Skate 2 Review (Xbox 360)
The original Skate burst onto the scene in 2007. In one amazing effort, EA’s Black Box development studio introduced intuitive dual-analog controls that became second nature within minutes, and sent the long-running Tony Hawk series into an extended hiatus.
There were high expectations for Skate 2, and for the most part, it has lived up to those expectations. There are some head-scratching design decisions that were included in the sequel, but overall, Skate 2 is the new standard all future skateboarding games will be compared to.
With that being said, it must also be noted that Skate 2 is an evolutionary title, not revolutionary. Some new tricks have been inserted into the gameplay, and new wrinkles like being able to get off of your board are welcomed additions, but nothing makes it feel like a completely new game. I personally did not want Black Box to attempt to reinvent what obviously worked in the last game, rather, just refine some rough edges. By and large, that is exactly what Black Box has done. I could not be happier, but if you are looking for that "big bang" feature on the back of the box to warrant a purchase, you will not find it.
It all starts with the 60 frames-per-second presentation. I never noticed a problem with Skate’s animations, but seeing Skate 2 at 60 frames per second makes everything seem incredibly fluid. This frame rate boost also makes the game noticeably smoother and more fluid, which is important because skateboarding is such a quick and technical exercise. Simply put, Skate 2 is the best representation of the sport to date, mostly because you can see every subtle weight shift your skater makes, even if it is just for a fraction of a second.
The graphical treatment that San Vanelona has received is also impressive. Some of the textures could use a bit of work, but the fact that you can skate from one end of the city to the other without seeing a loading screen is a testament of good design. It is probably best to think of this game as an open-world game that you just happen to have a skateboard in. Other open-world sandbox games have similar characteristics -- lower resolution textures in many places, slightly lower polygon counts, etc.
Skate 2 is not going to win any "best graphics" end-of-year awards, but it does look good. The various surfaces in San Vanelona all have unique reflective characteristics. Marble slabs have a nice shine to them, while dilapidated pavement sections in the slums will show cracks and will generally look unpleasant. You will also see handrails that look like they have been skated and other little touches along those lines.
Unlike the last version, however, I did not feel like I was in entirely new, unexplored grounds. Perhaps it is because of the familiarity factor, but I had less of that awestruck adolescent feeling while skating my way from one locale to another. Either way, it is not as if Black Box did not make the locales look unique enough, they just do not change as much from block to block.
The character models are slightly more detailed than in the original, and you can make the standard modifications to your created skater (weight, facial alterations, hair style/color and so forth). Clothing, skateboards and accessories make their return, and they are sponsored by manufacturers such as Element, DC, Plan B, Etnies, Black Label, Independent, Spitfire and the like. There is a nice selection of gear to choose from, and this year you can also choose from a small selection of tattoos to adorn your skater with.
But nothing made me notice the graphics more than when my skater would take a spill, because at that point, I had a fairly good chance of seeing "road rash" appear on my skater's arms or legs. It is incredibly cool, not to mention wince-inducing to see your skater eat concrete and slide on his elbows for a few feet, and then get up and have big red raspberries on his forearms. It is nothing revolutionary, but it is a nice touch to see a skater get bloodied up after slamming hard. Clothing even accumulates grime after repeated falls.
The thing that springs to mind whenever I think of a skateboarding game’s sound is the soundtrack. Music is an integral part of most competitive skaters' lives. Some of my best sessions as a kid were to various Dead Kennedys or D.R.I. tracks blasting from a ramp-side sound system. The soundtrack in Skate 2 is fine, but I never found myself going "oooooh I love this song!" -- except for "Beneath The Wheel" by the aforementioned D.R.I. Different gamers will have different experiences, naturally, but I found the soundtrack to be unobtrusive and fitting for the experience.
The rest of the sounds are impeccably crafted. The pop of an Ollie, the skid of the wheels on a power slide or blunt slide, everything sounds great. Even the crack when you slam from a five-story drop sounds sickeningly good.
The one negative I can think of is the annoying videographer that follows you around, rehashing the same lines of dialogue every few minutes: "Dude, you just ate it!" or "Dude you are SO…ripping right now!" Repetitive dialogue is never something that is enjoyable to hear, and it is magnified when you are running challenges and sessions for extended time periods.
