Hands-on Preview / Skate 2

Last year’s Skate was hailed as a breath of fresh air in the world of skateboarding games, which really only consisted of the Tony Hawk series and lame spin-offs that usually weren’t creative enough to come up with a better name than something like Hony Tawk’s Semi-pro Skateboarding Experience. EA Black Box took the established controls of the Tony Hawk series, got rid of them and then inserted their own take on the sport with their stick flicking control scheme which used the joysticks to mirror the movements of the players feet. The game was a hit. And when a game is a hit it means it gets a sequel. Now you may have read that last sentence with a negative slant, but in the case of Skate it’s a welcome sight as Skate 2 (not to mention Skate It) give the development team a chance to do more with their new, more realistic slant on the skating genre.

But the real question is have they done more or are they just going to be resting on their laurels since they know they provided a good enough experience the first time around. To answer this question, Black Box invited us out to their offices in downtown Vancouver, giving us a chance to go hands-on with with game and learn a little bit about what they’re planning to do with the sequel. Of course the build we had of the game was still early (mine crashed at a quite a few inopportune times), but we had full run of San Vanelona to test out what the game was going to deliver.

While I never dove to deeply into the original Skate, the first thing that was clear from the outset of the game was that skating controls had been tightened up a lot to make it far more realistic. Even the seasoned pros in the group were amazed by the challenge of landing a grind or making a solid line. This wasn’t in a bad sense though; The game just feels more realistic as a whole. Players can say goodbye to effortlessly nailing a grind even if you landed ten feet away from the grinding surface. You’ve got to have skill to pull most of the tricks off and randomly flailing isn’t going to help you out much (trust me, I tried). Luckily, for both newcomers and seasoned officianados, there is an opening tutorial that helps a lot to get you into the swing of things. I can’t say too much more about it because of NDAs, but it was definitely a blessing for me.

Those who played the original Skate are going to recognize some of the new San Vanelona that their custom designed skater is skating in. But most of it is new or redesigned. Thanks to a convenient disaster that will be explained in the upcoming Skate It for the Wii, the entire city was destroyed and rebuilt. Once the player completes the tutorial, which is part of the story and not a separate event, they are given access to the entire city to skate around freely. Players don’t have to do any of the challenges or races or anything. You can literally spend your entire time playing the game doing whatever the hell you want in a plethora of new spots. Of course you can also take on challenges much like the previous game by either skating to their locations or warping to them via the map. There a few new challenge modes that I can’t talk about and all of the old ones that made Skate fun to play return also.

All is not well in San Vanelona though. As I skated around for a while, wondering up and down streets and trying to pull off tricks on random objects, I started to notice that security had stepped up quite a bit. Guards will actually come over to you and beat you up or push you off a board. Rumor had it that you could even get tazered though no one saw it. It isn’t just the guards that change the player’s interaction with the city either. The pedestrian AI has been improved dramatically. They’ll actually dive out of the way in a timely manner when they see you barreling forward toward them on your skateboard. Some pedestrians will even chase after you if you run into them. I was accosted by a respectable business man after running him down. It’s strange how the new AI makes pedestrians far less annoying in most respects, but now that they dive out of the way, players might be annoyed that the can’t run them over as easily.

However, I’m talking about the minute details here. The real groundbreaking stuff are two changes that pretty much redefine the gaming experience. The first is being able to dismount from your board at any time. And I mean any time. Players can launch that thing in mid-jump if they want too, and they might want to since bailing has become an interactive experience replete with options to control their character as it flies to his/her (yes, her) inevitable mangled landing. Would going spread eagle or tucking into a cannonball do more damage here? It’s a question that has plagued man for years and can now be answered by Skate 2.

Dismounting has other benefits too. Not only was I able to run around the city finding entrances that weren’t accessible on a board, but it just makes life easier in general. Sometimes ollieing up a flight of stairs is a pain in the ass and finally being up to walk up said stairs is a total relief. It also makes turning in tight corners and a few other basic control things, that aren’t so easy while rolling on a skateboard, so much simpler. Then again, much like skateboards can’t go up stairs, it appears walkers can’t walk up slants that are too steep. Controls for walking are also clearly not the focus of the game. While they work fine, most of the time I wanted to stay on my board.

That is until I found something I wanted to move. By hopping off the board and approaching an object the player can grab on to it and move it around the game world. This allows for the player to set up almost any skating line that could imagine. While all the movements take place in real time, so it could take a while, a player could ostensibly stack up every dumpster (characters have herculean strength) in the city in one location. While that is fun and all, what the system truly means is that Skate 2 is far more the player’s game than it is the designers’. If you want to put a ramp in front of a wall at the bottom of a hill and then skate full force into that wall, well then you damn well can do that. Once again though, the controls for moving things weren’t as solid as I had hoped. Since the player is off his board when moving objects the stiff walking controls take over and getting objects where I wanted them didn’t seem as easy as it could have been.

So you’ve set up this sick line and just nailed it beautifully, not to mention your skater looks awesome in his outfit and you’re really proud of how your board came out. How to show it off? Simple, Skate 2 has the same Skate.Reel option that the original had except much more robust. After skating around for a long while I found a large circular tunnel leading down into a place called The Stink Pit, which was basically a small skating bowl. Directly across from the end of the tunnel was a high fence. Using the speed that I gained from plummeting down the tunnel, in which I did a loop-de-loop I shot across the bottom of the bowl, up its edge and kick flipped myself over the fence. The world had to see this.

Luckily everything is recorded, so I hopped into the Skate.Reel mode and rewound to the beginning of the trick. But just showing the line off with the game camera would not be enough, I needed to make it dynamically awesome. Skate 2 features two new camera modes on top of the regular game camera. The first is the Follow Camera, which does just that from whatever angle you set it at. Want to be looking at the skaters face the entire trick? Totally doable. The second is the more elaborate camera and is called the Tripod. Basically a fixed camera, the Tripod will stay in one position and follow your skater wherever he shall go. Players can switch between the cameras using markers. It took me a while (this is where my game crashed a lot) but I finally got my video done and I thought it came out pretty well. Especially the parts I put in slow motion. The editing system is a bit haphazard at the moment, but as far as these things go it doesn’t run too badly. And since it’s an entirely optional and unnecessary piece of gameplay, it’s more of a perk that it’s even in there.

What isn’t just a perk is the overall feel and shine to the game. It’s clear the guys at Black Box are truly invested in making this game better than its successor. From talking with them we could tell that they thought there was stuff to improve on in the original and that they could easily do it in this one. Since it was an early build and we clearly didn’t have time to explore the entire city, it’s hard to say if they’ve truly done it or not, but from what we saw it sure looks like they’re heading in the right direction.