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.