Third Time's The Charm?
If you'd read my companion review of Skate2, you'd know I wasn't too keen on the impending Skate3. I was duly concerned that EA were grinding down the same uninspired rail that lead to the Tony Hawk series to an ignominious demise. I shouldn't have fretted, Skate3 has not only managed to rectify the errors of its' predecessor, but even eclipse the original game in the process.
Free At Last
One of my biggest gripes about Skate1/2's free-skate mode is that you're still encumbered by mindless bot skaters that exist only to fuck your line up by clogging up the game mesh. Thankfully Skate3 provides the option to disable the bots, letting you truly skate freely in a post-neutron-bomb world, devoid of all humanity - hosanna! As a sod-the-game virtual skater, I simply want a great world to skateboard 'round in and don't care too much about the goals, rewards and such time-wasting rubbish. So free-skate it where I live most of my in-game existence.
The second great improvement is the re-orientation of the Hall Of Meat. Once a constant interruption and irritation, is now an option gameplay mode which I've happily ignored. But now when your skater eats it, you just get up and skate - no more Thrasher Magazine commercials to kill your flow and count your broken bones.
One World, Not Three
Where Skate3 shines above its fore-bearers is the overall design of Port Carverton. Thankfully ditching the dank slum-styles of Skate2's New San Vanelona, Port Carverton is a beautifully realized skate world. The burbs are back, adjacent to a modern university campus, and though not as sprawling as Skate1's sleepier suburbia, it's inspired design and plethora of pools make it my kind of place. It's capstone is the aptly named Super-Ultra Mega Park (SUMP). Basically a concrete realization of the Danny Way mega-ramps from the competition segments of Skate1 & 2, the 'SUMP' is better realized than the ramp versions of yore, enhanced by being placed in a steep canyon-like setting instead of a darkened sports arena.
When you need to get your downhill on, the top of the world, so to speak, is the Observatory. This area is pretty minimal and mostly seems a staging area for white-knuckle runs down the Observatory road or the University area look barely complete, with minimal 2-D vegetation and 'holes' into nowhere. Due to its overall simpler design, the University ditch does not come close to the thrills of Skate2's spillway. The same can be said of the Observatory Road, it's just not quite as complex, and therefore easier to skate, so this is one part of Skate3's world that's a step back. Something tells me these runs were made simpler and wider to accommodate the team-play style of the game. On the upside, it's the only place in the game-mode that's not filled up with cars.
The downtown area again bests the previous games' city sections for several reasons, the chief being purely architectural. Though the San Vanelona's of the past were accurate concrete jungles, with the kind of plazas, arcades and fountains you'd expect, Port Carverton's architectural style is a bit more abstract, looking a bit like a Syd Mead-designed city. But down on the streets it's more enjoyable to skate due to the departure from the monolithic skyscraper look of previous games.
An Industrial area completes Skate3's world. Being the wonder-bread suburbanite I am, you'd think I'd give this area amiss for the nicer parts of Port Carverton. But actually it's well-designed and has some interesting places for skating. The most novel is the quarry section, which looks like a death-trap from afar, but actually is a novel place to some insane skating (not to mention neck-breaking falls)
Though Port Carverton is the best designed world of the series, it's overall weakness is that it's fractured into three disconnected regions, breaking the tradition of the first two games' single massive cityscape. It sometimes feels frustrating to be dead-ended have to restart to transporting to get to another part of the world. This is no doubt the end result of Skate2's hopscotching feature that diminishes the need to explore the world and just jump from one spot to another. It's a bit of a bringdown to not be able to have the uber-long runs throughout the whole navigation mesh, but the design of the sections makes up for it. Since the sections are more detailed, one can only assume that EA sectionalized the Skate3 world as it was not feasible to connect them all together?
Look & Feel
The improvements in gameplay and design somewhat obscure the fact that Skate's engine has not changed at all. Character detail is unchanged, which is not a bad thing, as most of the time you're just looking at your skater's backside. In general the overall movement of the skaters are similar to Skate2, with some better bail animation and even some increased realism with the cloth physics and so on. But overall there's not much difference. The only novel change is with the water. Finally the Black Box team makes water you can fall into instead of the solid plastic waters of Skate2.
The option of chaining your viewpoint is a step in the right direction, if you don't like the down-on-the-deck camera angle, you can move it higher, ala Tony Hawk. But this option comes at a price. In Skate1 and Skate2, to compensate for blocking your view forward, your character would become translucent at higher speeds, but this feature is now gone.
For the first time since Activision dumped the park editor with Tony Hawk's Project8, a fully-featured park editor is again available in a skateboard game. This is a big deal for me as I had made over 100 parks in the various Tony Hawk games and long lamented the fact that it was dropped from the Hawk games (though it made a feeble return in Tony Hawk's Proving Ground.)
