Plenty of skateboarding games have come and gone in the years since the long-running Tony Hawk franchise reinvented the genre. Most failed because they simply attempted to duplicate the arcadelike, fast-moving gameplay of Activision's series. After running unopposed for years, Activision's got some new competition in the form of Skate from Electronic Arts.
At times, this simulation-style skating game feels as though it was built from the ground up to be the anti-Tony Hawk, and aside from both games taking place on skateboards, the two don't have a whole lot in common. This is largely thanks to Skate's very cool control system, which puts all of the meaningful controls on the controller's two analog sticks and triggers. It's an awesome system that makes tricks feel more involved and entertaining. Unfortunately, you'll be applying this control scheme to a series of challenges and goals that aren't quite as good, and an extremely unstable frame rate certainly doesn't help, either.
Skate puts your skater movement onto the left analog stick. The right analog stick controls how you move and flip your skateboard to do tricks. For a simple ollie, you hold down on the stick to crouch then snap it up to jump into the air. Kickflips and heelflips are accomplished if you come up slightly left or right of center. Shuvits happen when you hit down to crouch, then roll the stick around to the side and up to the top. These are the basic tricks, but they get significantly more complicated. The triggers are used for your left and right hands, so when you're in the air, you can use these buttons to perform grabs.
Once you've grabbed onto the board, you can tweak it around with the right stick for different types of grabs. It's an instantly intuitive system with the depth to keep you going for some time, but it isn't perfect. A lot of the tricks are done in extremely similar ways. So when some goals call for specific tricks, like a nollie 360 flip, you might find yourself attempting the trick again and again, only to have some other trick come out. This gets totally frustrating in spots, especially in S.K.A.T.E. competitions, where you have to duplicate someone else's trick exactly to stay in the game.
Grinding in Skate is as simple as lining yourself up with a rail or curb, getting airborne, and landing on the grindable edge. Well, it sounds simple on paper, anyway. In practice, you'll have to really work to line yourself up because the default camera is a low, off-to-the-side angle meant to duplicate the look of a dude following you on his own board, holding a video camera the whole time. Your skater is large on the screen, meaning he'll block a lot of your view--he doesn't seem to become transparent often enough to let you get a clear view of the action at all times.
Also, Skate is very big on timing. The height of your ollies or other tricks is dependent on how long you crouch and how fast you snap the stick up. It'll take some time before you're hitting every rail, flipping in and out, or landing in manuals all over the place. The whole system is also purely skill-based. You don't receive skater statistic boosts, unlock new tricks, or the like. Everything is available right off the bat. The only stat that increases is your own personal skill with the sticks.
There's a loose story to Skate's career mode. It opens with you getting slammed by a bus and going in for surgery. This justifies the way you can reconfigure your skater's face and body type in the typical EA style of analog sliders. Once you're back on your feet, you're out to get noticed, so it's time to start recording footage and winning events. The different goals in the game give you some variety, but you'll have to get good at all of them if you want to get to the top. Because you're trying to get covered by two different skateboarding magazines, you'll have to complete a lot of photo goals, which ask you to perform specific tasks on specific objects.
Some of the tasks are simple, like reaching certain point scores, while others will demand that you pull off longer grinds, flip specific tricks into grinds, or land in manuals. You'll also encounter multiskater competitions, such as timed battles for the most points, best trick contests, or slalomlike downhill races. There are also free-form footage goals, where you're given a set of tasks that must be performed within 30 seconds.
The catch is that you can do these anywhere, so half of the process is figuring out which part of the city is conducive to your task. Some of them require you to skate in no-skate zones, which are patrolled by security guards who will push you over if they catch you. Some require you to do huge grinds, do a lot of spins, remain in the air for 10 seconds, and so on. The film goals are probably the trickiest ones in the entire game.
As you make your way through the game, you'll open up additional skate spots within the city, including such indoor locations as the Plan B Warehouse and the X Games Stadium. Aside from entering these indoor locations, you can skate around the city without seeing a loading screen. But if you decide to warp right to a location, you'll see some lengthy load screens. The distance that you can warp without loading also seems a little random.
Some goals have you skate long rails or cover what doesn't seem like that much ground, but if you try to warp back to the other side of the goal, it'll stop and load. When you're stuck on a goal and trying it again and again, the loading becomes really grating, as do the unskippable menu animations that pop up when you fail a film goal. This all sounds like small stuff, but it really gets magnified when you're stuck trying the same thing over and over.
