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?)