As good as the graphics are, and as outstanding as the sound presentation is, the gameplay trumps everything else. Not much has changed when it comes to the core controls, and much like the Guitar Hero franchise, you will find that the more you play the series, the better you get at it. What may seem impossible at first, like being able to hit a hard flip on demand instead of a 360 hard flip, will become easier with more play time. It is the quintessential "easy to learn, tough to master" control scheme.
New to the control package is the addition of inverts, hand plants, foot plants and the ability to get off your board and walk around. Three of the four are really well implemented and do not take away from the controls at all. Simply holding the right bumper when you are approaching the lip of a ramp will kick your avatar up into an invert. The type of invert will depend on which direction you approach the lip from, and you can use the right stick to tweak it out.
Foot plants are performed by first grabbing the board and then using one of your push buttons to kick a foot out in the air. This will work in midair or by simply holding it all the way to the ground, where your skater will then plant his foot and jump again to extend the trick. You can perform any one of the old-school foot plants (from my generation) like a boneless, bean plant or fast plant this way.
What is better is that you can actually mix an invert and a foot plant -- although it is not really a foot plant if you are upside down. If you move into an invert, you can use the push buttons for a one-footed invert, or you can hold "B" to plant into a no-footer. All of the additions give a bit more variety to your technical lines -- times when you may want to work the lip a bit instead of busting out air after air on the vert surfaces.
What is a huge addition, but not nearly as well implemented, is the ability to walk around. I know there are several ways that Black Box could have plugged in the feature, but I cannot imagine one feeling more sluggish or clumsy. Instead of simply being able to hold the left stick in a direction to run that way, you are left with a slowly turning skater who almost acts like those cheap little wired remote-controlled cars: They can go forward or make a simple left or right; they cannot go backwards, vary speeds, etc.
I would not put this in the "game killer" category, but it is pretty annoying, and I know it will irritate a lot of people. I got past it in a few minutes and did not have a very hard time with it, but it can be pretty difficult at first. And why can't I simply hop up a ledge that is waist high? I have to run around to find a shin-high curb to walk up? Nevertheless, I will gladly take a somewhat clumsy avatar that can run up a flight of steps over having to skate around the block to get back to the top.
There are also some new tricks that end up giving you a much different feel of each line if you choose to use them. The collision detection is still dead on, and about the only questionable issue with the gameplay relates to some of the animations. Sometimes your skater will wipe out for no apparent reason on a simple low-speed trick, and then the on-screen character will fly like he has been fired from a cannon. That was a sporadic problem in Skate 1, and it still exists here.
Also, when you watch some of your replays, you will notice that the board has a tendency to "stick" with your animation during flip tricks. It does not really affect the game overall, but it is a bit weird to see sometimes. You will perform a kickflip 360, for example, and you will slow your rotation down in the air for the landing. The board also slows down, which should be physically impossible. I know that some concessions must be made, forsaking a bit of realism so the game is not maddeningly difficult.
In the end, though, the gameplay does exactly what a good skating game should do. It combines easy-to-use controls with a smooth animation engine, allowing you to creatively express yourself across a well-rendered city. If you can see it, you can probably come up with a way to skate it. That is about as good as it gets in the gameplay arena.
Modes of Play
The core experience of Skate 2 is without a doubt the Career mode, which I think is a bit better than the previous version’s. You start with an unknown created skater, and work through the expected career challenges to get exposure, magazine coverage (both Thrasher and The Skateboard Mag are again included), sponsorships and cash.
As you complete challenges and earn cash, you can then buy new decks and clothing, and even new sections of the city that are boarded up until you purchase them. Once purchased, you can ride them in any mode that you like.
The challenges really impressed me in Skate 2. Even in the original game, you had challenges to "score 50,000 points in 2 minutes" as the primary goal. Things like that have become a staple in the skating genre, thanks to the Tony Hawk style of line-combining and exaggerated trick sequences.
In Skate 2, the vast majority of the challenges are more skater-oriented. It is something more tangible, and not simply an arbitrary number that you need to hit by stringing together a bunch of 360-flip-nose-blunt-slide-to-manual-to-hard-flip-to-tail-slide-type sequences. You will still have some challenges that ask for things like that, but they are few and far between on the actual career path. Those types of challenges are almost solely the property of the Own the Spot mode, where your primary objective is to bust out insane combos for huge points.
