For many years, Tony Hawk has ruled the video skateboarding roost. On every platform from GBA to 360, they have been the only sensible choice for skateboarders. Their approach of iteration rather than innovation has led to a strong fleshed out experience that provides a well honed definition of what it is like to skateboard.
However, this approach has never really clicked with me. Whilst I was attracted to the rhetoric, language and style of the skating scene, I never really 'got it'. No matter how they cut the game up, there was always a steep learning curve that lent heavily on memorisation of particular button combinations. Pulling off a trick was always impressive, but largely resulted from a technical execution rather than any instinctive or creative play. Maybe Tony Hawk players would disagree, but as someone who kept coming back to the brand and never really got in, this is how it seemed.
It is into this skateboarding world, EA has decided to set out its stall: essentially a brand new skateboarding franchise. Skate is EA's attempt to provide a challenge in a genre that has an established and mature title holder. As an aside, this is slightly ironic, as EA are usually on the receiving end of new upstarts challenging their market lead. But here, the shoe is on the other foot. And to cut a long story short, they have shown that they know how to bring something fresh and imaginative to a genre that has become tired and predictable.
But how different can Skate be? Well let's see. Firstly, they have taken the camera and moved its focus from the skater to the board. Whilst this seems to be a minor point, it communicates a lot about the values of the game. This production is concerned with the skating rather than the skater. It is about simulating what happens when the wheels and board collide with different materials around the environment.
Secondly, the controls are greatly simplified. Rather than remembering combinations that are context sensitive, you have one simple set of mappings that fit throughout. The left stick controls the skater's body, the right stick controls the board. Combinations of different movements and gestures of these two sticks provide access to the majority of different moves you require. Add in a couple of grab buttons and you are pretty much there.
This scheme provides a much more immediate sense to the on screen action. Not only can you quickly learn all the controls, but they are nuanced enough to make you want to experiment. They manage to recreate one of the key drivers of skating—the desire to play in an environment. It is reminiscent of the feeling you get from free running; the board, the skater and the world rather than being separate entities become connected in tactile and interesting way.
This is all wrapped up in gameplay modes that strike a good balance between structured achievements and open play. This aspect of the game is obviously less of a break from the fare we are used to in Tony Hawk, but this is no bad thing.
Visually, the PS3 version is pretty striking. This impression doesn't come from any one graphical aspect of Skate. Rather, the look and feel and the overall aesthetic work together to re-enforce the malleable feel that is setup by the camera angle and controls, as we discussed above. It does have to be said that the PS3 version seems to chug here and there. I was pretty surprised to find such a slowdown in certain parts of the map. It seemed that when I turned too sharply, the engine stuttered as it streamed in the new view. But at the end of the day, you do get used to the occasional stutter, and the visual style and impressive environments win the day. You really can enjoy exploring and skating around the different zones which all have that great Grand Theft Auto trick of appearing to be hand-made, rather than generated. Talking of the environments, they are also much more believable that those in Tony Hawk. Although they are sculpted for skating purposes, this is a lot less heavy handed than the rail and ramp littered towns of Skate’s competitor.
I wouldn't usually have very much to say about the audio in games, but in Skate, once again I was struck how the sound effects work with the other elements of the game to achieve a real simulation feel. The sound feels like it is genuinely part of the experience rather than being added late in the cycle. Even the voice work is pretty solid and manages to communicate the care and sentiment that skateboarding rarely receives.
All this is pretty common fare that you could find in a million other reviews of this game. What isn't as vaunted is the wonder of the open environments that somehow ooze a laid back feel that simply invites exploration. Because the game's controls are simple and you have full access to all your moves from the start, and because the environments are both believable and hand crafted, you can't help yourself but to try one more jump or to grind around one more corner.
Although the game doesn't have a strong campaign, what it does have is an understanding of the value of its laid back world. Challenges are dotted all around the world and can be tackled as you feel fit. Progress is mapped primarily through getting your picture in the local skating rag, which always feels like something of an achievement.
This approach to skating is a real breath of fresh air, when compared to the over-iterated world of the Tony Hawk franchise. It is a game that sits as well for a post (roast?) dinner Sunday afternoon play as it does for those late night sessions. Skate could easily have been EA looking to replicate the market leader, instead they have shown an impressive amount of restraint and delivered something that is much more interesting, and we hope much more financially viable.