A Bit Of Weepy Reflection
I started skateboarding back in 1975 and was an avid skater until the 80s dawned. My addiction to skateboard games began with a demo of TONY HAWK PRO SKATER 2 on my old Bondi-Blue iMac. PRO SKATER hooked me for several reasons, but the main one was that I just enjoyed the feeling of skateboarding again without the pain it once caused (I earned two broken bones during by my childhood skating adventures). I faithfully stuck by Mr. Hawk’s PRO SKATER, buying the whole series twice (once for the PS2, and all over again for the XBox).
Things got increasingly worse as the THPS series progressed. By the time Neversoft renewed the series for the next-gen consoles, they had flushed most of the things I loved about the original game, chiefly the park creator. Even with the improved graphics, the in-game level design was lousy and derivative. By the time the series crashed and burned with the dreadful TONY HAWK’S PROVING GROUND, I was close to tossing my Xbox360 in the rubbish tin.
So, Who’s The New Guy?
Despite my ongoing disgust with Neversoft’s latter day Hawk titles, I didn’t cotton to the idea of another skateboarding game (having wasted too much time with other Hawk-wannabees like Transworld, ESPN and similar deck-dreck). So I shrugged off SKATE as another feeble pretender, especially since EA painted the game as a no-nonsense approach, and the last thing I wanted was another grimy Proving Ground-esque trip.
With low expectations I downloaded the SKATE demo into my RROD-ing Xbox360. After getting my fingers around the flick-it system, I was in love all over again and ran out and bought the game post haste. SKATE was a remarkable breath of fresh air. It thankfully chucked the stupid Hawk system of opening different regions of the ‘world’ by making you accomplish dumb goals. SKATE gave you a huge place to skate, right from the start (save for a few unlockable side areas). Suddenly it was fun just to make a curb slide, where Hawk was deep in the mire of ridiculous mega-combos that no human could ever make. Best of all, SKATE emphasized a major aspect of skateboarding that the Neversoft had totally ignored - downhill (and sorry Tony’s Downhill Jam doesn’t count - that was a racing game made only for the Wii). Simply put, SKATE made virtual skateboarding fun again.
SKATE obliterated Tony Hawk with a single kickflip, leading Neversoft to throw their once-hot ticket into the dumpster. It has been scrounged up by another developer who refashioned the game into a Guitar Hero-like trip, with a skateboard-shaped controller, christened Tony Hawk RIDE (see Appendix I below). To rub some a bit of extra sodium chloride into Hawk’s corpse, EA announced SKATE2. I was confident that EA could do no wrong and chomped at the bit for the new version. The preview video looked really promising and they boasted new tricks and some other swell stuff. Capping it off was several glowing reviews in the game rags, so I flubbed for a special-edition with a free shirt - hoo-wee.
Alas, the reality was not so sweet. For every little improvement you’d find in SKATE2 there just as many major flaws in the game. Instead of keeping to the formula that made SKATE a great product, EA repeats a lot of mistakes that the HAWK series made.
SKATE2’s World : A Step Forward
Above everything else, the ‘world’ is what matters to me in a skateboard game. The reason I could spend hours skating the same little THPS level is that they were designed pretty well in the first few games. The same was true of SKATE, San Vanelona was a great place just for cruising around and skating - who gives a shit about the unlockables, the contests, etc. SKATE’s laid back world had a nice chunk of sleepy suburbia, a shiny downtown, the downhill ‘Res’, a crumbling Old Town and other skateable area to explore.
SKATE2’s world is indeed epic in size, and in most respects eclipses it’s progenitor in scope and detail. That doesn’t mean it’s an overall improvement. But when SKATE2 gets it right, it’s really right.
There are two areas which outshine (if only barely) the flaws of the rest of SKATE2’s world. The first is the Cougar Mountain, which combines a winding mountain roadway intersecting a dam spillway, both of which make for incredible speed runs. This area is filled with a variety of side-roads and pathways. Amongst the hair-raising vertical drops and white-knuckle speeds are some good side areas for more traditional skating. Cougar Mt. is the best designed part of SKATE2’s world.