Thankfully, very few of those exist on the career path. I progressed all the way through my career with most of the challenges being of the "gap across the stairs, flip trick to grind on the rail" variety. It was so refreshing to progress from challenge to challenge, just planning out my line with a straightforward objective. It made the career progression much more enjoyable.
Added to that is the ability to maneuver set pieces around the zones; now you can slide a picnic table over to a gap or a rail up to a ledge. You will find that you can create some fairly sophisticated configurations, but you will not run into many instances where you absolutely have to do it, save a few challenges like gapping across a street (and down a story) or jumping through the wings of a statue.
Along the way you will get wheel, deck, shoe and truck sponsors, which help with the cash flow. Honestly, though, I have not found a huge need for cash in the game other than buying available property. Most of the accessories and clothing are fairly low-cost except for a few ridiculous items -- like a million dollar clock necklace.
One thing that had me concerned when I was following the game pre-release was how the city would be "locked down" by Mongocorp, and how it would be difficult to skate in many locations. Thankfully, it is not as bad as many made it sound. There are some specific sections of downtown -- usually the primo spots to really come up with great lines -- but you can simply call a buddy and have him pop the skate stoppers off. You can also call in Christopher "Big Black" Boykin to harass the security guards and give you time to nail your line.
But that is not the entire package. Even after completing the career, you can still find numerous locations for Own the Spot and Hall of Meat challenges. Hall of Meat is particularly gruesome, with points being accrued by taking the meanest falls you can. Climb to the top of a dam and jump off and see how that works out for you. Anywhere other than Hall of Meat and it would not work out well.
But interestingly enough, even with all of the different modes of play available to you, free skate is one of the most entertaining. Considering the lengths that Black Box went to in creating a fluid, flowing city like the new San Vanelona, it is not surprising that just exploring the locale and skating it is incredibly enjoyable.
But the icing on the cake is when you decide you like it, and then you simply hit the select button and choose "Free Skate Online" and then "Free Skate Here." Your online experience is merged seamlessly with your offline career skater, and suddenly friends, or even random strangers, can drift through your session and skate.
It may sound trivial, but I have had an unbelievable amount of fun free skating with complete strangers. Once you are in free skate, any participant can recommend an activity. All skaters then have the choice to accept or decline, and you end up with a sub-session within your free skate. Some activities might be the first skater to successfully gap all locations in a line, or another is to hand plant on both extensions in the Mega Park. There are even cooperative objectives, like all skaters hitting 2,500 points at the same time, or pulling off a certain number of specific tricks.
Of course, online would not be online without traditional ranked and unranked competitive matches. All of the staples return, from Own the Spot to Best Trick, as well as Jam Sessions, Death Races and the finger-cramping S.K.A.T.E. mode -- it is still curious that it only counts flip tricks because a solid S.K.A.T.E. session on a rail would be fantastic. Hall of Meat competitions have also been added for all the best wipe-out artists out there.
Online is really where a title’s longevity comes from, and Black Box seems to have figured that out. Even with the Career Challenges being rather short -- I topped out at almost 60 and cannot seem to find any more unless I call up pros on my cell phone and get lucky with a challenge -- you still have a lot of other offline content to dig through. However, online is where you will get your money’s worth.
Playing online has brought back childhood memories of sessioning with my buddies, seeing who could pull that 360 flip off the picnic table. Only now it does not hurt when I fail to stick the landing.
Rounding out the feature set is the skate.reel video uploads; only this time you can set a tripod camera to capture your footage from any location. It is a bit clunky to work with the editor, but it does let you create some fairly cool videos. The different filters appear to be gone, but apparently those will be included in a downloadable content update in the future -- that is probably the biggest knock I have against the game. EA seems to have actually taken things out of a product with the obvious intent of making more money on it from a select group of players. To those players, I feel your pain.
Skate 2 is a very good game. It surpasses the previous title holder of "best skateboarding game on the planet," Skate 1, but only by a small margin. The new tricks do add quite a bit to your lines, but only if you choose to work them in. It does not revolutionize what Skate did well, but Skate 2 polishes everything up a bit -- the exception being walking, but even that is an improvement over being glued to your board. The online play in particular is a significant upgrade over the previous version.
Skate 2 is every bit as good as Skate, and in some ways better, but it is not a title that you can point to and say "this is as good as it will ever get." However, for now, it is as good as it gets.
Score: 9.0 (Exceptional)