Skate 2 PS3, Xbox 360
Skateboarding is not about kick-flipping over elephants, gapping moving helicopters or sliding the entire length of a roller coaster on a two-foot piece of wood. Sure, there are a handful of individuals who have done that sort of stuff (probably) but the truth is, skateboarding is about hanging around the bins at Asda with your mates, attempting to clear a downed trolley until your legs give way and your knees start to bleed. It was this side of skateboarding that EA Black Box managed to so perfectly emulate in the first skate., a notoriously difficult, but incredibly unique reimagining of the genre that relied on hours of dedicated practice from its players, but provided in equal quantities a refreshing and rewarding experience. It was always assumed that should a sequel appear, it would be a lot less revolutionary, but build on the foundations set back in 2007. Little did we know how literal that analogy would be.
Welcome to the New San Vanelona. You’d never believe it, but during the (in-game) five years between skate. and its successor, San Vanelona was hit by a terrible – but rather convenient – earthquake, leaving the city open for reconstruction by the assumedly evil MongoCorp corporation. Fresh out of prison for a crime that becomes apparent later on in the game’s ‘narrative’, it’s straight back to the daily grind (do you see?) to tear up the streets and prove that you are the greatest skater in the city. To accomplish this, it’s another case of appearing on magazines, winning competitions and listening to your camera man spout endless reams of unintelligible skater slang. Along the way you meet a handful of pro skateboarders, get sponsored, and break a fair few bones… but that is literally it. The entire plot of Skate 2, everyone. Thanks for playing.
Uninspired, yes. But this is a game about jumping down sets of stairs with a bit of wood and a few wheels between you and the floor. It’s quite easy to sympathise with the poor soul charged with the task of coming up with anything other than ‘the plot to skate. minus the ambition’ – what is unforgivable, however, is the structureless mass of seemingly random challenges and goals into which the career mode soon deteriorates. Outside of the initial compulsory tutorial missions, Skate 2 throws the floodgates wide open, presenting all manner of activities that contribute to your skater’s progress within the city. This wouldn’t be an issue were it not that some of the challenges available from the outset are overwhelmingly difficult, especially for newcomers to the series. As there’s no real order in which challenges must be completed, it could be argued that overcoming these problem missions is simply a case of coming back later when you’ve had more practice, and that would be perfectly acceptable if the game wasn’t so intent on force feeding players its awkward and often pointless narrative. As it stands, there’s always something to unlock but never an explanation as to what it is, or what’s required to unlock it – leading to hours of attempting frustrating challenges that may or may not contribute to a goal that hasn’t been made clear.
I dwell on this issue because other than one ridiculously difficult challenge that’ll have you writing death threats to Eric Koston and Mike Carroll, this is the only real downfall of Skate 2. Granted, it’s a pretty big one – there are huge plot branches that unfold based on the completion of the most mundane and unassuming challenges, without any sort of explanation at all, but in hindsight it’s likely the product of EA Black Box’s recent closure, reabsorption, or whatever you want to call it. Which is a shame, because had the career challenges been presented in a more coherent and streamlined way, Skate 2 could easily have been the perfect skateboarding sim.
Which brings us out of all the doom and gloom, and swiftly on to what Skate 2 does right: everything else. The flick-it system – that uses the thumb-sticks to recreate the movements of real life skateboarding – makes a much-welcomed return, bringing with it the inclusion of the X and A buttons mapped to the skater’s left and right feet respectively, doubling the number of possible moves, that now include one-footed grabs, fastplants and footplants not to mention the new ability to grab the board whilst grinding, and perform fingerflips during grabs. All of these are performed with the same sense of realism as the tricks from the original game – if a finger flip in real life involves grabbing the nose of the board and spinning it with your hand, then chances are that’s the exact same approach that must be taken in-game. The marionette-style play still feels as good as ever, providing a much greater amount of control than found in the majority of other ‘extreme sports’ games. Most of these additions are likely to be overlooked, however, as the most obvious change in the system from skate. is the ability to get off the board and wander around.
On foot controls are – to put it nicely – like maneuvering an elephant on casters, while intoxicated, at night. Reading that back, it sounds like it could actually be a lot of fun, sadly walking the streets of New San Van is not. It does, however, provide the ability to grab all sorts of objects that are littering the streets, and throw them together to create your very own obstacles, and this is the true selling point of Skate 2. The amount of movable items is huge, and although it sticks to being realistic, and the chances of shoving a phone booth over to manual on are pretty slim, there’s still plenty of scope to creating masterpieces on which to grind, slide, or just plain damage yourself. Couple this with the option to upload these creations for the community to try out, and there’s an unlimited amount of fun to be had. What’s more, the replay system has been overhauled, with tripod cameras included for more realistic videos, as well as the optional ‘free-cam’ which is available to download for about a fiver, which although is an extortionate amount of money for something that should really have been included from the word go, there’s no denying it makes for some pretty spectacular footage. All this is complemented by the fact that the game world is as stunningly beautiful as ever.
New San Vanelona itself is a sprawling paradise for skaters, from the steep slopes of Cougar Mountain down to the tech-friendly waterfront promenade, the 10-15 minute ride leads through some of the most brilliantly-realised skate spots to appear in a video game, a contrast of dirty rundown projects met with the spotless marble features of numerous downtown plazas, there is literally something for everyone. At times it can be breathtaking, from the mountain it’s possible to see all the way down to the sea, with the downtown skyscrapers brushing the bright blue sky, illuminated by a dusky red sunlight, that glares realistically into the camera lens. And thanks to the new one-button online free-skate, it’s even easier to share the experience with friends. Not quite as instant as that found in Burnout Paradise, the ability to start a free-skate session with friends at a press of the back button is still a vast improvement over the clumsy system featured in the original game.
Taking another leaf from Criterion’s book, free-skate also boasts a handful of cooperative missions, that can be proposed by any player at any time during the session, allowing for anyone interested in participating to opt in, with those preferring to just skate around being able to do so, seamlessly rejoining the group once the challenge is finished. Outside of this are the competitive modes, all the favourites of the original are still present, as well as the new hall of meat mode – a game in which the winner is the player with the most broken bones. It lacks any sort of skill and detracts from the serious approach of the rest of the game, but it’s so very difficult not to enjoy watching a friend cannon-balling off a dam, only to land spread eagle on the floor with numerous injuries, all the while giving the thumbs-up to the camera.
It’s easy to fault Skate 2 based on its monstrous learning curve and badly implemented career mode, but when looking at the original game’s lifespan, the career challenges made up a very small percentage of the game; it was the exploration of the city, and the experimentation involved in successfully landing new gaps and lines that made us return to it time and time again. Now we have the New San Vanelona, a fresh slate to begin carving into, familiar areas we’ve visited before branching into whole new locations to poke and probe with the incentive of finding that next big gap, filming it, and showing it off to fellow skaters online – and it’s worth noting that the online skate.reel, while not without its problems, has been vastly improved since the last game. Skate 2 is going to last for a very long time, there’s so much to do, so much to discover and create, that its potential seems limitless, and it’s for this reason that it deserves to be heralded as the truly great step forward that the genre needed. What EA Black Box have achieved is near enough the ultimate lazy Sunday afternoon with your friends and a bunch of skateboards. If the recent spate of lay-offs really has broken up the team responsible, they will be sorely missed.