Something about skating gets in your blood. And sometimes your blood gets on the pavement. I’ve been a skater for many years, although I can’t ollie as high as I used to, and the last time I tried to pull off a handplant on some coping, my shoulder hurt for a week. Drinking a few beers before hitting the ramps might have been a bad move.
Thankfully, with the yearly onslaught of Tony Hawk titles, everyone has been able to get their skateboarding fix without the risk of bodily injury. Unfortunately, the Hawk franchise has been getting stale lately. The million point combos and unrealistic skate physics hasn't had the appeal it once did.
This is where “skate.” (it has a period) steps in and freshens things up. Skate. goes off in quite a different direction, aiming for simulation rather than the arcade style of the “other” franchise. For the most part, the tricks you pull off are theoretically possible in real life. Sorry, there'll be no grinding on power lines in these sessions.
The heart of this simulation lies in the innovative Flickit control scheme. The basic idea is that the right analog stick controls your feet, the left stick controls your body, and the trigger buttons are your hands used to execute various grabs. Mapping your limbs with this direct scheme is actually quite intuitive. To do an ollie, you quickly push the foot stick down and flick it back up. For a nollie, you do the opposite. Kick flips and shuvits are down then to the right or left, respectively. You know, like real life.
Extending this practical approach, the physics are outstanding and accurate. Grinds, wall rides, and jumps all require skillful timing and precise angles. Pumping up and down the sides of a pool takes weight and momentum into account. A slightly misjudged approach will result in laugh-out-loud bails, complete with broken bones, sprains, and bruises.
The steep learning curve on the controls and timing will cause some frustration and quite a few faceplants, but once you start to master them, there’s a lot of satisfaction in pulling off tricks that would seem tame by Hawk standards. A Christ Air takes skill, as opposed to just holding down trigger buttons.
On the other hand, some of the Flickit moves are far too similar in execution. A varial heel flip is practically identical to a laserflip. You find yourself for the most part just going for some sort of board flip, which can turn into a hassle when the game periodically requires you to pull off specific tricks.
Fortunately, you can get in plenty of practice. The city of San Vanelona, a mix of San Francisco, Barcelona and Vancouver, is huge, beautifully rendered, and chock full of great skate spots. From the parking garages and tall buildings downtown to the mini-malls and schools up in the suburbs, the city is convincingly designed.
Complementing the graphics, the exceptional sound effects help here too. The scrape of the wheels as you power slide, the wood of the halfpipe buckling as you ride down the transition, and the hollow sound of empty pools all sound authentic.
As you snake through town, you'll have to avoid traffic, pedestrians (with an extra helping of old ladies), other skaters, and security guards. Traffic will sometimes slow or stop to avoid you and sometimes cars will run your ass over. Pedestrians will talk to each other and yell at you if run into them. Security guards will chase you, knock you on your head, and steal fifty bucks. Crooked cop, no? All in all, this captures everything that skaters have to go through on a daily basis with just a bit of exaggeration.
In Freeskate mode, the entire city is open to you right from the start, except some of the indoor areas. San Vanelona is so big it takes more than fifteen minutes to pump from one end to the other, all without any loading times. Luckily, there's a nice subway system to get you from place to place quickly if you're really stoked to get to the other side of town.
With some freestyle practice, you can start off Career mode as an unknown poser and set off to get recognized. There's no leveling system, so tweaking your skills means just improving your skill as a player. The goal is to get exposure in Thrasher and Skateboard Mag, land some covers, and win gold at the X-Games. You gain exposure through challenges like nailing a certain shot or film sequence that photographers want, competing for high scores in jams, and bombing down hills in races. Challenges don't need to be completed in any particular order, and if you feel like being a slacker skater, you might opt to blow them off altogether and just tool around the city for hours.
When you do pull of something sick, the video editor gratefully keeps a buffer of the last thirty seconds of your session. The controls are intuitive and simple enough that you can get just the bit you want. When you’re done, you can save it or upload it to EA’s website to impress the betties.
Multiplayer offers quite a few options. Friends in the same room can start Party Play session where they can compete in high score competitions or games of S.K.A.T.E (think H.O.R.S.E.). Party Play is a pretty short lived diversion, though.
Jump on Xbox Live and you can also freeskate with friends or show your stuff in trick or race competitions. Online matches work smoothly, although some spots get crowded with multiple players trying to rip the same pool at the same time, but hell, that happens in the real world as well.
On the downside, if skate. really wants to be realistic, then they need to incorporate some more tricks. There are no handplants, boneless's (bonelie?), fastplants, or flatland tricks. Also being able to get off your board and walk sure would have made some simple actions like walking up a small flight of stairs less of a sticky and frustrating situation. Sometimes, the skateboard feels like it’s controlling you, instead of the other way around.
But the realism of skate. has me sold. There are endless hours of gnarly gameplay here. The upcoming Proving Ground is really going to have to pull off something big to stay interesting. Competition is good, though, and having a newcomer throw down the gauntlet should benefit all fans of the genre.