In a genre neatly sewn up by Activision and their annual Tony Hawks knee scraping sims, you’d be forgiven for thinking that EA’s developers would struggle to get one over on the bird man. Admittedly we did have our doubts on hearing ‘Ace of Spades’ unpredictably blaring out over the FMV intro, not to mention the fact that EA’s Black Box studio previously worked on the lamentable Marvel Nemesis. But worry not: considering it’s their first foray into skateboarding they got “it” pretty much spot on.
After a fatal accident from a botched stunt – as seen in the intro, which amusingly stars all the real-life skaters who appear in the game cast into the roles of medics, shop keepers and such – your skater finds himself desperate to restore his name. Once the tutorials are out of the way you’re free to skate around the bustling city as you please, taking part in photo shoots for magazines, trying to beat challenges set by pros, taking part in contests and recording footage for promo videos. You’ll probably spend a good while kitting your character out with various licensed baggy jeans and t-shirts as new clothes are the most common rewards.
The first thing that makes an impression, after the typically polished presentation and some blatant product placement, is that the camera is positioned at a slightly obtuse angle, almost as if it’s looking up at the skater from the ground. It has obviously been set this way for artistic purposes but there were more than a few times that we crashed into a rail or something else hidden by the skater’s up close torso. Certainly it gives skate a unique look (you can get rid of the whole HUD and have the screen cleared of clutter if you like) but it’s a little strange at first, if only because it’s unexpected.
Realism is by far skate’s forte. The graphics do a good job of reminding us that photo-realism is not too far away, the physics are almost perfect – no crazy gravity defying stunts – and the controls are spot on. Most of the tricks are mapped out onto the right analogue stick and are performed by some gentle tweaking. Pushing up or down ever so slightly pulls off manuals – and the emphasis there is on the word slightly. The triggers are used for the grabs and spins, and tapping X makes skaterboy go faster; handily only three taps are needed to get a full speed so you don’t need to jab it like a wild thing.
At times though, the realism is also skate’s biggest hindrance. A fine example is one of the early ‘sweet spots’ – a trick challenge located at the bottom of a steep hill. It’s in a busy residential area so not only do you have to focus on the criteria for the trick but pedestrians and cars have to be avoided. Now here’s the annoying bit: you have to have a good deal of speed behind you to clear the jump, so a lengthy uphill skate is required beforehand. Crash into something or mess up the trick and you’re looking at another lengthy hill climb, compared to in the Tony Hawk games where you just magically reappeared at the right place to try again.
One thing we do like about the inane realism is the taxis have even been programmed to drive more erratically than the other cars. Call us lazy though, but having to ollie up kerbs every single time you cross a road quickly gets annoying. The bail animations could have done with some tinkering also – at times it looks like a plastic store dummy flying through the air before crashing to the ground.
Still, this is slick stuff and the online aspects only polish off an already comprehensive package. Videos can be edited and then uploaded and any photos captured from your videos you can be shown off too. Not only can you partake in races and S-K-A-T-E competitions (one player does a trick, the rest have to copy it) but you can also be a spectator and spy on the highest ranked. If we were in charge of the Tony Hawk franchise we’d be pretty worried right about now. Yep.