Version tested: Xbox 360
In Skate 3, as the old T-shirt slogan goes, "skateboarding is not a crime" - and even if it were, it would be a white-collar crime. Departing from the anti-establishment trappings of Skate 2, the latest game in EA's kiss-our-butt-Tony-Hawk series is a tale of skateboarder as capitalist. After founding a new skateboard company, you set out to move 1,000,000 units. ("I have to pay for my summer home," growls your delightful business partner.)
On the face of it, Skate 3's quest looks a lot like its predecessor's. In the skater mecca of Port Carverton, you pop ollies, flips, and grinds to complete a huge array of challenges peppered across the cityscape. Except this time, instead of security guards and pedestrians chasing you away, they applaud and reach for their MasterCards. And while Skate 2 asked you to free your hometown from an oppressive corporation, Skate 3's Port Carverton is a blank canvas for you to deface with branded stickers, posters, and billboards.
The distasteful corporatism is leavened by the casual charm of the cast, composed almost entirely of real-life professional skateboarders. For people like me whose knowledge of the skating scene is limited to, well, videogames like this one, Skate 3 begins with a funny, beautifully produced music video that reintroduces pros like Joey Brezinsky and Rob Dyrdek. (I assume those names mean something to the right people.) The skaters voice digitised versions of themselves in the game, turning in surprisingly good performances with an easygoing camaraderie that makes you feel like one of the boarding elite.
That moral support is welcome, as there's a great deal to master here. A staggering number of moves (more than ever before) are packed into the modest confines of the PS3 and Xbox 360 controllers. Most attention is focused on the poor, overworked right analog stick, which is responsible for jumps, flips, spins, and a laundry list of other contortions. You execute this magic by flicking the stick - each move has its corresponding angle. Flick directly upwards for an ollie, and toward one-o'clock for a kickflip.
Inevitably, this is an imprecise science, so I was often left wondering why my rider did a Laserflip when I was sure I flicked a Frontside Pop Shuvit. Combine this with the shoulder and face buttons required to pull off tweaked grabs, and some truly weird outliers - bailing from your board requires you to hold all four shoulder buttons and depress both analog sticks - you get the feeling that this game's intentions may have exceeded the reasonable capabilities of a handheld controller. Then again, the crummy plastic toy-ness of Tony Hawk Ride showed us all what happens when a skateboarding title ditches the gamepad, so maybe the makers of Skate 3 know what they're doing.
You rarely need to pull off a specific trick to complete a mission, anyhow. Which is not to say the game is easy. The action in Skate 3 is often unforgiving, but never unfair. The open-world structure of Port Carverton means that you can choose from dozens of different challenges at any given moment, yet the game still maintains a graceful learning curve as you forge your own path. Beyond the first couple hours (which are relatively easy), the challenges always seem to exist just at the edge of your current ability, nudging you to push yourself a bit harder.
Most challenges fall into categories that will be familiar to fans of the series. Photo opportunities require you to pull off a camera-friendly trick like grinding your board on the blade of a giant bulldozer, so you can advertise your greatness to potential customers. It's fun to pick the most flattering shot from the contact sheet - the one that best encapsulates your glory - after you succeed. The always-satisfying "Hall of Meat" events invite you to hurl your sorry carcass into the ground in the most painful way possible - lacerations are splendid; compound fractures sublime. (How this sells skateboards isn't clear; it just does, OK?)
One fresh addition is the advent of team challenges. With a friend or two, you can build a squad and head online to compete in some of the same trick jams that are available in the single-player mode. It's a blast to showboat as spectacularly as possible (thereby racking up trick points for your team) in these frantic timed challenges, and the loose team format doesn't try to force too much of a co-op feel onto an essentially individual sport.
"Own The Lot" mini-quests are also new to Skate 3. Each one consists of eight or nine trick-based missions to complete in a single part of the city. To gain the reward, you must finish them all.
The OTL modes instill a sorely needed sense of place. Because I typically started new challenges by warping from point to point, the world started to feel like a disconnected patchwork of individual venues. In the course of an OTL, you familiariSe yourself more deeply with a region and gain an appreciation for the terrain.
And there's a great deal to enjoy in Port Carverton, a brighter, more celebratory place than Skate 2's New San Vanelona. If a cityscape this packed with ramps, ledges, and railings existed in real life, it would be the land that spawned a million amateur YouTube videos. Indeed, you can produce your own highlight reel with a replay editor that's rudimentary but does what it needs to.
The do-it-yourself features also include a skate-park creation mode where you can build your own concrete playground from a vast object library. This strikes me a tedious endeavor, especially given that there is already so much to explore in the pre-made world, but surely some aspiring halfpipe designer will construct the masterpiece he's been sketching in his notebook margins since grade school. Naturally, you can also upload whatever you make, user-generated content being all the rage.
There are some persistent annoyances. The camera has a nasty habit of drifting when you restart a challenge, which you will do often, given the trial-and-error nature of the game. And challenge objectives are often maddeningly vague. It only took me a few minutes to realiSe that "Do a Manny Flip Manny" meant that I had to go from a two-wheeled manual stance to a flip trick and back again. It took me a great deal longer to figure out that I had to do so without letting all four wheels touch the ground. (The casualties: one hour of my life and one PS3 controller that met a premature end against my living-room wall.)
And in keeping with the corporate vibe, the product placement in Skate 3 is relentless to the point of saturation. The adulation for boarding-related companies like Stereo, Adidas, Etnies, Nike SB - and many, many others - is bad enough. At least they fit the context, though. More cringe-worthy are non-sequiturs like the Miracle Whip "Whipfest" Competition, which features a billboard: "MAYO IS FOR INLINE SKATERS." Wow! They really nailed those dorky inline skaters, I guess! I gather that this alternative sandwich topping must be quite badass!
Yet Skate 3's tin-eared cheerleading for corporate greed in the midst of a global economic crisis doesn't ruin the experience, which is a testament to the elegance of the underlying design. The true narrative of this game is the journey of slow, dogged, satisfying improvement that you'll travel as you work the ineffable rhythms of the board into your fingers. You may unlock an achievement at 1,000,000 boards sold, but the sense of accomplishment sets in long before that.
8 / 10