I’m sorry Birdman, but the Tony Hawk franchise is well and truly dead. I’ve played every version of your franchise up until Project 8, where I realised that no truly new innovation was going to come out of the series. Tacked on control gimmicks and slightly prettier graphic models simply don’t cut it in the gaming world anymore. I’m actually quite glad that Activision have let the series go, hopefully a new developer will pick up the mantle and take it somewhere new.
In the meantime we have Black Box’s latest offering, Skate 2. The original Skate came out in 2007, a refreshing experience that threw out arcade combo’s for physics and realism. All of the tricks were mapped to the analogue sticks, offering a system that was both fluid and challenging. Spearheaded by Danny Way, the game won the hearts of skating fans everywhere by capturing the culture and feel of their favourite past time. Skate 2 attempts to expand upon this in every way possible, offering a game that challenges your skating, rather than learning it all over again. The big question for me was is this game worth playing, or simply cash in for a successful experiment?
The plot puts you back in the shoes of your skateboarder from the original Skate. You’ve just been released from prison (for reasons which are never truly explained) and expected to hit the streets to regain the mantle of best skateboarder. A nice cinematic introduces the entire pro cast in the game as inmates, most of which you probably won’t recognise unless you’re really into your boarding. The story is never going to win any awards, but it’s better than last time and does a good job at setting up the new city for you to explore.
New San Vanelona is no longer the skater’s paradise from before, taken over by Mongo Corp to protect the best parts of the city. This means a lot of the stair cases will be capped and security guards are in much higher numbers. I never really felt like I was ‘liberating’ the city, but it’s definitely more vibrant and engaging than last time. Your sidekick phone will allow you to hire out services now that either fix spots or clear guards for those all important challenges. On an initial play through, I was a bit disappointed because I thought the city was much smaller than before. The 4 districts from old San Vanelona are gone and you can’t zoom in to access train stations, or take a better look at the location of spots. You can also teleport between challenges with incredible ease now, taking away any form of travelling between each objective.
By the end I was actively avoiding this tool just so I could explore and enjoy the city. Each task is varied but it’s nice to just stray from the career path and experiment with the controls. The biggest addition in terms of gameplay is the ability to get off your board. Although it’s been incorporated in the Tony Hawk franchise for years now, the original Skate didn’t have walking and this was sorely missed. Just being able to walk back up a stair set saves a significant amount of time and frustration. Unfortunately, the ‘off the board’ mechanic is incredibly unnatural and clunky in Skate 2. After seeing it done so well in other titles, it’s a glaring disappointment when you compare it to Skate 2’s fantastic ‘on board’ controls. Perhaps a little more time in development could have smoothened this out.
However, the ability to get off your board isn’t just for walking around or pulling off nifty caveman moves. In this instalment you can grab onto objects using the right bumper/ R1 and move them around at will. Using park benches, railings and dumpsters you can now create your own spots and save them in the world. You can then upload these directly to the internet and invite your friends or the Skate community to beat your best scores. It’s a great way of adding user generated content and potentially gives an infinite amount of ‘own the spots’ to use this time around. When it works it’s great, but all too often moving objects is frustrating and time consuming. There’s no immediate way to rotate objects, so I frequently spent up to five minutes trying to make a kicker ramp line up properly. Anything you move can be respawned to their original location, so you’ll end up using this all the time when your plans go wrong. Nevertheless, creativity is definitely possible here; it just needs a lot of patience.
The other new gameplay addition is the increased Trick Bible. Skate’s original ‘flick-it’ controls were rightfully praised, so it’s no surprise to see them tweaking here instead of going for a complete overhaul. By holding the push buttons as you grab, you can now take your feet off the board for fastplants, boneless’ or one footed grabs in the air. Invert stalls are also available by pressing the right bumper, which adds to the creativity and finesse at your disposal. With a little research, hippy jumps, skitching and no complys are also new to be abused.
The soundtrack is pleasing, but never once becomes groundbreaking. Although presented in a better way to ‘EA trax’, at the end of the day Skate 2 is using a very generic playlist. It covers every musical genre (so there’ll be at least a couple of tracks for everyone) but a lack of identity or continuity means that it never adds to the experience or personality. Games such as the electronica infused Jet Set Radio Future, or J-Pop filled Persona 4 show that by taking music seriously you can immerse a gamer further. Here though, developer Black Box just doesn’t reach those heights. On the flipside though, the ambient sounds of the skateboard have been recorded with excruciating detail. The pop of an ollie, the screeching wheels of a powerslide and even bones breaking have obviously seen some time and care.
Taking a leaf out of Burnout Paradise’s book, the online modes have seen some serious fine tuning. Rather than exiting to the main menu, you can now be immersed in career mode and switch to online with a quick button press. Online freeskate activities are brand new, requiring you to team up with other skaters and work together to complete a wide variety of challenges. The hall of meat has also been added to existing trick and race modes, allowing you to go head to head as you perform the most gruesome fall. Even where the career path is over, there is now a thriving online community and selection of modes to get your teeth into.
If you weren’t impressed with the original Skate, this probably won’t do enough to win you over. Rather than revolutionising skateboarding games again, Black Box has played it safe and decided to flesh out, tweak and fine tune. The result is still slightly flawed, but easily the best skateboarding game to date. It doesn’t feel as original, but if you’re like me and already looking for another dose of wood pushing; this is your answer.