Grinding The Middle Rail
It’s been a strange time for the once mighty skateboarding genre. When Neversoft was still making skate games, they burst on the scene in 1999 with Tony Hawk Pro Skater and promptly went on to define the genre for years afterwards. Fast forward 11 years later, and Neversoft is out of the picture, Electronic Arts rules the roost with Skate and now Ubisoft comes in a new entry that attempts to carve outs its own niche between the peripheral based Tony Hawk: Shred and Skate 3. It’s not an attempt that completely fails, but it doesn’t exactly pass with flying colors either.
Okami On Wheels
The fictional city of New Harmony has been under a strict but orderly monotone regime known as The Ministry for the last 20 years. A small group of free-thinking rebels known as The Rising are trying to bring color and individuality back to the world and their savior is none other than Shaun White… who is promptly caught, imprisoned, and passes his magical skateboard to you, the player. It’s then up to you to carry out Shaun’s legacy and ultimately free him, New Harmony and capitalism from the clutches of the Ministry.
The game’s fiction actually plays a heavy part in its presentation. At the start of the game, the city is a drab world of monotone blues and grays that is restored to vibrant color by your efforts. At the conclusion of successful tricks and combos, a wave of energy explodes from the players creating Okami-like moments of expanding color that can also change the environment, such as restoring a shuttered building to its former glory as a clothing store or… a Wendy’s outlet. Technically, the game’s visuals hold up well with a steady frame rate and decent—though not detailed—people populating a world that gradually resembles a hodge-podge of Montreal, San Francisco and New York. The transition from drab, Ministry controlled city to colorful, generic Metropolitan areas is instant, seamless and impressive. The audio side of things occupies a similar level of quality, with competent voice acting filtered through cheesy dialog, and a broad mix of music that’s much less “skate-ry” and far more pop and mainstream with bands like Franz Ferdinand and Metric putting in appearances. The sound effects are spot on however, with ollies and grinds sounding just about the way they do in games in like Skate.
Skating For Non-Skaters
It’s clear from the outset that the developers had no intention of challenging established franchises at their own game, and set out to make a new one. The Skate series is currently the high watermark for realistic, complex skating games, and Tony Hawk previously held sway in the over the top skate combo world before moving onto plastic board peripherals. Shaun White Skateboarding does neither of these things, instead creating a game that’s actually bears a strong resemblance to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia titles, in that the game is more about traversal and terrain negotiation than anything else. By doing tricks, players build up a “Flow” meter which maxes out at three levels. Flow gives players the ability to shape the environment by heading towards brightly lit, easy to find, green rails, ramps and other markers. When used, these can eventually be controlled to create massive rails, quarter pipes and ramps that allow players access to areas that would otherwise be unreachable through conventional physics.
This is where the game starts to feel very conflicted. It seems like the stars of show are the Flow and Shaping mechanics, with a lot of puzzle solving involving hard-to-reach places that players must figure out how to access in order to complete story-based missions. As a result, you really have to wonder why the skateboarding is in the game at all, or why they set such a fantastical, trippy play mechanic in a contemporary setting. In many ways, these mechanics seems to stand on their own, and this is no more evident than in the quality of the skating component itself.
For players used to the tight, complex controls of Skate, Shaun White is an unpleasant step down. Like 2008’s Prince of Persia, there’s some automation or “training wheels” at work in the game that magnetically sucks players onto rails to grind, and even takes care of rotations in the air when attempting to go for that 720 in the half-pipe. For players that have specific ideas of what they want to do in terms of tricking, these training wheels can actively interfere with play as they suck you straight on to a rail to grind when in actuality, you wanted to ollie over an obstacle instead. The tricks are also mapped poorly to controls, making it very easy to fail to execute a trick as the automation of the game kicks you into another trick entirely. Tricks are actually purchased through the acquisition of experience points at skate shops, although aside from optional challenges, the game never encourages you to experiment with them, and purchasing additional tricks is unnecessary for completion as building up Flow for story requirements is easily accomplished by finding a half-pipe and simply doing enough grabs for a minute or three.HaH
There is also a multi-player component that works in local split-screen as well as online. Up to eight players in total can compete in various modes that use the Flow and Shape mechanics, and it’s here that tricks finally come into their own as building up points fast is more meaningful against human opponents. Again, however, the controls can work against you while tricking, but the shaping mechanics take on a more interesting aspect as you ride with or against other players.
On the whole, Shaun White Skateboarding is a game that is too fragmented to come together as a cohesive game. The Flow and Shaping mechanics don’t sit well with the skating, and the skating itself is clearly designed more for beginners and hand holds too much. The whacky premise is both endearing in its naïvete and shocking in its calculated marketing, kluging together a fight for free thought with shameless promotion for the Wendy’s and Oakley brands. There are some promising elements here, but they belong in other games. If you need a new skating fix, this might tide you over, otherwise, you’re probably better off waiting for Skate 4.