The beach area is the bookend of New San Vanelona, dedicated to more laid-back surf-skating. Though not as varied as the mountain area, the Lighthouse Park area is nicely laid out and offers a lot of different lines and a wide variety of bowls and fun-boxes and even some abstract sculptures to skate on.
SKATE2’s World : A Leap Backward
Ironically SKATE2’s world is called ‘New San Vanelona’, considering that much of it looks rather old, ugly and claustrophobic. Save for the mountain and beach areas mentioned above, the rest of New San Vanelona feels like a big, grimy neighborhood. And maybe I’m too much of a Wonder-Bread suburbanite, but I really miss not having a suburban section anymore.
As I explored the Skate2 world I even wondered if EA hired some of PROVING GROUND’s level designers - as they have much of the same ugly vibe in the Res and Downtown areas. So basically I find my self starting in the mountains then dashing thru the grotty Res area and head for the beach park. I liked EA’s willingness to create many areas in SKATE1 that have no curved surfaces for ramping up and down on. But SKATE2 is taking more cues from HAWK than it should by putting more ramp-like transitions on the sides of buildings that don’t belong there.
The new teleport system exemplifies the weakness of the SKATE2 world. EA’s basically saying that it’s not worth bothering exploring, so just teleport to where you want to go or where the next contest or challenge is.
Gameplay, What Gameplay?
As the reader might infer, I don’t really give too much of a rip about enhancing abilities, winning contests, goals and prizes - I just want a good place to skate. SKATE2 has put some more tricks in your bag, but this exposes that weakness of the flick-it system - some of the tricks are just impossible to do consistently. This makes it tough to beat some of the challenges. But since I only bother with goals if I have to, it’s not too bad.
You’re still stuck with SKATE1’s marginal vertical system, making it really tough to pump the walls in a pool or an a ramp. But to it’s credit, there are some good pools around town and some good ramp-based parks too. I prefer doing vert stuff to street tricks, so I think this is one area of the game that’s better than SKATE1.
Taking still another page from PROVING GROUND, SKATE2 now lets you drag around picnic benches and similar items to make marginal modifications to some spots, but it’s still no substitute for a park creator. But this is an improvement over SKATE1, which had no interactive objects. That meant hitting a garbage can was like hitting a wall. SKATE2’s interactive objects are a step in the right direction, but they have a long way to go before the world has the interactivity that the HAWK series had.
Lastly the annoying and stupid “Thrasher Hall Of Meat” has returned and is improved - which is no improvement. I think everyone can dig the fact that skateboarding is a lot of heavy lunch between the rare occasions of actually making tricks. But the whole emphasis on busting bones as some kind of accomplishment is a goddamn waste of time. I don’t want to be pestered with a fucking Thrasher Magazine commercial every time my character eats 'crete.
If it weren’t for the Freeskate option, I wouldn’t bother playing this game. Another one of EA’s magnificent screw-ups was SSX4, which followed up the flawless SSX3. SSX4 filled the game with so many stupid skier ‘bots that it made it impossible to snowboard and SKATE2 makes the same mistake. The high number of dumb pedestrian bots basically jam up the game. The bot skaters are just as bad, ramming into you constantly (especially in pools). If EA’s point was to make the game as bad as real life for skateboarding, why bother?
Don’t Know, Don’t Care
I have no experience (nor do I plan to) about these aspects of SKATE2, so I won’t bother trying to evaluate them. I suppose it's because of my sim-oriented view of these games, but as i'd inferred before, I just wanna skate, I don't care about the rest of these elements.
Add-Ons (Clothing, Shoes, Skateboards and other like crap)
Rewards and Accomplishments
Some of the hardcore fanboys have griped that EA has a buyout option to just open up all the extras for a few bucks extra, but for me it was well worth the pittance. The bullshit idea that this is a lessening of the game's integrity or an insult to gamers is hilarious - never forget that it's just a fuggin' videogame, kiddies.
