Version tested: Xbox 360
Ignore the title: Shaun White Skateboarding has surprisingly little to do with the sport. Not in the sense that the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series, with its physics-defying stunts and 5000-metre grinds, was a world away from the bruising realities of skateboarding. But rather, the story, themes and systems that underpin Ubisoft Montreal's game have little to do with trucks, tricks and grip-tape – the game instead drawing its primary inspiration from the stoner-athlete world-view of the sport's practitioners.
The premise is an Orwellian-meets-hippy fairytale. White's city has been drained of all colour and vibrancy by The Ministry, a dour, suited government that frowns upon individual expression and tramples down any shoots of creativity that emerge from the cracks of its concrete domain.
The Ministry has imprisoned the titular skateboarder because his deck has the power to reverse this desaturation of the world, returning life and colour to the streets with its magical wheels. Before being thrown into his cell, White passes the deck over to you, charging you with returning the city to its former vibrancy through the medium of, er, tricks and grinds.
So this is a game about urban renewal; about restoring fun and excitement to a totalitarian state. It's a game about throwing peace, love, happiness and flowers at the drab architecture of capitalism and awakening those enslaved to its daily grind to the wonder of an altogether different sort of grind. It's a game about reinvigorating the institutionalised with joy and a spirit of adventure – something it arguably hopes to do to its genre, too.
As you skate through the blue-grey streets, your deck emits a restorative pulse and the world around you fills with colour. Flowers bloom. Trees, once clusters of withered polygonal branches, sprout oxygen-giving leaves. Grey walls are daubed with expressive graffiti.
Businessmen and women in colourless suits are transformed into Gap models, trading their suitcases for cameras through whose viewfinders they now see the world with redoubled interest. Identikit stores on the high street are transformed into fast food chains. The message may lack a little coherence but doubtless, the sense of cause and effect is one of the strongest of any game this year: when you press a button to olly, new life is born.
Placing such a heavy emphasis on such a brave, unusual conceit is indicative of the crowded market into which Ubisoft Montreal rides. Neversoft's Tony Hawk games may have fallen from fashion, but their approach remains canonical and fondly remembered. Meanwhile, EA's Skate series defines the contemporary realistic skater skyline. Shaun White is left either to occupy the middle ground or to change the boundaries of the conversation entirely.
The game manages both. In terms of the basic button-presses required to hurl your skater through the world, it's a mash-up of both influences. Skate's right stick control scheme is employed without fanfare and, while the game pushes reality further than in EA's series, we're still a long way from Tony Hawk's fantasy physics. The unavoidable paraphernalia of skating culture is presented in a rather orthodox fashion. As you complete missions you earn experience with which you buy new tricks, boards and pieces of clothing.
But around this core, the game fizzes with imagination and attempts to reinvigorate skating games. The key to the transformative power of your deck is 'flow', a three-stage gauge that is filled by executing tricks.
Basic workers and objects in the game require a gauge of level 1 to transform, while more significant people and places necessitate level 2 or 3 to be filled before they'll spring to new life. The gauge constantly depletes, requiring you to trick and slide your way everywhere to maintain the board's power, giving the game a low-level sense of maintenance that can, as the hours pass, begin to grate.
Flow isn't the game's only innovation. Luminous green rails or ramps will grow out in front of you as you ride along them. Initially these grow along pre-set paths, but midway through the game you gain the ability to shape them in real-time as you ride them, allowing you to carve your own path through the air in order to reach high parts of the levels, or link together static objects to create continuous lines through the environment. This mechanic turns the player into an impromptu level designer.
In any skateboarding game, exhilaration comes from creating an unbroken chain of movement through the world, moving from park bench to railing to curb in a seamless string of grinds and transfers. Maximize the opportunities for a player to chain tricks through your game's environments and their enjoyment increases in kind.
The Tony Hawk series' approach was to facilitate improbably huge lines of unbroken passage through its world, allowing its player to link together hundreds of metres of scenery in one elegant, kinetic chain. Skate, by contrast, allows only more modest flow, but heightened the sense of reward through increased difficulty.
Shaun White Skateboarding occupies a fascinating sort of middle ground with its extendible rails. It gives you limited power to manipulate the world in intriguing ways, and in a manner far more intuitive and playful than a dry level editor. This – combined with the game's extremely forgiving links and transfers that will right your deck if it's incorrectly angled when landing a jump, only forcing your character into a bail in the most extreme of circumstances – facilitates long, satisfying chains. It's exhilarating.
Nevertheless, there are problems amongst all this riotous invention. The game world is sectioned off, with long load times between each area. These especially irritate during set-pieces – such as one stand-out moment in which you flee a government helicopter by grinding along railway lines – where failure not only drains your gauge immediately, but also requires a load before the retry, breaking game flow in more than one way.
Midway into the game, the business of urban renewal takes a back seat to the introduction of malleable ramps and rails, thereby lessening the effect and coherence of both. Is this a game about renovating the city for others or remodelling it for the benefit of a single skateboarder who wants to reach a collectible on the fourth floor of an apartment block? Moments when play switches to Shaun White as he skates for the benefit of watching men in white coats, presumably inserted to justify the license, are incongruous, as are the hacking mini-games in which you guide a ball bearing through a computer terminal.
The result is a game that fails to be more than the sum of its parts. The creativity and daring invention of the designers should be applauded in no uncertain terms. But by the end of the game, it's clear that the studio was unable to bring its patchwork quilt of mechanics together into a coherent whole. What remains, though, is a fascinating, idiosyncratic skateboarding game that brings fun and colour back to a weary genre – even if it fails to change its direction.
7 / 10