Board meeting

EA’s latest is no cheap Skate
By MITCH KRPATA  |  October 9, 2007
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Skate

Skate | For Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 | Rated T for Teen | Published by Electronic Arts | Developed by EA Black Box
Competition is a good thing. Without it, the once exalted Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series slid into self-parody so gradually that people didn’t notice until they found themselves jumping four-wheelers off rooftops and wondering, “Didn’t this game used to be about skateboarding?” Strange that a more true-to-life skateboarding simulation would come from Electronic Arts, usually the masters of bloat and bombast in sports games, but their Skate is a useful corrective to Tony Hawk’s excess. It’s stripped down and keeps the focus where it ought to be: right at street level.

The unusual control scheme makes Skate a bit difficult to penetrate at first. Most moves are triggered not by buttons but by the right analog stick. You execute the basic hop — called an “ollie” in skating parlance — by pulling down on the stick and then flicking it upward. For such variations as the kickflip and heelflip, you maneuver the stick slightly left or right. The tricks get more complicated from there, but they’re all built on the same foundation. Although it can be difficult to master the subtleties of the technique — I sure never did — the result feels natural.

Skate does an excellent job of ramping up the difficulty. In a massive, contiguous city, you can free-skate, looking for good spots to string together tricks, or you can try to meet given challenges and raise your skater’s profile. The free-skating challenges are calibrated to fall at the outer edge of your competence; each one requires you to perform a specific trick or attain a particular score, and this always seems just barely possible given what you’ve done before. Which leads to an addictive kind of frustration — you don’t feel that the game is cheating you out of anything, you’re sure you’ll get it right the next try. No, wait, next try.

That’s not to say there aren’t irritating aspects to Skate. A fixed camera angle stays uncomfortably close to your character. It can be difficult to see where you’re going while turning, and impossible to scout out areas in order to figure out a plan of attack. Near some walls, you lose visual contact with your skater — some kind of bird’s-eye option might have helped. Being able to get off the board and walk might have helped too, since trying to hop onto a curb from a standing position is next to impossible. Both problems can, however, be solved by using the “session marker,” an innovation that allows you to teleport to a position you’ve previously designated.

Skate also tries to replicate the sport’s culture. Because videotaping is so widespread among skaters, you have the option of editing your last 30 seconds of play at any time and uploading the movie to EA’s Web site. The editor is easy to use but not robust; you can cut among five pre-selected camera angles and employ several cheesy filter effects. Free-floating camera placement would have been a nice touch.

There’s also an unfortunate helping of “attitude” — mostly in the form of running commentary from your obnoxious cameraman. After particularly gnarly wipeouts, the game delights in showing you an anatomical diagram with details about the injuries your skater has sustained. And, of course, you must exercise your constitutional right to skate anywhere you want, even if angry security guards come chasing after you. Rip the system, bro!

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