Skate 2 First Hands-On

We roll through a new vision of San Vanelona armed with a vastly expanded bag of tricks.

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It was just short of a year ago that EA Black Box introduced us to Skate, a game whose excellent controls and stylish reverence for skateboard culture took nearly everyone by surprise. Now, Black Box continues to defy expectations by taking its sweet time with Skate 2, a startling decision considering the first game both sold well and had the letters "E" and "A" stamped side-by-side on its packaging. With plenty of breathing room and no release date in sight, hopes are understandably high as the team strives to build upon an impressive debut. And now that we've had our first look at Skate 2, we've seen all the makings of a game that should meet those expectations.

With the ability to grab the environment around you, handplants are now a possibility.
With the ability to grab the environment around you, handplants are now a possibility.

For as much praise as Skate earned, it could have very easily crashed and burned as a result of the risky "flick-it" controls the game introduced. It was a system that shirked traditional button inputs in favor of a dual-analog control scheme that used the right stick to mimic the sweeping gestures of a skater's feet and the left stick to guide more general body movement. These flick-it controls certainly had a learning curve to overcome, but the end result was a fresh and rewarding experience--the closest a game has come to putting you on the maple plywood of a real skateboard.

This time around, Black Box isn't so afraid of those buttons on the controller. The core mechanics of the first game are still in place, but now an entirely new trick system has been layered over it with the ability to grab terrain and take one foot or both feet off the board. The ability to latch onto obstacles works the easiest. Most of the time, you'll find yourself using it to pull off handplants on the lip of a ramp or bowl. You skate up as you normally would to air out, but just before you go airborne, you can press a button (R1 or RB, depending on your platform of choice) to perform an old-school handplant. These can be tweaked with the right stick, just like grabs from the first game, and you can even take a foot off the board by using the same two buttons you would use to push on land (again, the square and X with a PlayStation 3 controller, or X and A on the Xbox 360).

That ability to take your foot off the board works its way into other scenarios. One way is by performing a boneless. While on ground, you hold one of the grab buttons and combine it with a foot button to plant a shoe on the ground then take off with a hand on the board. The same button combination produces a similar result when performed while already in the air. You can do it to foot tap anything from the lip of a bowl to a railing while en route to the ground. Another option is to simply press both feet buttons to hippie jump over something--the combination of leaping off your board to go over an obstacle while the board goes under.

Other new options include the ability to flip the board with your hand, do one-foot airs, and grab your board while in the process of grinding. While many of these moves can be classified as mere embellishments compared to the strong foundation of flip tricks and grinds the first game established, they should add plenty of depth and style to your bag of tricks. And even though a lot of them are quirky old-school moves, like the flick-it controls, they just make sense. Putting your left hand on the board or taking your right foot off it is always done with the same two buttons; nothing seems shoehorned into the control scheme despite all the new combinations. The one downer is that the already tough learning curve will only continue to grow, but because the original controls have been preserved as the bottom layer in this stratified system, you can simply work your way up one technique at a time.

Two new features: female skaters and the downhill mountain area.
Two new features: female skaters and the downhill mountain area.

Setting yourself up for new lines should be much easier this time around. Whereas the first game superglued your feet to the board, taunting you with beautiful rails at the top of a towering stair set, this time around, you can press triangle or Y to hop off the board and simply walk to the start of your ideal line. While off the board, you can also use the aforementioned "grab obstacles" button to take hold of a variety of objects that are not bolted to the ground--benches, picnic tables, rails--and move them around to create a new line. We can't tell you how much fun we had dragging a rail up the sloped walkway flanking a halfpipe as we attempted to defy physics by airing out and landing a boardslide down the thing. We should note that the ability to get off your board was particularly rough in this early build--making it feel more like a proof of concept than a full-blown feature--but we can see where Black Box is going with it, and we like it.

Skate 2 returns to the setting of the original game, the three-headed-beast combination of San Francisco, Vancouver, and Barcelona known simply as San Vanelona. This time around, a mysterious disaster has taken its toll on the city, leaving a thoroughly altered urban landscape in its wake. Much of San Van has been rebuilt, a lot of it has been done away with, and now it's blessed with the name New San Vanelona. What does this odd design decision mean for anyone who doesn't particularly care for civil engineering? The short answer is that we can expect to see a brand new open-world environment that maintains the same characters and overall atmosphere as the original city.

Three unique demo stations were on hand to display three new districts. The boldest departure is the new mountain area, a state park-like environment with evergreen trees and steep, windy roads perfectly suited for downhill competitions. Another new area is the waterfront. Although concept art for the first game suggested the city was ostensibly set on the water, we never got to see that portion of the city. But now, you'll be able to cruise through the modern architecture of this beachfront promenade with the water no more than a stone's throw away. And finally, there's the new high-rise projects neighborhood. This dense crush of buildings provides plenty of opportunity for big drops and big bails, with a run-down appearance that should give the city some grimy authenticity.

Character models are more fleshed out this time around.
Character models are more fleshed out this time around.

Even though these new areas look great--particularly the intimidating views afforded by the mountain's roadside cliffs--the visual upgrades extend beyond new scenery. Character models (including the new female skater options) look more detailed than before, while the wipeout animations have been given a much-needed boost in realism. Things were fine in the first Skate when you were on your board, but if you so much as clipped a bench, it would result in your character going strangely limp, only to greet the concrete with no objections whatsoever. Now you'll see your character flail during high drops, brace himself for impact, and kick out his board when a landing seems impossible. Considering the steep learning curve of the control system, these new touches should give newcomers an entertaining show while they learn the ropes. And it all plays out in 60 frames per second, double that of the previous game.

This was the most we could squeeze out of our first look at Skate 2. Details on the mission structures, video editor, and community features are all still under wraps. We couldn't even pry away a release date for the game--the best we could manage was a "before summer of next year" response from executive producer Scott Blackwood. It's a long wait for Skate fans, but with these new additions, we're banking that it'll be worth it.

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