew this going in and rather than try to come up with a valid counterpoint, they simply slapped together an inoffensive and largely non-compelling alternative. Being the first skating game out for a new system is fine, but first doesn't make it best.