Okay, I know, the biggest spin anyone’s done in the real world is 11-year old Guy Khury’s 1080, but I needed a skateboarding pun for this year
I’ve been trying to piece this together for a couple of weeks now, but after the announcement of Activision’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2, last week, it felt topical to discuss the Other Two skateboard games that are set to come out this year.
You may remember back on the previous generation that the Tony Hawk’s games were pretty weak and that EA rose to dominance in the genre with their innovative SKATE series that tried to bring some realism to proceedings with its new Flickit system. Gone were the days of manually inputting commands using the face buttons leading into unrealistically long lines. Instead, EA Black Box tasked the player with pulling off tricks using the right analogue stick on your controller, pulling back and releasing would make you perform an Ollie, whilst flicking the stick in other directions performed various flick tricks on the board, you could grind and make grabs too, but gone were the days of getting so much air you could see the tops of buildings, instead we were offered something more organic, with city-based settings that we could gather in with our mates to play H.O.R.S.E./S.K.A.T.E.
Session and Skater XL are attempting to take that idea and evolve it further for the current generation of hardware and I’ve spent time with both version in their Early Access PC builds. Both will come to consoles later this year, with Session currently pushed back from an October 2019 release on Xbox One to “Spring 2020” whilst Skater XL have given the world their 1.0 release date of July 7, 2020, on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Switch. But which, if you have to choose, should you go for?
I should state again, that this is all based upon their Early Access builds, both of which I’ve picked up myself and haven’t been provided from the developers.
We’ll start by just discussing what each game offers in terms of content for the player right now I’ll start with Skater XL as that’s where I started.
Off the bat, there are two ways you can play Skater XL, modded or the official beta (which you switch on in the game’s properties on Steam). Well, I lie, there’s three, the vanilla “current build”, but no one does that. If you want to switch to Beta the game will always require updating, when you switch back you’ll have to launch UnityMod and have it reinstall any mods you’d previously applied to the vanilla build. Maps that you’ve downloaded will work in both versions. Why have they done this? Well, it seems developer Easy Day Studio’s have seen the work the mod community has been doing by adding content to the Early Access build and been happy that it provides them with feedback on area’s they can improve the game ready for its final release. This is a hugely positive step as on its own Skater XL currently doesn’t offer a whole lot to the player from a fresh install, there are two maps and a small number of customisable options for your skater, that’s it. But by modding things you can insert maps (and there are some good ones out there amongst its growing community), include a multiplayer mode, play about with the graphical settings beyond the initial launchers limited choices and even include different skins for your skater and board. However, a lot of the content that they’ve shown in the release date announcement trailer (below) isn’t currently available, and there’s even more missing from it right now that we’ll get to in a moment.
Now, it should come as no surprise, when you consider that Session should have had some kind of release on Xbox One nearly 8 months ago, that there’s more on offer in Crea-ture Studio’s offering. There’s a selection of five official maps, a few more customisation options, a proper tutorial and even a soundtrack. However, the modding community isn’t nearly as active and this is because its harder to apply mods to Session not to mention that whilst it’s not actively discouraged, the studio has, from what I can tell (and I’d be happy to be proved wrong) remained tight-lipped on actively encouraging it. Whilst Skater XL is made in Unity, Session makes use of Unreal Engine 4 with an eye on that engines multiplayer capabilities.
That’s where the two differ on their approaches and content, though their philosophies are very similar. Both games want to take the concept of EA Black Box’s Flickit system, but evolve it and make it feel more like skating. This is where I freely admit that I’ve never been able to even stand on a moving skateboard, let alone perform an Ollie, so I can’t comment on how genuine it feels to pull off tricks, but both feel satisfying in their own way.
Both games give a foot over to a stick, and both sound almost identical. In order to successfully pull off a trick, you have to pull back on the right stick, then flick it forwards (or at an angle) along with also making some kind of input on the left stick. Session explains it better, or at least the control method I used did as it actually talks you through its controls whereas Skater XL currently just provides you with some videos. In Session your right foot is on the right stick, leaving left on the left. If you’re in a regular stance (so you aren’t Switched or you haven’t opted to skate Goofy), then an Ollie is performed by pulling back on the right stick, then pushing forward on both sticks, this gets the right foot to initiate the pop and the left foot to push on the front of the board, getting you air born, flicks and grinds are pulled off in the same method.
At first, it takes some getting used to, I still haven’t after about 4 hours with each, I’m not expecting to pull off lines that would make Rodney Mullen blush, but being able to flick into a grind and land the bloody thing would be nice. But the beauty of Session is that you can go into the options and play with how things work to your heart’s desire, you can make it so the game will automatically connect your grind or you can go completely the other way and be reliant upon your skill at using the sticks, timing and positioning to do the same thing, with all sorts of shades of grey in between, Session recognises that people of differing abilities and patience will be playing this and allows you to customise your experience. Skater XL, at this stage at least, and it really does feel like Easy Day are holding stuff back quite a bit, feels much, much looser. I’ve not totally gotten my head around its inputs, and that it currently doesn’t tell me what trick I’ve done probably doesn’t help, but I can actually skate a line here, but it feels a little artificial like the engine is doing the grunt of the work for me and I can’t do anything to change that (though there is a mod that does let you tweak some stuff, I’ve no played with that yet though). It just feels like there’s a bit more glue attaching you to the board and the environment in Skater XL compared to Session. An example would be staircases, I can run into a step or a kerb at a lowish speed in Skater XL and my skater won’t fall off his board (though when he does it’s often hilarious), in Session I only have to glance a wall and I’ll be grinding it with the nose on my avatars face rather than the nose of my board. It makes Skater XL feel a little friendlier.
But, and I know I keep saying this, they’re both unfinished, Skater XL feels further away from completion. Case in point, stance switching. In Easy Day’s game, I can switch between a standard stance and a goofy stance by pressing the back button on my Xbox 360 controller, there’s no animation to show him changing stances, you flick from having your left foot forward to having your right. In Session, it’s handled as part of actually skating, I can change from Regular to Switch by double-tapping a trigger and performing a Revert, this can also change the inputs required on the sticks, now that your right foot is your front foot, you’ll be required to use the left stick to begin the pop to perform tricks (though this can be all altered in the options if you can’t get your head around it), at this stage then Crea-ture seem to have taken a proper look at the behaviour and mannerisms of skaters and applied it to their game.
Reading this through, it sounds like I’m favouring Session, and my game time is weighted more in its favour, but that’s purely Session are providing more up to date builds that include stuff like transitions, gradually providing more for the player to get used to ahead of its eventual full release, Skater XL, by comparison, is more reliant on that mod community at this stage and until I saw the release date trailer I have to admit I was rather worried that with what was available in the Early Access build that the game wouldn’t be what players want it to be when it arrives in July, but like I said already, I think they’re holding back so there’s a definitive day 1 release, I’m still genuinely excited for both games (and for THPS 1 & 2) and the fact they’re being developed in tandem and there’s some element of beta builds that both studio’s can look at to get idea’s for their own game means gamers hankering for a substitute for SKATE are definitely in for a treat this year.