Skate 2 (Xbox 360)
Skate 2's live-action opening feels a lot like "The Big Lebowski." In the clip we breeze through a prison as the player is escorted out of the lock-up. Pro skaters play the parts of inmates and prison guards while ELO's "Showdown" simmers on the soundtrack, sounding hazy and slightly stoned, like an FM radio stuck in the '70s. It's a good way to start a skateboarding game -- throwing back to the decade when the pastime was invented. The game's fictional setting, New San Vanelona, is a fictional Southern California town where the old-school (and half-baked) continue to chafe against the shiny, happy new guard.
Players start in a neighborhood not unlike Venice Beach, the birthplace of skating. The vibe is seedy, the concrete uneven. One courtyard, beneath looming projects, has a near-invisible gash in it. Try to ride across the seam and your trucks will get hung up, sending you sprawling into an ugly bail. Still, the place is a skater's heaven right off the bat. There are ramps and rails everywhere -- and it's not just the stuff built into the environment. You can grab picnic tables, dumpsters, half-pipes and barriers, then drag them around the world, setting up your own lines.
Eventually, this So-Cal squalor gives way to marble and glass -- the new California as envisioned and erected by the monolithic Mongocorp. Part of Skate 2's sliver of a story involves raging against this particular machine. Downtown you've got to skate fast to avoid Mongocorp's army of security stooges. And many of the best slabs of stone in the business district are "capped." That's the slang for the ugly metal wedges that spoilsports bolt down on ledges and benches to keep skaters from having their fun. Luckily you've got a pal with a crowbar who will pry those stoppers up and clear the way for skaters. That's just one of the many minor tasks in which players can busy themselves in New San Vanelona. Another, maybe my favorite, is finding and draining swimming pools and fountains -- an activity that harks back to the early days of skating, when Southern California droughts left many swimming pools half-full. Resourceful skaters found ways to clear the rest of the water, and turned half the state into one massive skateboard park -- a suburbia full of sweet, surfable concrete bowls.
That's the beauty of Skate 2. It unleashes you on a sprawling city and gives you only a basic direction: Get out there and get seen. It's up to you to find your path -- to grab the footage, claw your way into skateboarding magazines, and find a way to go pro. Yeah, that kind of ambition is counter to the basic ethos of skateboarding. It's a bummer, but in videogames you've got to grow. You've got to slay the dragon. In Skate 2 one of those dragons is Danny Way -- a pro you have to best in his own, massive skate park. There are contests and demos to participate in, sponsors to be wooed. If you're the ambitious type, Skate 2 has a mighty ladder propped up, ready for you to climb. But the cool thing is, none of those accomplishments change you as a skater. On the board it's all about your skills. The only thing that winning contests will do is earn you money or score you access to some new spots.
Skate 2 is a skateboarding simulation. In the old Tony Hawk games, you only needed to push a button and your skater would lock onto a rail and grind. In Skate 2 you have to line your board up just so. Time the approach wrong and you bail. Hit the curb at the wrong angle and you eat concrete. Skate 2 is hard, but ultimately satisfying -- the kind of game that rewards advanced players with massive tricks, but doesn't ignore the newbie. When cruising around New San Vanelona, even the simplest moves feel good. That's due to the way the game ties most of the controls to the dual analog sticks. Ollies and kickflips (the basic building blocks of street skating) are pulled off by flicking the right stick. A satisfying power slide (like a hockey stop in ice skating) can be ripped by simply pulling back. Armed with only these skills, even the greenest shredder could easily find fun and be seen in Skate 2's open world.
Of all the minor iterations to the Skate formula, the best is a small, but meaningful tweak to the way the game records videos. Now, your constant companion (legendary videographer Giovanni Reda) is always taping. Any time you pull off a killer trick, bail hilariously hard, or encounter an interesting glitch, you can rewind, cut your video from any angle you want, and upload it to the Internet. This feature alone will extend Skate 2's life for ages. It's game-changing the way replays made Halo 3 a source of entertainment when you weren't plugged in to your Xbox 360.
Skateboarding is an expressive sport, where style can trump raw talent. It's a pastime steeped in rebellion and a counter-culture totally comfortable with (or at least amused by the irony of) selling out. In short, skateboarding is punk. It's strange then that videogames, a technical and mostly nerdy medium, should be such a great venue for the sport. But videogames have been on the right track since day one. Atari's 1986 arcade machine 720° hinted at the sandbox vibe that Tony Hawk games would later solidify. Skate 2 continues the evolution, ditching much of the over-the-top excess that helped tank the Birdman's billion-dollar series. You won't be pulling board slides across the tops of telephone wires in Skate 2, though there's still a superhuman feat or two to be accomplished in New San Vanelona. Thankfully, these cartoony moments are few and far-between. Skate 2, for the most part, keeps it real.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.