In a further effort to drain our wallets, EA has included a set of add-on areas, including a some from SKATE1. Strangely enough they are the best of the bunch, but that's not saying much. Since I've played SKATE1 so often, I'm very familiar with the areas in the "Classic San Van" set, but alas they are a big step backwards. Not only do they look more worn and torn than they did in SKATE1, but they are surrounded with high fencing and concertina wire that makes one feel like you're in some kind of DMZ, and so any sentimental vibe is kiboshed from the start. The Dyrdek's Fantasy Plaza Pack is a large area that only has a massive river-channel to recommend it, but the rest of it is just a lame indoor street-skate area and and equally uninspired rooftop area. The last pack is the Maloof Money Cup area, which is kind of a mini contest option, but the street skate area is badly designed and the mega-ramp has nothing novel to recommend it. I haven't bothered with the other options, but since EA is offering a bonus area for SKATE3 pre-orders, it's likely the add-ons will continue, I only hope they're better.
SKATE2 is not a bad skate-sim, but it’s a significant step down from it’s predecessor. As I’ve tried to illustrate, the sequel is making too many of the mistakes that the HAWK series made and this makes me wonder for my future involvement with the series. For all it’s little improvements, SKATE2 has too many flaws to make it even equal the first game. I would hope that SKATE3 will have a some nicer areas and balance the obsession that the SKATE2 designers have with ugly urban blight, and the first signs of SKATE3 show some promise.
It’s pointless to hope that EA will take any queues from the older Hawk titles and incorporate some of the great things they had, like weather and the Day/Night cycles of the THUG games (instead of it perpetually being 4:30pm). Lastly, I still am stupid enough to hope for a new Park/Level Creator (sorry, moving crappy ramps'n'rails around doesn’t count). That was the best thing about the early Hawk series. As long as EA will have a more inspired world to skate in than SKATE2 offers, most of my gripes can be forgiven. My last little wish is that you can turn off the other skater bots in Freeskate mode, that would be swell.
Afterhawk Appendix I : TONY HAWK RIDE
Late 2009 Activision released the long-anticipated Tony Hawk RIDE. Alas, the worst fears were well founded. The peripheral was solid, but it’s implementation in the game was marginal at best. I don’t own the game, but a some time at my neighborhood Frys were enough to convince me that the negative reviews were dead on - THR sucks! But not for the reasons one might expect.
Even if the peripheral had worked very well, it would have been one step forward, ten steps back. THR retreats from the single, big skateable world into the old Hawk paradigm of little levels scattered around the planet. It’s astounding how lousy the RIDE levels look, throwbacks to early THPS at best, but with all the imagination stripped away! But they are uninspired and not that great for skating, and simply long channels with limited options for exploratory free skating. Worse, this run-home-to-mamma approach of small unlockable levels coupled with the ridiculous old mega-combo method of advancement simply kills the game - never mind the wonky peripheral board. But since you're handcuffed to that damned board-controller, it makes for a monumentally no-fun game. Perhaps Activision will make enough money from their ripoff RIDE to make another peripheral-based game, but if Tony had any shame, he’d admit that his game has ollied the shark and it’s time to retire it.
Tony himself has not taken kindly to the frigid reaction by the game press, not to mention the lackluster sales. He's claiming it's all a grande conspiracy by the game reviewers, but I've read over a dozen reviews and seen all of the video reviews as well - and they're very fair in their appraisal of this marginal title. One can't fault the Birdman for being faithful to his product line, but it's high time he conceded that the 10-year old style of Hawk games is just not relevant anymore. Birdguy, why the hell make a game that's harder to do than real skateboarding?
The king is dead, long live the successors...
Afterhawk Appendix II : SKATE3
By January of '10, a small flood of Skate3 teaser videos were coming forth from EA. The novel feature of the third installment is team-play. If you've read the above review you might glean that I don't give a rip about such matters. But in general the overall look of the game is quite promising and makes THR look like a 10-year-old PS1 game in comparison. Apparently BlackBox has taken the queue the New San Vanelona was too grotty and made for marginal skating, and claim that the new Port Carverton will be brighter and more deck friendly. But we'll have to wait until May to find out if some of Skate 2's backsteps have indeed been rectified.