US: 21 Jan 2009
As a severely dexterity-challenged individual, I’ve always been alarmed by the idea of getting on a skateboard and trying to use it, in real life. The few times that I have tried to actually start the board rolling, disaster has ensued. So it’s with trepidation and interest that I approach Skate 2. It looks brilliant, the simulation is obviously extremely exacting and rewarding, and I always had an absurd amount of fun with the early Tony Hawk titles. Unfortunately, it also forces me to approach having a good time as an onerous, ceaselessly rigid set of tests and tasks.
Skate 2 is an undeniably ambitious project, one must admit. It surpasses its predecessor by keeping the gameplay solid and intuitive. It has a leg up on its competitors because it relies on a simple, control stick-based trick system. Instead of madly tapping buttons to do tricks, you’ll madly swing the right stick. It does feel better than the old method, and I like the change.
Oddly, my issues with Skate 2 don’t actually have much to do with its presentation, or the way it sells itself. I do hate the announcer, and most of the people you meet in game. They’re the kind of hipster assholes that Burnout Paradise‘s DJ Atomica would feel at home with. But, bad as “Atomica” is, I still found a way to love Burnout. Sadly, it’s not just the vibe, but the core of the gameplay that’s a problem in Skate 2. The least pleasant thing about Skate 2 is its meticulous, detailed re-enactment of skating.
When you first play Skate 2, you realize that you’re playing a game that has very strict rules about movement and physicality. You can’t, for instance, ride right up over a curb: you have to jump over it, otherwise you’ll trip and fall. This kind of practicality is noticeable in many of the game’s interactions. Skate 2 may not be as concerned with the reality of physics as applied to skating as they are with providing cool moves and exciting places to skate, but it’s a close contest.
At the same time, Skate 2 is dedicated to faithfully recreating the act of skateboarding on a game console. While this translates into a new take on the old button-tapping, combo-spewing skating control scheme, it also results in a somewhat steep learning curve, and at the top of that curve, a consistently punishing experience.
Once you’ve mastered Skate 2‘s controls, you aren’t out of the woods. You know what needs to be done to accomplish certain things, and you can be relied upon to semi-regularly waggle the control stick to success. However, taking advantage of all the game has to offer requires constant attention, a high degree of skill, and an amazing amount of patience.
If, for instance, I see a really cool-looking structure down by the New San Vanelona (Skate 2‘s hilariously named metropolis, standing in for San Diego or part of LA) waterside, and I decide I’m going to build up some speed and perform cool tricks, it isn’t easy to get going. I have to roll back and forth on a curved, bowl-like structure, tucking my body into my board repeatedly, turning back down the curve of the structure each time I reach the peak of the hill—all this just to build up the momentum to get going. Already, I’m annoyed by how delicate my controls and character are, and how easy it is to mess up a turn and lose momentum. Finally, I attain maximum velocity, and go for some kind of 360 degree maneuver in midair, followed by a grind down the structure’s central, spine-like divider. The problem is that, even after I’ve gone through all these steps, there’s little incentive to complete this activity. The tricks themselves just aren’t that fun.
The game features multiple challenges, but they are most often based around certain structures and jump setups. I enjoy skating around the city (although it takes forever to get anywhere), but I want the option to activate a challenge and then go complete it wherever I want, as in Saints Row 2. If I’m exploring a sandbox environment, I want to be able to treat it like a sandbox, not a desert prison where all activities are carefully monitored and placed.
Having fun in New San Van is difficult, because the way in which you are supposed to have fun is so carefully orchestrated. There are some respites, like the bone-breaking side game whereby you fling your skater into increasingly unpleasant accidents. This is fun for a while, but it just emphasizes the game’s shortcomings, and makes its unattainable joys even more distant.
You realize, hurling your broken skater across the landscape, that this kind of freedom is antithetical to the game’s goal. The point of Skate 2 is to beat you into accepting how it wants things done, and then punishing you when you try to do things a bit differently. It makes me long for another EA game, Burnout Paradise, which was happy to ease you into everything, and let you coast through the game, challenges arising only when you wanted them to.
The problem with Skate 2, then, is not one of quality, quantity or depth. The problem is with the game’s rigid unwillingness to put me on a path I like. I’m sure lots of people would tell me that I can just skate around the city forever, doing whatever I want. But why? Maybe I’m just unimaginative, but I’m not that into aimlessly wandering a landscape. I enjoy having goals and tasks, however minor or tertiary. Their very existence allows me to explore my landscape, forever flitting from race to test to confrontation. In Skate 2, however, every skating contest takes hours to master, and every section of the city to be conquered requires exact, precise execution of moves.
Skate 2 requires excellence and dedication on the part of the player to reap the rewards of its considerable depth, but it never provides game systems that might allow for a less stringent regimen of success. I like driving myself to succeed, but I also like to have a few wins handed to me. Skate 2 isn’t impossible, but it’s just hard enough, and just closed-minded enough to make me go somewhere else for my skating kicks. It is a shame, because this game does provide mountains of options and gameplay, and it does so without compromising its artistic vision. I just wish it were an accessible vision, not a gruelingly selective one. This game will reward you for the time you put into it, but you’d better be ready to appreciate it, flaws and all.