I've been hooked on skating games since first playing 720° at the local 7-11. I've played them all since that point. I remember very clearly when Tony Hawk's Pro Skater first arrived. To that point, just about everyone thought they knew what an action sports game was supposed to look and play like. Hawk woke us up, showed us that there were greater possibilities. The same thing happened with Fight Night. Until it arrived, we'd thought boxing games were button mashers and that's the only way it could be done. It's not often that games come along that can change our perception of how things should be done for a genre. EA's skate joins that pantheon of games that redefine a genre. No, it's not perfect -- but then neither was the first Tony Hawk or Fight Night. After spending more than 20 hours with skate, it's hard to imagine going back to the old way of playing an action sports game.
Forget what you've learned in the Tony Hawk series. I know, that's not an easy thing to do, but none of it applies to skate. While skate is not fully grounded in reality, the physics-based skate engine and Flickit controls nullify the old way of hitting a lot of buttons and pressing the D-Pad in various directions to rack up insane combo scores. skate asks gamers to think more like a real skater, to envision their own lines from everyday objects. In skate, doing a varial heelflip over a set of stairs and landing in a 5-0 grind on a hubba is a phenomenal feat. And while anyone with even moderate skills can pull this off, it no less feels like a great accomplishment. In videogames, we are often able to do extraordinary things. That's true as well in skate; it's just that you play as an ordinary person, so the definition of "extraordinary" has been redefined. It no longer requires a heelflip transfer to be done on the moon or atop a roller coaster to be considered an accomplishment.
The Flickit controls remove the need to touch the face buttons to perform skating moves. The Right Thumbstick is used to perform ollies and kickflips. Pull back on the stick and flick it in a direction. It's simple enough, but there are many subtleties to the system. skate's controls are all physics based. So if you are leaning to the left side on the nose, you're going to get a different result than planting your foot directly on the back of the board. The left and right triggers control your hands for grabs, which can be tweaked with the right stick. The system has a steep learning curve that may frustrate some. Those who stick with it will continue to find nifty new tricks hours later. You know that tired old videogame saying, "easy to learn, hard to master"? That certainly fits skate.
Following the commands in the trick menu won't guarantee you will witness the cooler moments in skate. This is a fairly open system, so to do whacky stunts really requires a good imagination, finding the right location, nailing your timing, and finding the will to try the same thing again and again. Want your board to roll under a rail while you leap over and then land back on cleanly? There's no button press for this, no unlockable command to create an animation chain. You just have to find a spot for the attempt, figure out a good flip trick that gives you some separation from the board, and enjoy the 25 bails you must endure before finally finding success.
The controls work surprisingly well for a brand new franchise, but there are a few issues. While the game is focused on physics and a more realistic approach, you will see things that would make Einstein spit up his bong water. Several times I planted my board on a wall and was parallel to the ground with no momentum whatsoever, only to then magically land upright. For every hour of skating, you will likely see one of these oddities that break the rhythm of the game and snaps you back to the realization that you are, after all, still just playing a game. There are also, for reasons unknown, no true lip tricks (handplants and such) and no flatland tricks. These are things that will likely come in a sequel, but it's still a bit of a disappointment not to see them included.
You will perform your feats of daring in San Vanelona. The fictional city is expansive, large enough that it takes a good 10 minutes to skate from end to end. EA Black Box has created a beautiful city, rich with detail. It feels like a real place and is populated with a variety of pesky pedestrians, annoying security guards, and unsympathetic drivers. The animations are fantastic. You'll see your skater shifting his feet on his board, which actually translates into gameplay. The ragdolls are a great touch that makes spending a day bailing a fun little game in itself.
Helping to enrich the environment are some excellent ambient sounds. You'll hear a lot of background chatter as you skate. And music -- from a solid sound track that wisely includes the great surf-punk band Agent Orange -- acts as a call sign alerting you to a hot skate zone. It all comes together to create a unique experience. The mechanics of skate are a big deal, but it's the city of San Vanelona that makes the game great. Because if the city sucks, there's no way you're going to bother spending your time skating around for kicks.
The only downside to the big city is that it takes a toll on the console in some small ways. There are some real technical snags when it comes to loading in areas. While you'd expect to get a lengthy load time teleporting from the bottom of San Vanelona to the top, you will see load times in areas where they should not happen. Now, you won't get loads while skating at all -- you have full reign over the city as you skate. But if you set a marker before trying a tricky transfer and go more than say ten feet from the marker, you face a 30-second load time just to reset for another jump. Considering that much of skate is about trial and error, these loads begin to become a bit tedious. Still, this is a sacrifice I'll take if it means I can skate freely up and down the city without any pauses.
