|Developer: Black Box||Publisher: Electronic Arts|
|Release Date: September 5, 2007||Also On: PS3 & Xbox 360|
Making video games is a difficult thing to do. There is a reason DigiPen graduates are often offered six-figure salaries the moment they take their grad caps off. The ever-growing video game industry faces challenges every day in, out, and of itself. Conflicts with politicians, the Electronic Software Ratings Board, the Electronic Software Association, and competition between developers and manufacturers are just a few of the dilemmas waiting for the gaming industry at every crack of dawn. EA Black Box wants to take on the difficulty (and competition) to create something that gamers and skateboarders alike are going to love.
"The biggest challenge is getting people to try something new," said Scott Blackwood, producer of Skate. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mr. Blackwood was referring to the difficulty of transitioning from the eight-entry Tony Hawk franchise to an all-new game like Skate. If history has taught us anything, it is that people don't always like change–will EA's ambitions be fulfilled? This week, at EA Black Box, I had hours of time to play Skate and talk to some of the guys on the team. I can firmly promise my fellow skaters and gamers that Skate is shaping up to be a winner.
Grab your history books! Skate originally began as a title called Concrete. EA Black Box’s Jay Balmer, Brian Lindley, and Chris “Cuz” Parry were hell-bent on creating a great skateboarding video game that showed the real side of the sport that Tony Hawk fans might not understand or appreciate. Concrete eventually fizzled away but the small team was determined to create the game. They used their motivations for Concrete as a foundation for the birth of Skate. But Skate couldn’t be just like Tony Hawk's Underground the would-be competition for Concrete. It had to be different, and offer a different experience.
"We follow the Three C's philosophy: it is all about control, camera, and character. Really early on, we started thinking, 'What are we going to do with the controls?'" explained Balmer. "So we came up with Flickit." Flickit, as some of you might already know, is an EAism for mechanics that revolve around primarily using the right analog stick. "Body, board, hands, and feet. Those are the controls," said Balmer. He wasn't lying; Skate's control mechanics are set up to make the player feel like he or she is handling different limbs and objects at the same time. It is an exciting system. The left analog stick controls most of your character's movement. The right stick controls his board and feet, and obviously, this is where tricks come from. More on that later. A few face buttons control pushing yourself forward to get up to speed (and yes, you do have to push to move), and the triggers correspond to the skater’s respective hands. "That is about it, it is just something to play around with," said Balmer.
I played around for a few hours and loved the Flickit system. Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, I don't believe that Skate is difficult to pick up and start playing. For example, ollies are as simple as moving the right stick down, and then flicking it up. Turn that upward flick slightly to the left or right and your skater will kick or heelflip. If you're the vert type and want to land some grab tricks, simply gesture with the right analog stick after holding down the right/left/both triggers, just like performing a normal trick. Even manuals are controlled with the right analog stick: by gently and steadily holding the stick halfway up or halfway down, the skater will manual or nose manual. Tricks feel rewarding, even ollies are exciting. It's all about accepting the change: Toto, we aren’t in American Wasteland anymore.
By now you might be wondering about mixing the different parts together to do more complicated tricks. Since you’re controlling the skater's different limbs and not the skater as a whole, you can combine the buttons and gestures to make some cool tricks. For example, my favorite vert trick, the Christ Air, is done by grabbing the board with either hand in midair and pressing the B button (the B button is the brake or "take your feet off of the board" button). Maybe you want to ride Coffin all the way down a hill? While moving, hold the grab buttons and press B, and you’ll be charging downhill, laying on your back.
Unfortunately, not much can be said about San Vanelona, but I would like to do my best to describe the experience without ruining anything. The place is enormous. If you were thinking Vice City enormous, you’d be close. It takes some time to feel comfortable in such a large world, truthfully. There is so much to do and see and skate that standing in one spot for too long could make some feel like they’re wasting time. Then again, skating a single spot in a hometown is an everyday experience to skaters. Skating around town, it is difficult to continue pushing toward your destination whenever your eyes land on a line or gap, and you can’t help but try it. Then the trial becomes a perfectionist-like quest to land the best trick, maybe get a little more out of that ollie, or land just a bit cleaner. It’s fun, addicting, and skateboarding.
The single-player experience is bolstered by a storyline, but EA doesn't want to tie you down with obligation. "We didn't want to put a heavy-handed story on you. We purposely took the skater’s voice away," Cuz said. The game starts in a skatepark setting so that the player can experience the wide-open ground to learn how to move, ollie, etc. "We didn't want players to have to be ollieing curbs and all that annoying, real-life stuff before they knew how to play," explained Cuz. Throughout the storyline you'll garner coverage in the skateboarding media, enter skate contests and participate in jams, meet pros and even accept challenges from them. The ultimate goal of the game is to work your way through Thrasher and Skateboarding magazine, earning that coveted trophy cover shot. "The Super Bowl is to football as the covers of these magazines are to skateboarding," Cuz said. There are over 100 challenges and 20 "spot challenges" (similar to "owning" a spot in Tony Hawk’s Project 8) to find–that is, if or when you find the time, skating from one distraction to the next!
Skate’s visuals will impress skateboarders and gamers alike. The style is spot-on, as San Vanelona was created with a realistic, believable design. The houses, hills, roads, parks, buildings, and alleyways look like they belong somewhere in San Francisco, Vancouver, or Barcelona–quite a feat for the visual guys. The animation is unreal, and the detail is something skaters will pick up on when they’re tinkering with Skate Reel (see below): you can see the trucks pivoting, individual wheels spinning, scratches on the board, and even scuffs on the skater’s shoe. It is incredible.
Brian Lindley gave us a tour of Skate Reel, the game’s video editor. "One of the things we wanted to do with Skate is let people share their experiences with other people and show off what they’ve done," said Lindley. The editor extends the replay value tenfold. It holds true–as much as gamers are going to want to hit the best spots, they are going to want to record and show off their best tricks. This is simple with Skate Reel. You'll set the start of the footage with the left analog stick and end it with the right on a timeline. On the same timeline you'll be able to access individual frames of your video with the right and left triggers. Using the X button to bring up a menu, you can speed up or slow down time, use visual filters, and different camera angles. You can set markers for these special frames to begin and end, resulting in a video that can look quite professional. Combine this editor with Skate's impressive graphics and you have a feature that you can’t miss out on. The best part of all is that you can upload your skate footy online via EA servers and link your friends to the videos from anywhere on the ‘Net. Word is that EA is also hoping to allow gamers to use Digg, Facebook, and De.licio.us to broadcast themselves.
EA Black Box is hoping to ship Skate in early September. My final comments begin with this: the visit to the studio, Vancouver, and everything between was a fantastic experience (despite some awful cancellations and delays on the way up there), and I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Secondly, playing the game was a treat. I want to tell you, my fellow gamers, that Skate is a game created by the hands of men with ambition and determination, vigilance, and a lofty dream. They've done it. Two months will be a long wait for this Skate gamer to wait for that visceral, free-forming skating experience. EA's made a fan out of me.