Few of you will not be familiar with the Tony Hawk series of games. Under the name and supervision of such a skateboarding legend, despite occasional duds, the long run of releases has generally been fantastic.
Until now, those games have remained largely unchallenged, not just by skateboarding titles, but by any truly decent extreme sports releases at all. Now that has changed, as EA's Skate arrives on the scene and redefines our expectations of what makes a good skateboarding game.
With 12 years of skating almost everyday to this day behind me, I can say with confidence that this game's faithfulness, understanding and respect to a sport so misrepresented by advertising and fashion is stunning. It carries with it an unofficial mantra shared by so many skate products that is 'made by skateboarders for skateboarders', and while playing Skate it is constantly evident that this is a game created by men and women who truly understand the subtleties of sidewalk surfing.
Where this is most evident is not through the understated branding, or the choice of skaters, but through the game mechanic and control itself. Despite the odd button press, almost all of the action is controlled through the thumbsticks, in a system that borders on simulation. The right stick dictates foot and leg position, so to pop an ollie you pull your character all the way back on the board with your thmub, before flicking the stick forward to throw the skater's weight to the nose of the board, mimicking the physics of the real world version impeccably.
Subtly altering this basic manoeuvre, for example by flicking the stick out slightly to one side for a kickflip, or round from the back for a shuv-it, you begin to realise the potential of this truly extraordinary control system. The left stick handles upper body weight, meaning you can steer and spin, though as you progress you soon learn to use it for all kinds of intricacies, such as shifting yourself into stalls or altering grinds on-rail. If you do skate you will likely be hugely impressed by this set-up, and if you don't, you'll have to believe that it makes for a brilliant interpretation of the sport firmly anchored in the real life movements.
Do not let the word simulation deter you though, as Skate is without doubt an action-sports title; it is just one resplendent in subtly and depth. You eventually realise that you can even delicately alter the position of your foot even after you have pulled back the stick ready to pop for a trick, by gently rolling your thumb, allowing for a huge trick library. You quickly learn you can manual (or wheelie) by pulling the stick half back or forward, before it dawns on you that you can land manual, or trick from manual, with the most delicate of thumb movements. To grind, you simply land with your board in the correct place for any particular grind, making it hugely satisfying, and belittling to button-based systems with no bearing in reality.
Of course the so-called flick-it system does allow for a far smaller list of tricks than is available with the Hawk games, but that is no bad thing, as the obese Pro Skater library waded deep into the nonsensical and undermined any individual trick with sheer numbers. Instead, in Skate's world, like in real life, a simple manual-heelflip to rail can entertain for a huge chunk of time, as you try to perfect and hone your skills. Some more exuberant moves are also available, though it will take hours of play and incredible thumb control before you can intentionally land a more demanding trick with style.
The game map is founded heavily in reality too. Based on a semi-fictitious version of Barcelona, and peppered with classic skate spots, there are not ramps and rails on every corner, but instead what appears to be a relatively sombre real-world city centre. Yet again Skate triumphs here, prioritising subtly over surplus in what is the best level map seen in a skating game. Rather than being small and empty it is overflowing with perfect terrain that at first evades the eye. Almost every ledge and slope is not explicitly skate-worthy, but hints at potential and begs for creativity. You have to re-adjust your perspective of the city, just as you have to do in reality to spot lines and gaps.
The game mechanic itself sees you set out with a friend who is armed with a video camera to document your rise to fame as you tackle numerous and nicely varied challenges. The idea of you being followed really puts the action in context, and the low slung perspective with a firm focus on the board is absolutely in keeping with actual skate videos. Many goals can be activated anywhere, by hitting the 'record' button, to begin 30 seconds of camera time and a list of objectives that must be fulfilled to impress and lure sponsors.
Visually both the scenery and presentation in Skate go some way beyond average, but fall a little short of exceptional - more so on PS3, which suffers from a more sluggish frame rate. However, the in-game animation and physics are genuinely outstanding. The rider's movements as he balances and moves, adjusting to miss-timed landings with incredible realism are astonishing, but the way the board behaves under your feet is what is truly staggering. Way back when 3D had just appeared on home consoles, you might remember a lot of talk of collision detection. That term may be dated now, but if Skate were shown to reviewers from that era, they would certainly sight it as a masterstroke of collision detection. There are no invisible buffers around objects in Skate. Instead, everything that touches your board does so with terrific realism. Similarly, the effect off your feet on your deck makes for a striking reflection of skating in real life, as is particularly apparent when you bail.
The result is a game that feels incredible to play, that demands the same kind of focus as carving concrete in reality. It must be said that it is not easy, but therein lays the pleasure. Key moments, from learning the delicate art of the manual revert, to pumping in ramps and learning to push effectively are consistently challenging, and most goals will take the kind of dogged determination that is part of skateboarding. It is also questionable how much the game will appeal to non-skaters who are not familiar with the fine points of the footwork, but any persistence on their part will undoubtedly be rewarded.
Skate is a game brimming with detail, craftsmanship and neat little ideas that are so well designed they barely notice. It also has a suitably substantial multiplayer mode, from simple turn based classics like S.K.A.T.E to a blossoming online community where you can play the inevitable collection of point-based games. Strangely though, the most alluring online mode comes in the form of free skate, where you can drop in to a world filled with other online players casually skating together. There are also plenty of opportunities to upload videos of your performance edited together with the in-game tools, and view the exploits of other skaters, though with a game of this standard, you might find it hard to tear your attention away from actually playing.
Not only are the controls and attributes of the gameplay itself consistently representative of the chosen sport, but everything from the gloriously dynamic soundtrack and the competition commentary through to the selection of legendry skaters and the division of challenges into schools of skating hits the nail on the head with prowess. If you own a skateboard, get this game. If you don't, get this game and get a board, because this is not one to miss. Finally skating has its Pro Evo and the Hawk has a reason to ruffle its feathers.