Skater XL is the best digital representation of skateboarding ever
© Easy Day Studios
But is it a game? We ask this question in earnest after learning its ins and outs, making some of our own video parts and unlearning both THPS and Skate controls for something entirely new.
So, what is Skater XL? Easy Day Studio’s co-founder Dain Hedgpeth enthuses to us it’s a skateboarding platform for expression, in an in-depth chat, but it’s also a videogame. The first part is entirely true. After learning its nuanced control system and discovering new lines and spots through meticulous eagle-eyeing, I’ve quietly fallen in love with the ‘platform’. But, it’s not a game, if I’m being honest.
“That’s sort of an indicator about the composition of the team, and the fact that everyone who’s pretty much hands-on with the product are all coming from involvement with skateboarding,” enthuses Hedgpeth about Skater XL’s design and marketing pedigree. “And it’s something we’re all very connected to. [But] that’s something that’s tricky when making a game that... you know, we want something that goes to a large audience, but it’s gotta speak to skateboarding as well, and it’s gotta get certain things right.
"In general, part of the problem is they didn’t manage to balance those two things, and to represent skateboarding properly..."
“[So] when people talk about there not being a major skateboarding title in the last 10 years or so (there have been a few skateboarding titles that came out) but, in general, part of the problem is they didn’t manage to balance those two things, and to represent skateboarding properly.”
This is an important statement and distinction up front. Because while not entirely representing all facets of skateboarding across the final product (and something we’ll get to in detail soon), Skater XL is skateboarding at its core and in its digital heart. But a question can be asked of whether or not that expression of the expressive nature of skateboarding hamstrung the videogame side of the whole exercise. To be clear, we’re not ragging on the concept or the team’s ideals for the final product where “skateboarding” is concerned; this is a platform that allows for any form of skater expression to blossom. For example, I found an avenue to make videos that spoke to me, and my cohort, Kosta "Kbit" Andreadis, gave up tunes to help that vision come to life in a result we couldn’t be happier with (in fact, we have plans to make more). But, and here’s the clincher, this had to be MY desire first, with the game being merely a tool FOR that expression.
The problem with Skater XL, at all, is that you need to be the skater, the director, the developer and the dedicated all at once. If you come from a Call of Duty world where the key tenet is “pick up and play” and developer-driven content guides your trigger finger, Skater XL is straight-up not going to be for you. It’s a hard truth for the devs, and one they might revel in deep down inside, but it’s the game’s biggest mainstream enemy. In coming to console this is highlighted most, but it shouldn’t be a barrier. As I said earlier, I found a part of the game and a way to express myself through the options available, and at the moment, I’m champing at the bit to just play more, record more and produce more. But that isn’t a videogame -- it’s a program.
In IGN’s review of the game, local mate Luke Reilly points out how he struggled with a tre flip in the game’s ‘Challenge’ section (effectively a tutorial), specifically when it comes to landing 10 in a row -- a sort of way the game is highlighting how hard it is. And we share(d) his grief. It’s not that the input itself is hard, it’s that you need to time it, and in timing you need to switch off the reactive part of your brain which then means approaching the task methodically -- like skateboarding.
Where Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater excels is in the not thinking aspect for the every other player crowd. If you don’t care about doing an overcrook on an awning off a well positioned ledge or launch, and just love mashing your way to combo scores, again, Skater XL just isn’t going to be for you.
So why do we care? Well, it’s that “fallen in love with” line earlier; Skater XL is like the George Costanza jingle -- at first you find it irritating, but eventually it plays over and over in your head and then you're hooked. Only Skater XL doesn’t steal your alarm clock.
“We’re big fans of the previous franchises,” enthuses Dain in talking to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and EA’s Skate before pointing out there was a serious lull in the space when it all kind of ‘fizzled’ out. “We asked, ‘what comes next?’ and ‘what could we do?’.”
Fair questions, and history tells us this is a harder market to tap than you might think. THPS landed with a massive thud, but franchise fatigue and the Activision higher-ups’ love affair with peripherals quietly killed it, while Skate just kind of came and went. In between we’d seen other action sports games, or games like Shaun White Skateboarding and the like attempt to break that magical ceiling the Hawk games did, but as we said earlier… franchise fatigue. Or in this case, genre fatigue.
And while the game’s controls use a Flickit-like system, it starts to get confusing when you have less of an immediate impact on using the whole face of the controller at once, or even in succession. This is compounded with some much-needed improvement in bailing and stacking...
Part of the barrier of entry is that the game features real-time responsive feedback based on input -- but this is a problem. At least if you’re not a very patient player. It’s a bragging point as far as technical design goes (and one for you if you end up being able to bank the whole trick manifest and string them together seamlessly). And while the game’s controls use a Flickit-like system, it starts to get confusing when you have less of an immediate impact on using the whole face of the controller at once, or even in succession. This is compounded with some much-needed improvement in bailing and stacking, but it’s a lot of these areas the PC community, who has wholly embraced the open platform and taken to modding the absolute shit out of the game you start to see it’s full potential.
Which brings it all full circle with Skater XL. The “thud” mentioned earlier is new and exciting, but XL is up against hefty competition with a new interest in the Hawk Man’s remastered collective version of THPS 1 and 2, and we’ve played that and it’s still fun. It’s also still the most videogame version of the sport. But there is a saying: “horses for courses” and all that, so take none of the above as any form of detriment. The negative reviews around are only reflections on this being targeted as a videogame as opposed to the freeform open-world skateboarding platform that it is, it’s just a hard distinction when you’re tackling two core values, and one ends up overshadowing the other.
If you’ve got the drive, the passion and the patience, well, Skater XL’s world is yours for the taking -- you’ll just have to activate much of that world yourself, and with your own creativity and expression.