To be fair to the past, the park editor in Skate3 doesn’t offer a whole lot that hadn’t already been done in the Hawk series. The ramps, pools, rails, street-objects and oddments are the same kind of stuff we've seen the early Hawk days. But the ability to suspend the various park elements in space is pretty cool, and you can create habitrail-style runs or abstract floating sections. The novelty of being able to color your various park objects is rather nice, but I got bored with the idea after a while and just stuck to default textures. In some respects the Tony Hawk editor was better as it offered a larger variety of items. And the Skate team have created what I'd call a a prototype level editor, with some pretty large park-scapes that would have been levels by the old Hawk standard. Overall it’s damned great to have this feature back in a skateboard game and goes a long way in cementing my loyalties to Skate. I hope they'll continue to enhance it for the future.
Gameplay and other Useless Matters
Yes Virginia, Skate3 is still a game, but as one that doesn't have much value. I found the various tasks/goals to be uninspired and frustrating - and were joyless accomplishments. The silly 'Team Up' theme is pointless because at it's core, skateboarding is an individualists pursuit. I like the creative angle of creating your own team, logos and such, but that's kind of old hat - we were doing that back in the Tony Hawk days, so the novelty wore off a long time ago. Having your own li'l posse of teammates is something of a cluster-fuck instead of a new level of gameplay and only accountants-in-training will really care about the branded-boards sales sideline. But on the upside, EA has done a good job of making the changes from Challenge mode to Free-skate pretty seamless and in-game.
One can only assume that Skate2’s downloadable content options were a success for EA, as Skate3 is filled with even more DLC options. Like Skate2’s DLCs, they are a mixed bag, but definitely more ambitious. At the time of this writing, several new areas were made available.
So far, the best of the lot is the Danny Way Hawaiian Dream, which is a vert-oriented park nested in an island setting. There are excellent pools and an old Carlsbad-style skatepark. As a surf-skater at heart, i found the design of the Hawaiian Dream perfect for it. Not far behind is the After Dark pack, featuring a Sanitarium at night. It’s a shame you can’t turn on night-skating in the full game, but it’s a start. The Sanitarium’s spooky vibe is fun and has less to offer skate-wise (unless you’re big on flatland) but feels like a transplant from a Batman game. Speaking of transplants, the Art Gallery from Skate1 is part of another DLC pack (called for unfathomable reasons the "San Van Party Pack"), which is nothing to get too crazy over, but has a good new area, the 'Marraffa' skatepark. Much farther down yet another Maloof disappointment, which is just like the boring Maloof add-on from Skate2. It feels like being stranded in some abandoned city park with not much to skate on.
Afterward I - Tony Hawk Shred
Activision has pumped some stimulants into Tony Hawk Ride's corpse and charged up the defibrillator in a last feeble effort to keep the Birdman's series alive, branding it Tony Hawk Shred. Alas ol' Tony won't admit defeat and the li'l ironing board controller will still be required to play the new game. But weeks after its release the noise of indifference is almost deafening. THS seems to be DOA and most the gaming media aren't even bothering to review it - yoy!
I'm somewhat surprised that Activision has reoriented the latest Birdman title as Wii-style kiddies game. Not that kids don't skateboard, but it feels like a meek surrender from Activision, an open admission of THR's failure and the final gasp from old Tony? For the first time in a Tony Hawk title, snowboarding is thrown into the mix. But the overall 1960s cartoon style is a sharp contrast to the visual improvements of EA's Port Carverton, but I suppose that part of it's attempt to be appealing to kids. But who knows, that might be a new market Tony's tapping into, but aside from some better-designed levels than THR's spartan areas, it doesn't offer anything for an ol' skate-dink like me to want to bother with.
Afterward II - Shaun White Skateboarding
Flushed with the success of the Flying Tomato's snowboarding franchise, Ubisoft announced Shaun White Skateboarding in March. White's boast that his new title will "melt minds" actually turns out to mean that minds will be melted in frustration. Most skateboard games follow the standard Hawk-storyline of 'ambitious skater wants to be a big-name pro', but White's game takes a turn for the weird. Set in a dystopian future world, it's a brave attempt at adding a novel storyline to an action sports game. But sci-fi and skateboarding don't mix too well (and I'm a fan of both). But it's morphing features are a nice new idea, but don't deliver the promise of a totally interactive skate-scape, instead they feel kind of tacked-on, and feel sorta goofy. But it's still a good effort, and I found its weirdness kind of endearing, though there's no way I will leave my Skate3 world for White's. Here's hoping it will keep some heat on EA to keep improving their series, but this just seems a bit too obtuse for that.
Afterward III - Skate4?
If the generally positive reviews for Skate3 translate into brisk sales, one can only imagine that BlackBox and EA will soon announce the forth iteration of Skate. Since Black Box has done such a good job of addressing the shortcomings of Skate2, we can only hope for an improved rendering engine, especially for the skaters. Personally I'd like to see the one-big-world return, but I wonder if that's too much for the average player. I still like the idea of weather and in-game night/day and of course some more features of the Park Editor. But the EA team seems to still have plenty of good ideas, based on the mostly good DLC stuff, so I assume they'll be able to keep the series interesting.