EA hit the ground running with its Skate franchise, which from day one offered a uniquely analog-stick-driven control scheme and a refreshing, true-to-the-sport approach to skateboarding. Now on its third installment in four calendar years, the development team at EA Black Box is looking to keep the series fresh when the next game arrives this May. The team's approach is twofold: introduce a brand new city to work your skateboarding magic in and shift the focus of Career mode to the social aspect of the sport.
The city, this time around, is a fictional metropolis called Port Carverton. It replaces San Vanelona, which had been the setting of the first two games in the series. Like San Van, Port Carverton is designed as a skater's Mecca that draws inspiration from famous skate spots from all over the world then drops them into one great big hodgepodge of benches, ledges, and impossibly inviting urban architecture. The team's cheeky approach to using real-world locations has resulted in areas like Second and Navy, a waterfront pier skate spot with a suspiciously similar look to San Francisco's Third and Army, or the Aletown neighborhood that will invoke a distinct sense of deja vu for anyone who's been to Vancouver's Yaletown.
But unlike the San Vanelona of Skate 2, which was a city overrun by the anti-skateboarding Mongo Corporation, Port Carverton is a city that feels like it wants to reach out and give you a big ol' hug. Gone are the capped handrails that you had to recruit a friend to pry off, as are the guards that came out of nowhere to knock you off your board whenever you found a particularly shiny marble ledge in the center of the financial district. Instead, Port Carverton is described by Black Box senior producer Jason DeLong as a genuine skater's paradise; a place where security guards will go out of their way to point you toward cool spots and the sun never seems to stop shining.
A new Career mode will act as your tour guide through Port Carverton. As a continuation of the previous two games, Skate 3 has you more or less at the pinnacle of your career, and now it's time to do what seemingly all famous skaters do: start your own board company. Selling boards and building your brand is the main thrust of the Career mode, with each career challenge offering a reward in the form of board sales. It feels similar to an experience points system that will trigger new milestones at increasing intervals, which unlock more challenges, gear, and new spots to skate throughout the city.
Because a board company isn't complete without sponsored riders, you'll need to go out and recruit some folks to join your team. The cool part about this is that it opens up the possibility to play the entire Career mode cooperatively with friends over Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. We got a chance to play a number of co-op challenges and walked away impressed by the different experience that pulling off a challenge with a friend can deliver.
The photo challenges were easily our favorites. With these, you and your teammates all need to perform a trick on (or over) a specific object before a timer runs out, such as launching over a huge gap or grinding a specific ledge. With more than one player, you now have the opportunity to coordinate your skating so that you all wind up in each other's shots. So you might have one guy grinding a bench while the other airs over him, or both of skaters might launch over a gap in tandem--that sort of thing. You can, then, take that sweet photo and tweak it with a number of postproduction options (brightness, contrast, depth of field, and the like) before seeing it turn into an in-game magazine cover that you might later find plastered all over the city as a flier or even a billboard.
All the other usual suspects return in the Career mode challenges, including downhill races, high-score competitions, and video challenges. We asked DeLong about one of the criticisms of the last game that had to with the way later challenges in the Career mode got very specific about what sort of trick you had to do and what you had to do it on (anyone who remembers doing a handplant on a basketball backboard will know what we mean), which often turned into a roadblock in your career progression. For Skate 3, DeLong says they've focused more on creating tiered pools of challenges that let you pick and choose which specific challenge you want to complete in order to unlock the next pool. Another criticism--pedestrians getting in your way during critical moments--has been remedied with a button that now lets you raise up your arms like the boogeyman and scare people away instantly. Supposedly, the volume of physics-enabled litter has been scaled back as well, so at least now there's not quite as much tripping on stray soda cans just as you are about to ollie onto a handrail.
Our time with Skate 3 also revealed a few other notable additions. Besides three difficulty levels, which is a first for the series, you can now take part in an extended tutorial system. This system is called Skate School with Coach Frank, and the coach is a thoroughly goofy character voiced by actor, as well as former pro skateboarder, Jason Lee. You can also now place an invisible photographer at any point in the game, letting you snap photos quickly and easily at any location without having to pull up the video editor to place a tripod camera then scroll to where you want in the video timeline to pull out a still shot. You'll see the customized character of anyone you're friends with on PSN or Live cruising through your city as an AI skater, even if you're just free skating around town. And in a nice little touch, if you appear in a friend's video that becomes a smash hit on the skate.reel content sharing system, you'll gain royalties in the form of boards sold in the Career mode.
It's hard to get a good idea of how well the whole online component will work in Skate 3 from the relatively limited time we spent with it, but overall, we liked what we saw. The new city should infuse some fresh air into the series for those who were disappointed by the reuse of San Van in Skate 2, and there are definitely some features that should make the game more accommodating to new players. We're looking forward to spending more time with the Career mode to see what sort of trouble we can get into online, so be sure to check out our upcoming coverage leading up to Skate 3's May release.