In addition to the career mode, you can play several multiplayer events, such as jam, which is a timed session that is won by the highest scorer. For these events, the city gets broken down into smaller areas. A couple of jam locations are in fairly small areas, like residential-sized pools. When the game sticks you into these spots and there are four players in the game, it just becomes chaos. This is because there isn't enough room to skate and you're left constantly bumping into other skaters, which isn't much fun at all. You can also play S.K.A.T.E., get into best trick contests, races, and so on.
The online performance can be a little spotty and seems to really depend on the connection speeds of the other players, as well as your own. This means that one player with a slow connection speed can bring the whole game down. In a game that's so focused on accurate timing, it's pretty lame to randomly drop into slow motion. But when it's all working, it's decent.
The differences between the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of Skate are a bit of give and take. The PS3 version has slightly better control, solely because its looser analog sticks are more conducive to fast trick snapping. The game has motion control support, which lets you steer by tilting the controller instead of using the left analog stick. It's disabled by default for a reason, as the huge dead zone and imprecise motion makes playing the game practically impossible with it turned on.
Skate is also limited to four players online, as opposed to six on the Xbox 360, which can be a bummer in some spots; but considering how crowded some of the areas can get with six skaters, this can be a blessing in disguise. But any points the PS3 version earns are totally negated by its awful frame rate. Whether you're playing alone or online, the game drops frames all over the place when anything starts moving quickly. This is a very timing-oriented game, and having a frame rate this bad really hurts the gameplay.
There is also a community aspect to Skate. You can use a replay editor to capture video footage of your performances or snap screenshots at any point and share them publicly. These can then be viewed through a menu in the game or through the game's Web site, which is nice because the person you want to show your skating exploits to doesn't need a copy of the game to see them. These items can be rated and commented on, which is a sharp idea that expands on the sorts of things that EA has done in the past with Burnout or some of its sports games. The only catch is that, as of this writing, the Web site is sluggish and pretty buggy, making it hard to navigate, as well as see the best footage.
Visually, Skate has a realistic look to it that fits with the overall atmosphere of the game. The skaters look good and the animation is great when it's running smoothly, though a few of the up-close talking segments that show polygonal versions of real-life skaters look a little weird.
Like other sports games, Skate is filled with plenty of sponsored equipment and other product placement. For the most part, it feels fine; getting sponsored by board and shoe companies is an integral part of the game's career mode, and that part never feels too aggressive. But it crosses the line in a few spots, like whenever you meet a pro skater. It shows that skater skating a line and doing some nice tricks, but then it zooms up to give you a very deliberate view of his skateboard, trucks, wheels, and shoes, flashing the sponsor logos on the screen all the while.
Also, there's a weird bit of reverse product placement in the game because EA and Adidas teamed up to produce some limited-edition shoes. These are introduced and advertised in the game, complete with promotion codes that get you $50 off them when you beat the skaters who endorse them. It's awfully blatant, but it's actually pretty unique. It helps that the shoes are sort of rad. The game also downloads new ads for billboards and other surfaces as you play, though there aren't enough ads, resulting in some cases where you'll see the same stupid billboard 10 times as you skate up a single street.
The soundtrack is a really weird mix of music that doesn't actually play through most of the game. On the default settings, music is ambient. This means that whenever you get close to a skate-friendly spot where skaters might gather and actually have a radio, you'll start to faintly hear music coming from the direction of the spot. If you like, you can set it to directly play the music, but most of the soundtrack is a little sketchy, and the way the game opens with Booker T & The MG's "Green Onions" every single time you load it up makes you feel like you're turning on some awful Jim Belushi movie rather than getting ready to play a realistic skateboarding game.
Aside from the weird soundtrack, the in-game audio is really great. There are lots of great skateboarding noises, especially the way the wheels skid when you do powerslides or land hard and turn. The game also has something like color commentary, which comes from the invisible kid who's "holding" the in-game camera. He'll call out to other pros as you pass by, congratulate you on good trick lines, comment when you stack and break some bones, or impatiently whine when you set the controller down then walk away. His presence is pretty good and gives the game some personality.
While Skate has a handful of issues that hold it back, it has a ton of potential. It's a solid first start for what hopefully will become a regular franchise. With some more refinement and a few more things to do, this could probably be the best skateboarding game around. It's definitely worth playing, if only to get your hands on the trick system; but if you're stingy with your money, you could probably get enough out of it with a rental.