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EA's debut skating title provides more than a match to Tony Hawk's crown...
Unrivalled in the skating stakes for close to the last decade, it seems Tony Hawk finally has some competition with the release of EA's skate. Renowned for their work on the Need for Speed series, EA Black Box' departure takes a change of pace with skate., though it's hard not to imagine it spawning the customary franchise given the debut title's innovation, style, and conviction coupled with EA's uncanny knack with Top 10 titles.
Immediately, skate. sets itself out as something considerably different to Activision's Tony Hawk series. Whereas the Tony Hawk's series has always been about frenzied button-bashing, unbelievable combos, and outlandish tricks, skate. strives for something much more natural, far more representative of the real skating scene. Instead of an outlandish storyline stuffed with as many cameos as possible, it's surprising to find an EA title excelling in the subtlety of a romanticist's view of the scene, capturing the very reason why skaters dedicate their lives to it.
Starting out as a rookie skater with the dream of entering the X Games, the central challenge revolves around the simple concept of earning some recognition, achieving a sponsorship, and finally receiving some cash to turn a hobby into a career - the typical skater dream. The timeless dilemma of selling-out or staying true is briefly hinted at with the option of receiving extra cash bonuses provided you keep the sponsor happy by wearing their shoes and riding their board, wheels, and trucks. Expectedly from an EA title, skate goes overboard with plenty of unlockable licensed goodies to spend all of the prize money on, covering a lengthy list of shoes, clothes, boards, trucks, and wheels from companies such as Alien Workshop, Osiris, Destructo, and Hubba.
Beginning with a series of tutorials from the pros, skate's range of tasks cover pretty much every conceivable thing you could possibly do on a skateboard. As you rise through the ranks, recognition is earned via two different magazines by securing coverage at the various photo-shoots and events. Representing a more conventional way to the top, The Skateboard Mag is primarily about contests, whilst Thrasher caters to the slightly edgier audience with challenges such as performing tricks in the No Skating areas and winning appropriately titled Deathraces. Sandwiched between the photo-shoots, races and trick contests, the Pro Challenges are all about ludicrous one-off tricks to impress the pro with the reward of new sponsor opportunities.
The quintessential 'skater vid' also plays a significant role with a range of challenges to perform within tight time-limits for both magazines. Taking the concept to a natural progression, skate. includes an editor to create the perfect vid with a variety of camera changes, filters and slow-mo effects to choose from, before uploading it to the skate.TV channel for everybody else to marvel or wince at. Like many other examples in recent next-gen titles, the ability to create your own content for others to see is a welcome addition, though further controls over the final edit would be top of our list for the inevitable sequel.
Setting skate. in the fictional city of San Vanelona has afforded EA Black Box artistic license to go to town (literally) when it comes to designing a skate boarding Mecca. From the Suburbs in the hills above to Downtown and its sprawling skyscrapers below, San Vanelona's four districts provide diversity in abundance. The environment as a whole feels far more believable and convincing than anything we've seen in a Tony Hawk's title to-date, closer to something from Need for Speed, though thankfully this hasn't meant a restriction on the lines and places to perform. Beyond the main streets, San Vanelona is packed full of skate parks and empty swimming pools, along with 20 Spot Locations to 'own' by beating a singular trick score.
Integral to the entire skate. experience is the control system that EA Black Box has devised, replacing the tired face-button setup for something far more intuitive and elegant. So much so, that at first it's hard not to reach for the X button or frantically flick tricks in an awkward manner. The two thumbsticks, controlling body motions and the board, along with the shoulder triggers to perform grabs cover everything. Performing an ollie is as natural as pulling back and flipping up on the right thumbstick, which in-turn provides the basis for the entire range of tricks. Flicks, shove-its, and flips are performed with a corresponding motion in the relevant direction, whilst rotations are governed by the other thumbstick.
Initially the trick system appears to be restricted to a basic variety of kickflips, heelflips, and grabs, however this represents a mere fraction of the surprising amount that skate's control system captures. Combinations of the sticks, triggers, and brake unleash a veritable barrage of tricks, from the Coffin to the almighty Christ Air. skate. takes great pleasure in making the tricks that were as simple as pressing a button in Tony Hawk's closer to the complexity of the real world, simply being able to get onto a rail for a grind requires far greater timing and accuracy than tapping a couple of buttons. skate's beauty stems from this control system, it replaces the "videogamey" button techniques and unnecessary complexities of Tony Hawk's with a setup that's entirely intuitive and natural, undoubtedly providing a more realistic experience than its main rival, which leaves the question why hasn't this been tried before.
Tied to the control setup, skate's board dynamics have easily established a new standard for Neversoft to try and catch up. The sense of weight transfer across the board is astonishingly close to the real world, and despite the occasional glitch, skate's animation and physics compliment the control system to ensure skate is a fun and satisfying experience. Nowhere is the genius of the control setup and animation more pronounced than the technique required for the Manual. Requiring a deft touch of the right thumbstick to discover the sweet spot, pulling a manual exemplifies everything that skate. accomplishes.
The combo system works similarly to Tony Hawk's in so far that pulling moves continues to earn points and increase a continuously declining timer. Bigger tricks expand the gauge more, resulting in a larger multiplier to the overall line score. It's a tried-and-tested setup that suits the nature of the game. One particularly small but nonetheless appreciated touch is the ability to set Session Markers when trying to perfect a specific challenge.
Skate's intention to represent a more realistic depiction of skateboarding is carried through into the game's presentation. Employing a low-angle, fish-lens camera, the effect that you're playing from the perspective of somebody following behind with a camera is carried out with stylish effect and ensures the emphasis is squarely on the board. It's little surprise that EA Black Box spent so much time on the animation and physics of the board, going to such lengths as working on the board without a character for several months during development.