Skate 2 Review
For a long time, EA was the big, soulless game publisher who screwed over its workforce and delivered unoriginal games year after year as a slave to short-term results. But with the Blizzard merger, Activision is the world's biggest publisher and they are the ones that now seem to bey out of ideas, milking its franchises into oblivion while EA is out there investing in entirely new games and focusing on quality over mass-market advertising. It's an interesting switch of roles in the game industry, and one of the most obvious examples of this is the Skate franchise when compared to Activision's Tony Hawk series. With the new sequel, there was the risk that EA could have settled into yearly franchise-itis with only a relative few new changes, but thankfully they haven't. Skate 2 may not be perfect, but it's still got a hell of a lot of new stuff for gamers.
Skate 2 takes everything that was right with the first game, and a few things that weren't, and moves them along to the sequel with some new changes. This time, the story is that the city of San Vanelona has been evacuated and some megacorporation has moved in and put ramps and rails everywhere. Sure, there are still pedestrians around, but not nearly as many as before - good if you just want to skate, bad if you wanted to do that frontflip to land on Grandma. (She's still here, but you won't be bashing pedestrians with your board or ragdolled body quite as often as before.) There's a lot of security guards, though, so learning how to avoid them is key. Beyond that, the controls from the first game are back, for better or worse: for those that tried and tried and never could get used to them the first time around, there's nothing here to fix it. But for those who learned the intricacies of analog stick flicks for their boards, there's plenty to love here with a nice range of new moves.
One of the bigger control-based new features is the ability to get off your board and just run around. It's something that no sane person would have left out of their game in the first place, but hey, second time's a charm. Now you can easily get up steps, climb up on stuff, and move objects around the world to create the sickest lines possible. There are two downsides to this, though. First, the walking controls and camera seem to have been quickly thrown together and feel very stiff and weird, and second, a major part of the game's goal structure doesn't take advantage of the freedom of moving pieces around to set up your own lines.
The problem is that you'll be expected to do some very precise stick movements in order to pull off a particular move; it's not like Tony Hawk where a direction and a button would always get you the same move. You can hit what feels like the same motion repeatedly and get several different moves - and in the case of some goals, where you're not only on a timer to finish a series of particular moves, but you also have to start over if you bail, you're going to feel like San Vanelona is a much smaller place than it really is. The whole world shrinks down to this one section of ramp or sidewalk as you try repeatedly to belt out that one specific move, and then the next, and the next, and pretty soon the game becomes a pedantic exercise in analog stick accuracy. When you do get goals that just unleash you on a large area and let you do whatever moves you want, it opens up again and the game suddenly becomes just as fun as it should be.
Still, the game's a hell of a lot of fun anyway, and the more realistic style of putting together lines of tricks for points still feels fresh - even though it's been over a year since the first game was released. After almost a decade of the tired Tony Hawk combo formula, Skate really does feel like the future of extreme sports games, and I can't wait for other developers to catch up to what EA Black Box has done here. The ability to record your feats for posterity certainly helps: the editor's now easier to use, videos can be longer, and sharing them is easier than before. Sites like GoonSkate certainly help, too.
Jumping into multiplayer with Skate has pros and cons. The local modes consist only of "Party" games, which in this case means taking turns instead of playing at the same time. This was presumably done for frame rate issues, but we've seen plenty of games with even more demanding visuals do just fine with split-screen play. The new Hall of Meat mode is a hell of a lot of fun to play with others as you each try and destroy your bodies with the maximum damage possible, but all you'll really see is a point total to sum up your bail. It'd have been amusing to have goals to break specific bones or rack up a certain amount of bone breakages, but here you'll primarily be trying to get the most hangtime possible with the most creative use of poses (you can contort your skater's body to do divebombs, free falls, judo kicks and cannonballs) and the damage is pretty uniform once you make your unpleasant landing.
Online, there are modes that both have each player taking turns as well as skating together all at once, and most of these are a blast as long as everyone's got a near-perfect connection. I've no idea why, but even though only one person plays at a time in Hall of Meat mode online (where you and up to 7 other people take turns and watch each other), there's still lag. It can really screw up the whole experience, sadly, and right now there seems to be a lot of it. Not that this isn't some kind of depressing trend in online console games recently: game's released, there's tons of lag, developer releases a patch to fix the lag two weeks after most players have moved onto another new release (Street Fighter IV is out in less than three weeks!). I've heard mixed reports of online play, with some saying that the network code is better than the first game and some saying it's worse, and for me the experience was definitely worse.
One thing I have to say is that playing Hall of Meat online will have you and a bunch of strangers laughing together pretty often. It's a nice change, hearing actual laughter coming through the headset, instead of the angry diatribes and racial slurs I've pretty much come to expect from action games on Xbox Live. If you just want to laugh with others while watching skaters break every bone in their body, then this game should be at the top of your list.
Skate 2 does a good job of adding new features and moves while trying to innovate the style and keep everything fun, but there's still a few things missing that could have made it a classic. The career mode goal structure needs a little more freedom and less frustration, the local multiplayer modes need split-screen play, and the online modes could use a fix for the lag. Even considering the issues, this is still a great skateboarding game, and really can be a lot of fun if you get into learning the controls, editing your own replays and videos, and putting together some good Hall of Meat bails with your friends online.