Hands-on preview / Skate 3

The Tony Hawk series might be back in the limelight thanks to a certain Ride-able plastic peripheral, but what of the series that forced such innovation and reinvention in the first place? The team at Black Box has been hard at work on the third installment of their surprisingly successful non-Tony Hawk branded skate sim, Skate 3, which this time around focuses on team-based gameplay. “Team up. Throw down.” That’s the series’ new motto, and your new personal mantra as you work together with friends actual or virtual to build your own skating empire. Having already established yourself amongst the ranks of the skateboarding elite in the first two games, Skate 3 takes the next logical step by having you start your own company, building your brand and selling your boards by recruiting your own skating dream team.

Some old gameplay modes return, updated to play nice with the new focus on multiplayer – standards like the Deathrace and Contest modes now support 3-on-3 gameplay. Even Freeskate mode, where you cruise around the game world perfecting your skate skills, performing tricks and completing tasks, has been tweaked to accommodate a third team member. But what EA really wanted to show off during their Skate 3 Community Event were the game’s new features, specifically the new multiplayer modes: Race, Contest, Domination, Own The Lot and 1-Up.

But before plunging us into the new multiplayer modes, we got a chance to re-familiarize ourselves with the game’s controls in Freeskate, which remain largely unchanged from the first two games. The left analog stick still controls the body while the right controls the skateboard and the triggers control grabs. The novelty of  FlickIt has long since worn off, but it remains an innovative, intuitive and incredibly deep control scheme. I still found pulling of a series of specific tricks a bit of a challenge, as I’ve never quite been able to break free of the button-mashing mentality of old, but even so the controls are surprisingly and satisfyingly  easy to pick up. Add in several new tricks, like the dark slide, dark catch and underflip, and you’ve got a control scheme that feels familiar but fresh.

It also felt great to be skating in the new city of Port Carverton, which couldn’t a more dramatic departure from  the depressingly totalitarian city of San Vanelona. Gone are the skater hating security guards that policed every ramp, rail and sidewalk, replaced by palm trees and blue skies. This surreal skating utopia is broken into three separate districts: University, Downtown and Industrial. All are vibrant and varied, with tons of location-specific geographical and architectural features on which to cut your skate teeth. The change in locale allows for a sense of humor the last game sorely lacked, which means getting to do things like literally “jump the shark” – the central feature of one area was a large shark statue, which you could leap by walking a few flights of stairs, accessing a neighboring building’s suspiciously ski ramp-shaped embellishments. This was where the series’ trademark session marker came in handy, allowing for a painless respawn at the edge of the building’s balcony when I failed to connect with the ramp on the other side of the shark. I forgot to set it the first time, but thankfully a second trip up the stairs on foot wasn’t frustrating, thanks to some significant improvements in the walking. In those rare instances where you have to get off of your board, you’ll be glad to know you no longer control like a shopping cart with one wonky wheel.

From Freeskate, you can trigger a team challenge with the press of a button. Since we were playing on a closed local network, matchmaking quickplay transitioned us almost immediately into into our chosen team challenge. Race and Contest have been modified to accommodate three-on-three team gameplay, making them more chaotic versions of their former single-player selves. Domination transports you to an area filled with specific objects to control by performing tricks off of, like King of the Hill with more kick flips, with victory going to whichever team has claimed and protected the most real estate at the end of the round. Own The Lot is like a shuffled playlist, pitting two teams against each other in three randomly selected challenges that range from performing specific tricks to simply scoring the most points. But the best of the bunch was 1-Up, an ever escalating contest in which each team has 20-seconds to score as many points as possible before the opposing team gets a crack at raising the stakes. Fall off your board or flub a trick, and your team’s turn is over. So, do you go for the big trick or play it safe? The score to beat keeps climbing until someone chooses the wrong answer to that question, earning a letter. Get 1-U-P and you lose. It’s a stand out mode perfectly suited to the multiplayer experience, and sure to be the most popular of the new multiplayer modes.

Though we were playing a “pre pre-alpha build” according to Black Box Producer Chris Parry, it’s already clear that this is going to be a great addition to an already excellent franchise. It was disappointing that EA wasn’t ready to show off Skate School, the tutorial mode that will be pivotal in getting newcomers up to speed for competition among non-bot powered players, or the Park Editor that will allow you add objects on the fly, but what they did reveal looks to be an improvement on an already solid skating sim. The ability to interact with other skaters really raises the stakes – the wins are more rewarding and the losses more crushing when you have more than yourself to impress, but that’s what makes Skate 3 such a brilliant and natural evolution. Basically, it takes the massive community that’s built around the first two games and moves it center stage, integrating it into a seamless, and sure to be successful multiplayer experience that should more than hold its own against any flashy skateboard-shaped controllers.