San Vanelona offers an immeasurable number of sweet spots to skate. It's really quite incredible that, even 20 hours in, I can still find areas I hadn't explored or find new lines I'd never previously considered. It should be noted that, aside from a handful of skate parks to unlock, San Vanelona is wide open from the moment the game loads. There are also no tricks to unlock, no special boards that give you higher ollies, no skill ratings whatsoever. The only limitations in skate are your skills and your imagination.
skate is somewhat of a rare treat in gaming. It's like a lazy Sunday afternoon compared to most goal-oriented titles. You could conceivably play skate for 30 hours and never bother with the "career mode" and its 100 challenges. In fact, it feels like developer Black Box would prefer if that's what you did. The career mode, as it is, is fairly bare-bones (and easy) and may not be as constructive as some would like. For me, it served as a nice distraction and as a way to discover areas that I might have otherwise overlooked. And, yes, you will have to complete the career mode to unlock a few of the choice locations within San Vanelona.
The career mode has you attempting to become a famous skater by earning cover spots on Thrasher and Skateboard Mag. You can work your way through both career lines at the same time, choosing between events and leisurely cruises around San Vanelona as you please. Skateboard Mag's path is more career-oriented with lots of photo ops and cool jams. Thrasher is a bit more hardcore, with deathraces and even a challenge to break four bones off one gnarly transfer.
Each path earns you two sponsorships. You'll be able to select sponsors for your board, wheels, trucks, and shoes. The chosen sponsor's gear then becomes free to you, though you'll rack up so much cash in skate, it won't really matter. Use your sponsors gear in challenges, and you'll earn some bonus cash which can be used to buy more licensed apparel. The licensing is pretty insane in skate and even includes some choice band shirts. Want to sport your love for N.W.A.? You can in skate.
The highlights of progressing through career mode are unlocking Danny Way's MegaCompound (a skater's heaven!) and the X-Games. While Way's park is the dreamiest thing in San Vanelona, it's the X-Games that really show Black Box's attention to detail. Throughout career, the announcer for your events is a laid back cat who sounds like he just wandered in off the street. But get to X-Games and you get Sal Masekela, the man who actually hosts the X-Games. Most titles would have slathered Masekela all over the career mode, made him your buddy, had him messaging your Sidekick as he brought you along to stardom. skate plays it cool and uses him only when appropriate. For not blowing their Masekela wad, I offer a tip of my cap to Black Box.
Skating isn't just about pulling off hot tricks and impressing the ladies. Sure, it's mostly about those things, but it's also very much about the community of your peers. With all the talk of the sweet controls and swank open city, it's easy to neglect the impressive community aspects of skate.
Playing solo in the career mode won't leave you feeling lonely. San Vanelona is somewhat of a haven for skaters; they flock there. Both real pros -- including Paul Rodriguez, Jr., Danny Way, Chris Cole, and Chris Haslam -- and fictional ones populate the streets of San Vanelona. You'll be doing a challenge and someone might cut in and skate your line. Or you'll be hunting for a new spot to skate and have P-Rod ride past you. These appearances are common, but not superficial. You can follow Rodriguez around town, which may lead you to a sweet spot that you didn't know about.
Of course, most gamers want to have a connection with real people, not just virtual ones. You can edit and upload 30-second clips as well as screenshots from the game to the official
skate website. Though the beta for the site has been a bit unpredictable, it's expected that things will be running smoothly for the true launch on September 13th. You can watch videos either on the site or in the game. And the hub for this, a T-Mobile Sidekick, also serves as a way to easily find and set up multiplayer sessions with other gamers.
Multiplayer in skate enables six gamers to get together and show off their goods. There are more than a half-dozen game modes, each resembling the modes from single-player. That includes deathraces (skate slaloms through colored gates), best trick competitions, and jams. You can also just kick it in freeskate for fun, though you are restricted to small sections of the city while online. That is a bit of a letdown, as a fully open city would have made for a spectacular online event.
Though the majority of the online experience is good, there are a few issues. Your controls and your skater work fine -- no latency or lag issues were encountered -- but your friends tend to come in choppy. It gets difficult jamming with buddies when they keep teleporting around. This won't hinder your own ability to rack up points, but it's too bad skate's online mode couldn't have been a bit smoother.
When online, skate operates primarily as it does in single-player. That means you still have use of your replay tool. While it's a blast to cut up video of your own tricks, there's nothing quite like creating a choreographed group video and uploading it online. And for those worried, the choppiness seen in-game does not appear in replays.
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