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Platforms: Xbox 360 & PlayStation 3
Pity Neversoft and the Tony Hawks series. For a long time - maybe too long - it had the skateboarding genre to itself, the series growing bigger and better, then steadily declining into a grungy, prank-obsessed parody of its former self. Then last year, with Tony Hawk's Project 8, the brand seemed to have turned a corner. The graphics were brilliant, the free-roaming world engaging, and with its 'Nail the Trick' slowmo feature the game had its best new concept in years. Normally, with only a month to go until the release of the next iteration, Proving Ground, anyone with an interest in skateboarding video games would be waiting with bated breath.
Instead of which, we're all playing Skate.
You have to hand it to the much-maligned EA. It has taken a genre dominated by a hugely popular property and - instead of making basically the same game with traditional EA high production values - comprehensively reinvented it. That Skate is good is a surprise. That Skate is this good is practically incredible.
Realism is the keyword here, and that starts with the graphics. THP8 had marvelous visuals, superb animation and wonderful lighting, but Skate now makes it look like a cartoon. The urban settings, architecture and textures are fantastically detailed. The characters, their clothes moving as they skate, are far more lifelike in their modeling and their animation. The lighting is that much more natural (in a sunny California kind of way), and the whole environment looks more cohesive. What's more, EA has reworked the viewpoint, bringing it closer to the boarder, lower to the board, and slightly off-centre so that you get a great view of where you're going and what you're doing. From a vantage point so much nearer the ground, there's a real sense of the interaction between board and surface, not to mention a much more tangible, physical feel to the game.
The setting, too, is closer to something that our Californian cousins might recognise as home. At times, THP8 played like a platform game, and you might say that its city has as much in common with real urban environments as the Isla Delfino in Super Mario Sunshine had with a real Caribbean island resort. The approach isn't necessarily better - just different - but Skate's more down-to-earth feel is a major part of its appeal. Maybe there are more skate parks in the fictional city of San Vanelona than you'd find in a real-life counterpart, but while there are grindable rails and makeshift ramps everywhere you look, at least they're more believably integrated into the urban environment. There's plenty to see and lots to explore, and still a sizable quantity of traffic and people getting in the way, getting knocked over or knocking you over just as you finish a particularly cool trick. It's not that Skate does anything here that THP8 didn't do well - it's just that it does it all a little bit better.