When Electronic Arts first announced their intentions of releasing a skateboarding game I was skeptical. While I love skateboarding video games, the idea of having yet another franchise vying for top honors felt unnecessary. But Skate proved to not only be the best skateboarding game of 2007, but also the game that forced Activision's Tony Hawk to take a year off to retool. Here we are a little over a year later and EA has given us Skate's first official sequel (assuming you don't count Skate It for the Wii), and while it's nowhere near as innovative as the first game, it's definitely worth a look for both fans of the series and those who have yet to experience its charm.
Apparently Skate 2 takes place a number of years after the events of the original game, or at least that's what your buddy tells you on your way out of prison. That's right, prison. It seems as though your character has just spend the last few years isolated away from the rest of the skateboarders in the state pen. In that time, a number of major catastrophes have befallen the fictional city, including that pesky earthquake that plagued Skate It on the Wii. On top of the natural disasters, an extremely wealthy businessman has rebuilt much of the city, added a lot of skateboarding deterrents and upped the police presence to an all time high. And that's not all, in the past few years San Vanelona has had a name change, to New San Vanelona (or New San Van if you want to be a cool kid).
For a normal person all of these changes would spell certain death to a skateboarding career, but not so for our hero. Instead of being down and depressed, the main character decides to fight the power and take back New San Van for the skateboarders. And hey, if you get your face plastered on to a few skateboarding magazines along the way what's the harm? Beyond the interesting set-up, Skate 2's story proves to be largely unchanged from the first game. Most of the time you aren't really worried about fighting the man or taking back the power, instead you would rather show off your moves, win a few races and become the best skater you can be.
Veterans of the first Skate will feel right at home in New San Van, and for good reason. While this game certainly adds a lot of new (and much-needed) elements, at its heart this is the same game we saw 16 months ago. Electronic Arts has wisely decided to keep the game's unique control scheme, giving wannabe skateboarders a chance to perform tricks using the two analog sticks. This was certainly the biggest selling point of the first game and one of the main things that set it apart from the competition. If you are one of those people who fell in love with the first game and played it to death, then you'll be tricking off of everything in sight within the first few seconds of the game.
But don't let me convince you that Skate 2 is a pick-up and play sort of game, because there's definitely a steep learning curve for those who are new to the series. While it's true that you can pull off basic moves with great ease, it's going to take quite awhile before you start to warm up to all of the intricacies involved with the controls. What's more, the game is often punishing for the same of being punishing. While other skateboarding games will cut you a little slack if you don't land just perfect, Skate 2 is a stickler for perfection. The mere bump against a curb will send you flying off of your skateboard, which can be really annoying when you're trying to complete challenges and finish races. Still, if you give the game some time you will find yourself overcoming some of the game's imperfections, but I have a hunch that casual skateboarding fans are going to give up long before they discover why Skate 2 is so much fun.
One of my biggest complaints about the first game was how imprecise the trick stick (the right analog stick) was. While it's easy to pull off simple tricks, many of the more difficult tricks were a little too similar. The difference between one trick and another may be nothing more than moving your analog stick in a slightly larger circle. When you are skating around for fun this wasn't a concern, but the moment the game starts to ask you to link difficult combos you would find yourself fighting the controls more than anything. Thankfully EA has gone back and improved the trick controls, making the analog stick a little more precise. Still, as much progress as the developers have made, I still get the feeling that the controls aren't nearly as perfect as they should be. At this point I have to wonder if maybe the problem lies with the Xbox 360's analog sticks, but whatever the problem is you'll run into many of the same control problems you found in the first game. There are less problems this time, no doubt about it, but you'll definitely run into a few frustrating control situations.The good news is that one of my biggest concerns has been address ... kind of. The thing I hated about the first game was how you were always stuck to your skateboard, no matter what you were doing. This made climbing stairs or getting simply getting around the city extremely difficult. In Skate 2 you aren't locked to your skateboard, you can get off and walk at just about any time. There's just one problem, on-foot controls are abysmal. Who would have thought that controlling a character from a third-person point of view would be this difficult? For one thing you can't walk backwards, instead you will have to push left or right and watch your character turn all the way around just so you can keep them walking forward. What's more, you can't actually change the camera angle, which sometimes makes seeing where you're going more frustrating than it should be. And why is it my character can't jump? This seems like such a simple thing, yet the Tony Hawk series has been doing it for years.
Thankfully Electronic Arts does give gamers an incentive to get off of their skateboards and walk around. In an interesting move, your character has the ability to manipulate certain parts of the world to create a more exciting skate environment. Now you can push and pull objects around, rotate them and position them in just the right spot so that you can pull off that wicked awesome combo. Why are all of my character's movements so clumsy? The Tony Hawk series has been doing on-foot controls for years, so it feels awfully strange to be so limited in my movements when not on a skateboard.
