Feet-on Preview / Skate It

Is the feet-on joke getting old when talking about the Wii Balance Board? Well tough, we love beating dead horses here at TVGB and we’re going to keep it up, especially since Skate It looks to be the first game other than Wii Fit to actually implement the damn thing in a practical and functional way. Alas, I once again jump ahead of myself; discussing the controls before I even introduce the game proper.

What is Skate It? Well, Skate It is what happens when a bunch of Wii gamers see PS3 and 360 gamers having fun with their Skate games and start asking when the hell it’s going to be their turn. It’s hard to place Skate It within the series since it isn’t really a port of the original Skate but it also isn’t a sequel, that honor being reserved for the aptly named Skate 2. What is it then?

It’s a new game with a modified version of the original’s game engine and a few different takes on the now infamous skateboarding city of San Vanelona. The most obvious one is the fact that there won’t be any people in it. The city is pretty much dead thanks to forced evacuations occurring in the game’s story giving EA Black Box both a good excuse to not test the Wii’s capabilities too much and a reason for the city to look different in Skate 2. Those clever bastards.

It’s also going to feature some new career mode features and a plethora of other challenges along with famous skate parks from around the world that weren’t in Skate, which we shouldn’t be comparing Skate It either because it isn’t a port… or a sequel… I’m a little lost on that whole thing. Anyway, if you know Skate then you know the basis for Skate It, so let’s jump off from there and talk a bit about how the game, which will be released for the Wii and DS on Nov. 19, actually works.

Since the launch date is so close we were clearly playing on a final build of the game so most of my impressions here are relevant to what players can expect from the wonderful world of motion-based controlled skateboarding.

As we stepped up to the television playing Skate It in EA Black Box’s Vancouver offices, Jay Balmer, a Skate producer, tried to hand us the Wii Remote to play the game with. My fellow journalist and I stared at him in bewildered amazement. Why in the world would we want to use those antiquated hand controls when a perfectly good Balance Board was sitting directly in front of us? Luckily, Jay quickly translated our stares and realized we wanted to get in some feet-on balancing action.

Popping quickly into the options menu — where you can change the controls on the fly — he set us up with the Balance Board and Wii Remote combination. The Balance Board can’t control the entire experience by itself, so players will hold the Wii Remote while they’re performing tricks on the board. Basically, the board replaces the right analog stick in the other Skate games, except it’s also used for turning, and the Wii Remote does everything else. The board is broken up into eight separate parts and applying pressure to any of these parts makes the skateboarder do a trick. It’s mapped pretty practically (see how here and here) to where you have to put pressure if you were actually doing a trick. For instance pressing your foot down on the back makes you do an ollie. Simple enough stuff. If you aren’t applying pressure then simply leaning on the Balance Board will make you turn in the direction you want to go like a real skateboard. The sensitivity of turning can be adjusted in the options — when I got on it was far too sensitive for me and I was turning into walls at first, but a little adjustment made it better.

As for the Wii Remote in my hands, it was relegated to a few duties. The first being the ability to move at all. Tapping A gets you pumping your foot. You can switch your trick set on the d-pad and if you want to do a spin trick you just flick your wrist or arm to trigger the motion on screen. It did some other stuff pertaining to bailing and menus, but once I stepped on the board I was pretty much just concentrating on my feet.

You might be surprised to hear this, but gamers don’t play too many videogames with their feet and it took me a solid ten minutes (a learning curve shared by most of the other participants at the Black Box studios that day) to even stop trying to control the game with the Wii Remote. This being said, once I did get used to the controls and stopped trying to stomp on the board to perform moves and use weight and pressure instead, I was surprisingly surprised with how well the whole thing worked. I seriously doubt it could ever offer the precision controls that a hand controller does, but I usually only do random tricks with those also, so for me the board was way more fun. Really the only threat to the board not being enjoyable while skating around on the enclosed park we were in was my own lack of coordination and ability to game with both my hands and feet at the same time. I could also see it getting a bit tricky in the actual game when you have to nail more complicated tricks.

This, Jay admitted, was probably true and he cited the fact that most gamers will probably prefer the Nunchuk/Wii Remote control style (you can use the Wii Remote alone too) and subsequently handed it off to me. In this mode the Wii Remote replaces the Balance Board which had replaced the right analog stick. Tricks are done with pretty logical motions (see here and here). Flick the remote up and you ollie, circle it and you kick flip, etc. Steering was done with the Nunchuk. It felt pretty natural, though once again I’m not sure how nailed down the controls are for performing perfect lines like experienced players might want. Much like many motion-based Wii games, sometimes the controller misinterpreted what I was trying to do. However, as I said before I rarely “try” to do anything in skating games so the motion controls were pretty fun as a whole.

As I played I asked Jay about how he thought the game had turned out, specifically the motion controls. As many developers have done he bemoaned the fact that they knew nothing about MotionPlus before E3 and also said he wished that they had had a bit more development time to work with the board, but as a whole he thought that the game had come together amazingly well and that they had done some really impressive stuff with the board. When I asked if anyone could really use the board or motion controls as well as a controller, he told me that some of the developers could nail tricks on the board that would be difficult even on a regular controller, it was all just a matter of practice.

Graphically the Wii version looked solid as far as Wii games go. I only saw a bit of what the city of San Valenero will look like but it seemed to run pretty smoothly. Of course it was not as pretty as the 60 frames per second that Skate 2 is spitting out, but it does its job nicely. I don’t think anyone is going to be complaining about EA Black Box not utilizing the Wii’s power; the game looks like it belongs at least at the beginning of this generation of games and in the realm of the Wii that is saying something. Then again terrible clipping and horrendous textures could have been hiding around another corner, it is an open world after all.

The game will also be getting a DS counterpart. I didn’t get too much time with this version, but obviously it plays using the touch screen. The bottom screen is a skateboard and the user draws lines across it in order to do tricks (examples here). Line across the back ollies, the front nollies, etc. The graphics were solid, on about par with a first generation PS1 game and overall the tiny DS once again impressed. The game will play out in a level-based design instead of the open cities of its counterparts. I’m not sure I would call it the definitive edition, but the English team that worked on the game clearly knew what they were doing and what Black Box had in mind.