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With its laidback vibe, slower pace and intuitive controls, Skate felt like liberation from the Tony Hawk series’ arcade intensity, million point combos and complex button mashing. So the worrying news – initially, at least – is that Skate 2 feels vaguely bewildering and oppressive. Odder yet, several beguiling, varied and challenging hours later, EA’s sequel reveals itself as a multi-layered labor of love and unquestionably the best skating game ever.
New San Vanelona teems with security guards and skate-proof metal blocks on many rails and kerbs. You start the game in prison, before a tutorial section (which can be skipped) set in a gritty, industrial warehouse. Pop a trick, and a new combo meter bursts onto screen, adding pressure to do tricks quickly or lose your score multiplier – betraying the lazy vibe of the original. Walking is clumsy, the variety of new tricks feels overwhelming and – for veterans, at least – it’s all a bit familiar.
Five hours in, you’re beaming wildly – amid the odd swear – and giddily awaiting each fresh location. If the original’s Career mode lacked variety, this is the perfect rebuttal; one minute you’re leaping 60 feet off rooftops into cracked pools, the next performing fiddly tech moves on miniature rails. Scenery lurches from industrial wasteland, to gleaming quayside, to rolling hills, to monstrous, jutting architectural oddities (wait until you see The Wall, a 100 foot near-vertical bank with huge, jutting rails at teasing angles). It’s hard to imagine a real-life location that isn’t represented somehow.
The combo system and new moves (more later) are initially overwhelming. When you land a trick, however decent, you feel invisibly burdened by the weight of how much better it could have been – making you feel guilty for not knowing the intricate moves better. The good news is that the objectives reign in the potential madness, and reward you for what you know, rather than what you don’t – building you up bit by bit, before cutting loose. Initially, it’s stuff like leaping off a ramp to grind a rail but, just as it starts to feel stifling, there’s a liberating trick off against Danny Way on high speed, rolling ramps. After popping three-foot heelflips, you’re doing 540° backflips at breakneck speed over 60 foot humps.
One memorable Rob Dyrdek challenge asks you to perform unique grinds on simple ledges – but while doing mid-trick gestures using the D-pad (there are loads of new gestures, like Thumbs Up, Cool, Flip the Table etc). The races are thrilling, with bespoke, twisting, mountainside circuits designed by the SSX team, a welcome contrast to the make-do, city streets of the original. You can really power slide into bends, and it’s possible to go flying off a cliff. One task asks you to leap through a stone circle and drop vertically through another circle set at 90° below. Object placement isn’t tricky, but timing leaps is merciless – striking a perfect balance between skill and frustration.
The ability to get off your board is clumsy. Your skater twists on-the-spot like the early Tomb Raider games, making precise alignment fiddly. It’s awkward, but still handy – think of it as a tool you never had for climbing up steps, rather than skating the long way round. The game never punishes you for it – so there’s no cruel platform-style leaps. Retrieving your board is easy, too, with a deck ‘magically’ thrown into your hands from off-screen.
New tricks – like No Complies, Finger Flips and Handplants – fill obvious gaps in the controls, and obey logical rules. Finger Flips, where you flip the board mid-air using your fingers are performed by ollieing, grabbing and doing the standard kickflip motion to represent the flip motion. It’s logical, hierarchical and timing dependent, so while we fluffed our first few tries, we punched the air with a “Yes” upon nailing our first; minutes later, landing them every time. As ever, the controls mimic skating’s real-life exponential difficulty curve. Only Flatland tricks are omitted, but since they effectively ruined the Tony Hawkseries, allowing cheap on-the-spot mega-combos, it’s no great loss.
The enhanced Hall of Meat mode awards points for breaking bones. You can even deliberately bail during big leaps, and use the right stick to pose – think Pain meets Burnout’s Crash Junctions. Your mobile phone sets session markers, and can be used to call friends – Big Black will clear out security guards, while you can arrange races with pros or get a friend to crowbar blocks off rails.
Problems? It’s so convenient to leap between objectives on the map – split into clearly marked Street, Tranny, Bonus, Race etc categories – that you rarely cruise around, but teleport about the world blasting through tasks, so the world can feel a little disconnected. The enhanced Video and Face Editors are less flexible than you’d hope (with the specter of paid-for DLC Filmer packs to reinstate effects like Sepia tint that were free in the last game), walking’s fiddly and – for veterans – the core experience burns slightly less brightly than the first time you mastered Skate’s incredible controls and physics. The soundtrack’s arguably less feel-good, despite the presence of War’s Lowrider from Mark Gonzales’ part in the seminal Blind video.
Skate 2’s biggest thrills, however, are those you create yourself, sticking to a spot and creating your own goals. Sure, you can ollie that gap, but can you 360° Boneless over it onto the rail below? Or Hardflip off the rail into a manual? The possibilities are endless, and thanks to the Replay Editor, you need only land one impossible trick in a hundred to lord it over your mates forever. In typical EA fashion, every killer move is rewarded – “You’re on fire” shouts your cameraman as you bust out a triple multiplier, with a deliciously slow-mo whirring sound as you clack the tarmac.
With developers Black Box being closed down by EA, there’s a real possibility this could be the last Skate game ever – and, if so, we’re almost glad. It’s so complete, with such replay potential, there’s a danger of its true riches being overlooked by the rush of the new, or a gilded-lilly, fan-led third sequel. It’s not quite as fresh as the original, but a near-perfect sequel in almost every way.
Jan 21, 2009