With Skate seemingly dead and buried since Skate 3 all the way back in 2010 (yes, it's almost a decade old now) despite pleas and begging from the skateboarding community for a Skate 4, fans have had to turn their eyes elsewhere for skateboarding video games, especially since Tony Hawk's franchise has also fallen off the wagon with a dismal Pro Skater 5 to forget. Crea-ture Studios' Session is one such game coming our way to give us our fix, but Easy Day Studios' Skater XL is another contender on the scene, rolling into Steam Early Access last month.
When we say that the game has rolled onto Early Access, we should say that this is a very small sandbox (quite literally a few ledges, rails, and ramps) for £15.49, so before you go waving your money for a new Skate game just bear that in mind. What you're investing in right now is a tech demo that shows the core mechanics, with the promise of more being added in the future to turn this concept into a more fully-realised game.
What everyone wants to know more than anything with these games is how it controls, and there's good and bad news. The good news is that it clearly takes inspiration from Skate rather than Tony Hawk, meaning it's a realistic game like Session, but the bad news (not necessarily for us but for those expecting a sort of Skate 4) is that the controls aren't identical. Don't come into this expecting your muscle memory to take you away again - existing fans will need their brains rewired.
We played with a DualShock 4 on PC, and to push you use X, with brake on Circle, and turning on R2 and L2, right and left respectively. Here comes to tricky part - essentially the left stick maps to your left foot and the right stick to your right foot. What this means in practice is that you can ollie with your right stick down and then up as you'd do in Skate, but to get higher you'll need to do it at the same time as the right stick.
Tricks also make use of both sticks too. For example, to kickflip you'll need to high ollie and then press the left stick left so that your left foot flips the board 360 degrees. To do a shuvit, however, you'll need to spin the right stick as you ollie, since the back foot is the one that controls the rotation. In the same way, a manual is controlled by the right foot, sitting at the back of the board, and the nose manual is controlled by the left.
To spin in the air you'll need to use R2 and L2, but we actually had the most trouble doing what the game calls a fast spin. It seemed to us overly complicated, because you need to high ollie with both sticks, hold either R2 and L2 to spin, while pulling both sticks in opposite directions. Five-button commands for a quick spin feels a little excessive to us and it's one of the things we'd like to see streamlined in the final product.
Let's talk about grinding too, because that's another key part of street skateboarding. Right now it's a little rough around the edges since it doesn't subtly draw you towards ledges and rails as much as Skate used to (we don't know if this will be implemented, but we hope so), and again you'll need to use both sticks to get the desired effect. For a nosegrind, for example, you'll need to angle both sticks up to tilt the board entirely up, while for a boardside the right foot will need to go right while the left goes left, in turn making the board settle sideways.
A neat little feature that we liked is that you can do a one foot catch during the tricks, as by pressing either left or right sticks the respective foot stops the board in mid-air, meaning you can settle yourself before landing to stop yourself bailing. There are also other simple features, like pressing down on the d-pad to set a marker, with up on the d-pad teleporting yourself there (perfect for trying at the same spot multiple times), R2 or L2 letting you pop off of a rail or ledge easily, and using left and right on the d-pad to switch the camera angle.
Right now the experience seems very fluid, with plenty of varied and adaptive animations making things feel realistic and like you're never doing the exact same thing twice. What's more is that it feels weighty, and the environments so far are realistic without being boring. Basically, it feels like what we first felt in Skate and Skate 2 (3 was a little more cartoony and eccentric), and while grabs have yet to be included - as well as vert elements like quarter- and half-pipes - we enjoyed experimenting with the small playground we were given.
We don't like comparing games to others as much as we've done here, but with both Session and Skater XL the comparisons to the Skate franchise are inevitable, especially given that Skate is dead and the hole in the heart is ready to be filled. It's too early to say if either of these games lives up to that yet, but what we will say is Skater XL is looking very promising in its early stages, and while there's only a little bit to see, it certainly left us wanting more, which is a good sign indeed.