Bird of prey
Aggressive Inline is the latest addition to a growing genre of mostly identical skating games. Looking, sounding and feeling like a bigger and better version of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Inline will be instantly familiar to both hardcore and casual fans of Neversoft's extreme sports franchise. Like Street Fighter and Doom before it, Tony Hawk has bred plenty of imitators, but will it be able to maintain its position at the top of the pile by shrugging off Z-Axis' latest contender, or is Mr. Hawk about to have his wings clipped? Well, I'm hardly going to spill the beans in the first paragraph, am I?
Ignoring the team sheet of real-life inline skaters, because quite frankly, no-one cares, I discovered that Aggressive Inline elbows aside the laws of physics and lets you grind, jump and manual your way through sprawling levels which make Tony Hawk's complement seem puny. Although all the terminology has been switched around ("fakie" becomes "cess slide", for instance), the game was still cast from the same mould - it's the tweaks and level design which have made the difference. In a way, Aggressive Inline is what I wanted from Tony Hawk 4.
As usual there's a main Career mode alongside Freeskate and multiplayer modes, and this kicks off with an arduous tutorial level. The tutorial introduces you to a lot of Z-Axis' adjustments, like the ability to right yourself in mid-air if you fly off the end of a half-pipe and the ability to swing around poles, not to mention my favourite: the chance somersault from low walls to keep your momentum and trick tally going.
Graphically Inline is Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 taken to its obvious conclusion, and Z-Axis' barefaced cheek extends to motion captured breasts on the fictional females and half-inched male models with their dumpy postures and trousers hanging down to their knees as usual. The behaviour of garments is quite impressive, with shirts and shorts flapping in the wind as you sail along. It's a shame that the developer didn't concentrate on facial features and less angular limbs at the expense of said bouncy bosoms and flapping shirt tails, although the trade-off seems to have left the game running at a high framerate, which is always appreciated.
Levels are full of the same sort of geometry and texturing witnessed in Tony Hawk's, although they are a lot larger, and a lot more dynamic. By grinding a couple of chains in the first level you knock down a boulder, which rolls around and destroys a bridge and wall, opening up more grinding opportunities, and later on you'll perform similar feats to let loose the likes of a propane tank, which cannons around until it blows the ceiling off a nearby factory. The game's seven main levels scale upwards as well, with multiple platforms to traverse and plenty of aerial grinds, but even without exploring the rafters they are by no means small.
In fact the first level, which is pretty standard, is about five times the size of the average Tony Hawk level. I was impressed by the size of the city venue, but after a while I tired of grinding flowerbeds and railings and went off in search of something else. Before long I had unlocked a door and wandered onto a full-blown movie set, which occupied about the same sort of space as two regular Hawk levels, with half-pipes, ramps by the dozen and a set packed with crooked trees, the banks of an artificial stream and lighting rigs to grind.
Levels aren't just big, either; they are designed with a healthy serving of wit and intelligence. Throughout the game, I don't think I encountered anything I would describe as wasted space. You can almost always find a way to link your grinds and tricks to something else, without fluking eternal manuals and other tenets of big-scoring Tony Hawk combos, and there's more variety to the spectacle, with flips, pole-swinging and other tricks spicing up the typical grinds. Furthermore, you can actually trigger things in some levels which unlock previously inaccessible areas earlier in the game - a clever way of increasing replay value and adding yet more to levels which already seem to stretch out into the distance.
The usual laundry list of objectives awaits career skaters, but in-keeping with the game's proportional advantage over the Hawk, there are about five times as many as you might expect, and as usual they all demand a certain skill to complete. Although they don't vary too much - usually just requiring some audacious grind or trick in a certain area - I certainly didn't mind. Aggressive Inline is suitably addictive that you don't really pay attention to what you're doing; completion becomes something of an obsession. And those determined to explore every nook and cranny will be going at it for weeks, because even when you have polished off a level's various set tasks, there are tokens and other items to collect to bring your level score up to 100 percent.
Another gap in Tony Hawk's genetic make-up buffed over by Z-Axis is the puzzling lack of reward for people who get really good at it. Beyond high score objectives, the Tony Hawk series has thus far offered little to those who could grind an entire level with their eyes closed and pull off every trick in the book while they were at it. As you get good at Aggressive Inline, pulling off more and more tricks, grinds and so on, your stats for individual elements improve, increasing your character's competency and allowing you to concentrate on the more demanding aspects of a combination. This progressive reward structure means that you will always be doing yourself a favour by skating around, grinding this and that without any real objective beyond playing the game, and I like that.
While you won't spend forever unlocking the likes of Darth Maul here, the longevity dwarfs the humble Birdman. With a better reward structure and a sense of never really finishing the game, this is likely to last you for a very long time. And that's before I get onto the two-player split-screen modes, which feature numerous activities ranging from best score and best trick contests to the more obscure animal rescue and twenty-one-card pursuits. And if, years down the line when you've polished the whole thing off, you still feel a little cheated, why not fire up the park editor and use the relatively simple toolset to build more arenas?
The only area of Aggressive Inline which falls slightly short of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 is the soundtrack, and that's perhaps the most subjective area of all. With the usual crop of samey American alternative rock, hip hop and so on, you'll find nothing surprising, although I was quite pleased to hear Sublime ringing around my ears.
I've mentioned Tony Hawk more than I've mentioned Aggressive Inline today, and that's a mark of respect against the awesome genre-domination of Neversoft's series. But the style has always been distinctly imitable, and with Aggressive Inline, Z-Axis has proved that there is still more fun, more depth and more entertainment to be had out of the skating game template. Waiting for Tony Hawk 4? Don't. Buy this, now.