Another change is the fact that this time around you can play as either a man or a woman, though I'm not sure the rest of the New San Van residents know that. Even though I chose to play a woman (a very, very ugly woman with no curves whatsoever), everybody continued to call me "dude," "man," "bro," and "him." Most games record each line both ways, making sure that they have both sexes covered. But that's not how Electronic Arts' Black Box studios work. Apparently in San Vanelona men and women are exactly the same ... which may explain why there are no feminine clothes anywhere in the city.
While this game definitely tries hard to add a lot of new elements to the series, there are a lot of frustrating elements that remain unfixed. Why, for example, has nothing been done to the population of New San Van? Just like the first game, Skate 2's computer-controlled pedestrians are a huge nuisance, often getting in your way just as you're about to finish an amazing combo. There are some parts of the city that are near impossible to trick off of due to the amount of civilians that litter the street. And it's not just the people walking around that jump in your way, it's also all of the terrible drivers located in the city. Doesn't anybody yield for skateboarders anymore? Because the cars drive around randomly, you will discover that completing the various races can be difficult if you are unlucky enough to get stuck behind a traffic jam.
And it's not just the civilians that get in your way; it's also the other skateboarders. For the most part these characters will steer clear of you when you're skating around, but once you get into a competition you'll find that it's a little too easy to accidentally run into these guys. The biggest problem is that merely bumping into somebody will send you flying, and there are too many times when you can't help but bump into somebody else or have them accidentally bump into you. Not only does it take you out of the action for a few seconds, but it can mean the difference between winning and losing, all for something that you have very little control over. I honestly don't know what the perfect solution is, but I can tell you that giving these characters smarter AI would go a long way. At the end of the day these skaters, just like the civilians, don't act like real human beings and it takes you right out of the experience.Another thing that remains the same is the objects you are required to beat. Early on you'll have the choice of competing in trick competitions, get involved in the racing circuit and impressing your camera man with your amazing skills. All of these challenges are fun, but at the same time I couldn't help but feel like I've been here before. As you progress through the game you will do a number of other familiar things, including tricking off of landmarks to "own" them and challenging the other skaters to a game of H.O.R.S.E. ... er, S.K.A.T.E. The game doesn't really push the envelope when it comes to new missions, which tends to make this game feel more like an expansion pack than a real sequel.
Thankfully the multiplayer mode changes things up. Taking a page from last year's brilliant Burnout Paradise, Skate 2 gives wannabe skaters a chance to work together to complete goals. As somebody who appreciated the first game's competitive online but was never good enough to really compete, this is a welcome addition. Heck, I'll go one step further and say that this is the best new feature added to this Skate sequel. You can still compete against friends and strangers, but I suspect there will be a lot of people more interested in completing the multiplayer challenges than trying to get a high score. The challenges are fairly simple, involving your group of skaters to get to a certain score, trick off of a particular ledge or simply stay on your boards before time runs out. They are varied and fun, definitely a great way to waste some time when you're not busy trying to take back control of New San Van.
When I first played Skate I couldn't believe how good the graphics looked, especially when compared to the recent Tony Hawk games. Unfortunately I wasn't nearly as impressed with this sequel. Don't get me wrong, the graphics are definitely on par with what we saw in the first game. But that's the problem; they never exceed the visuals of the original Skate. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not expecting to be blown away visually, but it would have been nice to see at least a few changes to the in-game graphics. As it is this game looks a little too similar to the first game for comfort, something I hope is changed when Skate 3 inevitably hits store shelves.
Fans of the original game will also find the game's soundtrack to be extremely similar. The game mixes rock, hip hop and other genres from all different time periods to make a soundtrack that is definitely fitting for a skateboarding game. There are a few songs I could have done without, but that's what the custom soundtrack feature is for. Also good is the voice acting, which is mostly done by skateboarders I have never heard of. Not everybody is able to deliver their lines with the emotion of a real actor, but who cares, they aren't trying to actors. Even my cameraman seemed a little less annoying this time around, though sometimes I wish he would just shut up and leave me alone.
Skate 2 is a solid sequel, the kind of game that fans will no doubt want to pick up. The game does a good job of adding some new elements, fixing some problems and giving us plenty of new reasons to revisit San Vanelona. Unfortunately there are still a few problems that have yet to be addressed, but it's not hard to overlook some of the game's shortcomings. Once you get the hang of the controls you will find that this truly is one of the best skateboarding games of the year, and yet more proof that the next Tony Hawk has a mighty mountain to climb if it's going to reclaim its glory.