Version tested: PlayStation 3
Despite the hipster soundtrack, the subculture-savvy dialogue, the pavement-level camera that distorts your view with fisheye cool and the 'edgy' protagonist who just got out of prison, Skate 2 is essentially a game about cold, hard physics. This much is obvious within minutes, when you're told to stop posing in your new Levi's and gold aviators, get off your skateboard and, by hand, rearrange some ramps to solve a puzzle. The challenge is to 'get some air' over two dumpster bins, the game leaving you to figure out whether your arrangement of triangles will provide enough momentum and height to clear both objects lengthways, or whether you need to rethink the problem.
Underneath the style and bombast Skate 2 is a fiercely traditional videogame, one that takes an unflinching 8-bit approach to game design of which most contemporary games steer clear. For example, in one challenge you must grind two sets of stair rails in sequence, a filmed stunt that, if 'nailed', will form part of your amateur showreel. This ostensibly simple challenge requires you to approach the stairs from the perfect angle, flicking the right stick up to olly at the optimum moment, then balancing your body on the deck as you slide down, before kickflipping off to land in the perfect spot to approach the next rail. It's a sequence of button inputs that must be perfected, as in the 2D platform games of yore: make a single mistake and you'll fall off the board, smacking your face into the concrete to the wincing empathy of your cameraman.
At this point there are only two options available to you: try again or give up. There is no progression of abilities in Skate 2. Nearly every move is available to you from the start. You can't toddle off to buy a better deck that will make the task slip down a little easier. You can't go and level up your character's jump stat, or save up for some more supportive sneakers. No, you just practice, building up the required muscle memory till you've increased your own out-of-game ability sufficiently to overcome the challenge. Skate 2, like the pastime it portrays, only grants long-term success to the skilled and dedicated. Everyone else can pretty much limp off back to Prince of Persia, Fable II and others that turn a blind eye to the fact you totally suck at videogames.
All of this is not to say that Skate 2 isn't an impeccably presented contemporary package, stuffed with brilliant, modern ideas of convenience that considerably smooth the ride. Want to hop to your next challenge without having to skitch a ride from a passing car across miles of New San Vanelona? Simply warp there right from the menu. Then, at any point you can click the left bumper and place an invisible marker on the ground, returning to this point now a single click away. It's a wonderful piece of time-saving design that allows you to try difficult runs time and again without the need to walk back to the start point. And while at times Skate 2's a tough mistress, there's always something to distract you when you've hit the wall in your ability.
There is a loose story here, its purpose primarily to frame the ever-expanding roster and difficulty of challenges on offer. Events take one of six forms: Core challenges, which drive the storyline along propelling your character from obscure layabout to professional hero, Races, Street Contests, Tranny Contests, in which you compete for the best transition tricks, rather than what you're thinking (and hopefully not Googling), Bonus and Own the Spot. Races are the weakest of the bunch, pitting you against a clutch of other skaters to be the first to the bottom of a downhill run. There are checkpoints that add time to your clock, but skateboards can be frustratingly unwieldy to manoeuvre around objects at speed, especially when the AI sends cars and competitors careering into you too often.