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Evolution? Or iteration? With barely a year between this and Skate 2, EA’s latest isn’t as familiar as you’d fear; nor the revolution its myriad tweaks briefly threaten. What it is, is rarely crafted, tweaked in synchrony with fan feedback and a fully-online single-player game – and a promising, if slightly worrying, portent for all games to come.
Sign in to EA Nation, and every game of Skate 3 starts in an online lobby; updating your achievements, your ‘brand’ status, how many friends are online and – sigh – how many people have crushed your scores. You can instantly skip the lobby into the solo game, but Skate 3 wants – almost forces – you to feel part of a community. You can tackle any solo-objective with real-life friends – so call a pal in if you’re stuck – or team-up and take on other skaters in familiar modes like Death Race, 1-Up, Domination, Street Contests and Hall of Meat Battle.
The game’s core objective – if, indeed, there is one – is to build a skateboard brand by completing tasks to sell ‘boards’ (like points), enlisting new team members, unlocking team HQs and endless licensed gear. Hit a board sales milestone (say 100,000) and you recruit a new team member, whom you can design from scratch, and skate with online, and off. In turn, this unlocks team-based objectives, where you film or take photos of your pal to appear in banners dotted around the world. ‘Own’ a spot – by nailing the top score on it – and your user-designed team logo ‘brands’ it like a tattoo for all to see. Well, until someone else crushes it.
Sadly, in single-player, there’s little fun to be had skating with AI ‘pals’, and team objectives are too fiddly – you need to manually place a tripod, take control of your buddy using right stick tricks, and tap the shoulder buttons at the exact moment to take a photo. It’s not an issue with real-life pals, mind, and the scope for creativity is immense. You could, in theory, head to the huge, yawning chasms of the quarry, use the Object Dropper to build a 100ft rail, grind it in formation with a team of real-life online friends; all wearing user-designed T-shirts and decks, and decorate the game world with the resulting photo.
Skate 3’s boggling freedom of choice is where our political parable begins. As enticing as ‘empowerment’ sounds – the ability to skate anywhere, with anyone, creating your own shirt designs and skate parks – some of us simply need the structures of the nanny state. In other words, we need the game to make some decisions for us. The result of all this freedom is that the single-player is largely incoherent, and – bar board sales – you don’t feel like you’re making significant progress.
Skate 2’s initially narrow set of objectives unlock hierarchically, so everyone enjoys a similar experience, learning at the same pace. Skate 3 starts with an all-embracing Skate School (pros can skip it), but after the first few objectives, you’re left to attack them in any order you wish – and unlike Skate 2, it feels like they’re all open at once. At any time, you’ll have, say, 14 Team Challenges, 6 Death Races, 17 Hall of Meat, 5 Street Contests… and many more tasks to do.
You’ve no idea if tasks are easy or hard, and the freedom erodes any notion of linear narrative, or the reassuring progression that comes from slowly tackling tougher tasks. Even when you nail a glut of tasks, it’s like hacking at a hydra that grows new heads. Don’t be misled – the tasks are fun, if familiar, with the usual competitions, film, photo and pro challenges, plus Death Races on thrilling, near-vertical terrain, like the underground sewer. Sadly, for Skate veterans, the familiarity irks, and even having nailed 61 tasks, we’re struggling to remember highlights.
If it sounds like we hate Skate 3, quite the opposite – functionally, it’s the series’ best, and the complex, but rewarding, Flick It controls leave you flush with satisfaction every time you nail a 60ft blunt slide, flipping seamlessly to a manual roll. Now, you even get rewarded for ‘clean’ landings, so style is as important as reflexes. Myriad tiny, powerful tweaks nullify fan gripes, enabling untold freedom and creativity – from the improved off-board movement and flexible replay camera controls (added as DLC in Skate 2), to the trick analyzer (visually representing your stick movements to gauge mistakes), manual roll balance meter, and ability to skip songs.
It’s friendlier for newcomers, more demanding for veterans. The Skate School explains basic grabs, flips etc, even freezing your skater in mid-air so you can experiment. Equally, you can ‘Own’ or ‘Kill’ objectives – either counts as success, but killing them (by performing a more precise, demanding, task like late flipping over a rail, rather than just leaping it) earns more points. Again, we almost miss the maddening ‘No way!’ tasks of old, which frustrated before yielding huge satisfaction – owning Skate 3’s tasks is relatively easy for good players, and ‘killing’ them for points isn’t enough incentive.
Skate 3’s best when you, or the game, enforce precision onto its rambling world. We’ve spent 45 minutes in one spot just trying to blunt slide a football goalpost, using objects we dropped into the scenery. The new park editor and object dropper tools are intuitive, allowing you to drop ramps, rails, blocks, etc. into the world at will – the limit is your imagination. With this review written before the servers went live, it feels like reviewing the world’s most exciting playground before anyone else turns up – as much as we can appraise Skate 3’s functionality, scope and invention, we’ve no idea how the community will develop.
Part of us fears being slightly overwhelmed, in an LBP-style, with thousands of user-uploaded skate parks. Or intimidated by having our scores decimated by top players, echoing the sadness of playing SFIV’s online gods. On the flip side, played with equal-skill friends, and given the friendly Skate community, it could be this console generation’s most inventive, ever-evolving online game. Imagine joining a crew of real-life friends online, with accurate likenesses; and throwing d-pad gestures at a rival team, before owning them in a spot battle.
Skate 3 isn’t to be consumed and disposed like God of War 3, but acts as an evolving. dip-in, dip-out, playground; as you self-medicate your level of involvement. You might not have the energy to build a 600-piece skate park based on Super Mario World, but nothing stops you from playing someone else’s. Empowerment or not, Skate retains its essential democracy, where everyone can share in the community’s hard work – though some may be more equal than others when the inevitable raft of premium DLC hits.
Above all, few games offer such liberating, deep and rewarding controls as Skate 3; and new city, Port Carverton, is the series' most varied, vibrant urban canvas yet. The score below reflects that we played previous Skate games to death, hence some ennui, and that we’ve no idea how the community will develop. For committed online players with like-minded friends, the score could easily tip into the early 90s, and throws into question the very nature of our review process if this is a sign of things to come.
It might only be a short time since Skate 2, but it’s testament to Skate 3’s quality, flexibility and potential that the issue of whether it’s a revolution, or iteration, will likely take at least as long to discover.
May 11, 2010
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