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Back in the mid 90's there was a skateboarding phenomenon, a video game that was embraced by not only gamers, but skaters too. It managed to pull off that most difficult of video gaming tricks, to provide an experience that stood alongside its real world equivalent and still seem authentic. The very people who would usual laugh and walk away from try hard skate boarding games, were actually hooked in and became a large part of the games demographic.
Whether this was the Tony Hawk name, that at the time cost Activision a pretty penny, or the workings of the game itself, still remain to be seen. Most likely these two aspects combined to give the game its knowledgeable and believable look and feel.
Since then Tony Hawks has become (more of) a household name, and many would site his video game before realising he was actually a pretty good skater as well. After the first couple, with the second game being the groundbreaking watershed, the Tony Hawks franchise slowly turned into a yearly machine. Almost annually we were treated to another outing for video skateboarding. Every year there was some new tweak of trick added into the mix that was said to revolutionise the play.
Gone are the multiple finger combinations, just two sticks now control the action.
But as the years stacked up, it became clear that Activision's will to innovate with its crown jewels was diminishing, and each release became more and more predictable. But as most of us assumed, if it ain't broke don't fix it, right? This is just the right way to do a skateboarding game, so it wasn't surprising they needed to stick to their winning formula.
This lengthy preamble is to set us up for the game in hand. EA, cantankerous little devils that they are, seemingly woke up one morning and decided to disagree with the status quo. This year saw the release of their rival skating experience, that looked to steal a charge on long in the tooth Hawks. What's more, rather than imitating Hawk's mechanic and innovations, they have completely rewritten how a skate boarding game should look and play.
Gone are the multiple finger combinations, just two sticks now control the action. Gone are the balance beam bars and crowded head up display, all real estate is devoted to the environment. Gone are the limit trick selection at the start, all moves are available from the off. Gone are the traditional over the shoulder viewing angle, now the camera is low slung like the pants and the board/feet become the focus of the show.
These headlines may all seem like minor changes, but they result in an entirely different game. The essential design change is to move from the technical to the tactile. This results in a simpler control scheme; the left stick controlling the board, the right stick controlling the feet. It also means the action is focused where feet meet board and board meets road; so the camera needs to come down to that level. And it means that the player must have a simple tick toolset from the off, which they can learn to instinctively work with as time goes by, without limiting their creativity along the way.
Finally, this all culminates in a different approach to naming their game. Rather than focusing on the skater star to bolster sales as with Tony Hawks, EA's game keeps the mind on the singular reason it exists: Skating. Skate is all about the board rather than the skater. It brings the player into a realistic open environment, and imbues them with realistic physics from their feet to the board to the turf. They are then let loose in this space to simply play. Experimentation and repetition become watchwords here, as much as it does in real skating, as you slowly work out what is and isn't possible in the world EA have created.
Skate ultimately works, not through better graphics or music, but because its philosophy is well delivered through these disparate elements of the game. Each aspect keeps its eye firmly on the skating, and so coalesces as a whole experience that is surprisingly addictive. Although the game has a loose structure that can be progressed in any number of ways it holds the attention and imagination better than many driven directed experience.
It is a true re-imagining of the sport from the ground up.
Visually, Skate also manages to deliver a differently. As we have mentioned, the key innovation is to move the camera from over the shoulder to over the kneecap. The game focuses on the lower part of the skater, which admittedly is where most of the action is happening. The camera itself is also more of a shaky-hand-cam variety, it again gives the feeling that you are close to the action and ultimately the street. These two simple camera changes really transform the way the game feels and plays. Add to all this the associated scraps, flicks and grinds and you have a pretty compelling experience.
As we allude to above, the biggest (and most obvious) change of approach with Skate is the controls. You achieve the various moves through combinations of flicks and sweeps with the two analogue sticks. One stick controls movement of the skateboard whilst the other adjusts the skaters balance. This mapping not only makes sense, but means that within minutes you can't help but fool around trying out different combinations and pulling of some simple tricks. Manuals are then added into the mix by pulling back gently on the skate stick until you find the balance point. This works exceptionally well, the first time you manual-flick-manual feels like a substantial achievement. The bottom line is that the controls require real skill, rather than simple memorisation.
Overall, EA seem to have achieved the impossible of coming out of the gate with a competitive product against one of the strongest franchises in video games. It's impressive for a studio usually on the receiving end of new upstarts challenge their well worn intellectual property. If you have even a slight ascent to skating, or want a fresh take on your favourite sport we can thoroughly recommend Skate. It is a true re-imagining of the sport from the ground up.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: