Unlike the Birdman’s games – or the one with actual birds in it – Skater XL is a serious and mostly authentic and grounded simulation of skateboarding and it innovates in a truly engrossing way with its nuanced and tricky two-stick control system. There have been times over the last several days when I’ve become deeply immersed in the process of learning a new trick and executing it perfectly on a cool line I’d found some place within the maps.
However, playing on Xbox has exposed the fondly-regarded PC version’s secret: it’s heavily reliant on user-made mods to flesh it out. This has left the console version feeling extremely light on content at launch and, combined with some regularly occurring jankiness, the result is something that generally feels more like a tech demo than a complete game.
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Skater XL’s controls may initially seem familiar to Skate’s gesture-based brand of analogue stick flicking – and it’s true that there are some rough similarities – but mastering Skater XL’s controls is actually like learning a whole new language.
In Skater XL, each thumbstick represents the skater’s corresponding foot. That may sound simple but sometimes it’s a bit like rubbing your belly with one hand while… braiding your own hair with the other. Even a straightforward kickflip requires you to pop the board with your back foot and then execute a properly-timed kick with your front foot. If you chuck a rotation in there, that’ll require one of the triggers. If you want to throw a grab on top of it all, that brings in the bumpers – and all of a sudden you’re squeezing your controller from all angles like it owes you money.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=This%20complexity%20may%20ultimately%20be%20a%20turn%20off%20for%20some%2C%20but%20I%E2%80%99ve%20quite%20enjoyed%20just%20zoning%20out%20and%20trying%20to%20perfect%20some%20complex%20skate%20tricks”]This complexity may ultimately be a turn off for some, but I’ve quite enjoyed just zoning out and trying to perfect some complex skate tricks. Things like this are often a simple button-push away in other skate games but would require a huge amount of practise in reality, and so they do in Skater XL. Overall I get the feeling the goal here has been to build a control system that attempts to mirror the finesse of foot movement that real-life skateboarding requires and, to a certain extent, that has worked. The granular control over grinds is particularly nifty if you move the sticks slowly enough not to trigger an ollie or shuvit. That said, it’s loaded with annoyances, too: the zone on the stick for performing manuals feels a bit too small, you can’t seem to turn more than 90 degrees on the spot without pushing off in the complete opposite direction, and sometimes my skater will bust an unwanted ollie before I’ve let go of the stick.
During my second morning playing I attempted a tre flip, which in Skater XL requires two similar yet slightly out-of-sync movements with each stick. I couldn’t get it. I just couldn’t remotely nail the timing, and the angles were beyond me. Skater XL was asking my monkey fingers for Moonlight Sonata and all they had to give was Mary Had a Little Lamb. At one stage I even noticed there’s an achievement for performing 10 tre flips in a row. I scoffed. It was never going to happen.
But I made a few more attempts, and those few attempts turned into a few more attempts, and a few more attempts after that. Eventually I landed one. Then three in a row. Then 10 in a row. Skater XL’s controls are a bit of a wall to crash through compared to, say, an arcade skate experience like any Tony Hawk game out there, but because they ask you to practise and practise, there’s a quaint loop here that imitates the spirit of the real thing – or, at least, learning a real, physical skill – in a satisfying way. Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Try again, succeed, celebrate.
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That loop, however, is all Skater XL has. There’s no campaign for its four pro skater characters or even a path through its five core maps or the three user-made maps from PC modders that have been curated and added to the console versions. There’s no ultimate goal beyond “go skate.” Each of the maps has a list of challenges you can complete but they feel a bit like a long series of tutorials. This may be enough for skaters who just want to noodle around, bust tricks, and experiment with the video editor, but for those accustomed to more substantial skating games I expect Skater XL may feel a bit like the part of a game you play while you wait for the rest to install.
The high school level feels very authentic, there’s a faithful rendition of the West L.A. Courthouse spot, and the downtown L.A. map also features riffs on several iconic spots skaters will likely recognise, but they’re all completely lifeless. No NPC skaters, no moving vehicles, no multiplayer; just you. The visuals and bright and sharp and the menus are clean and unobtrusive, but the visual quality is a little uneven overall. There’s some great detail on some of the surfaces, in particular – like the benches and pillars of the West L.A. Courthouse spot bearing the scrapes and scars of a few thousand 50-50s – but certain things don’t quite stand up to the same level of scrutiny (like shirts clipping through pants or the fuzziness on props like cars).
The Big Ramp level is fun in bursts, but there’s no denying that it undermines Skater XL’s focus on making you strive hard to perfect the fundamentals of straight street skating when I can bust out a successful backside 1800 into… a port-a-loo, by accident. There’s big rift between the gritty, harder-than-it-looks urban skating Skater XL wants to celebrate and the fact you can successfully land a double-900 from low orbit on flat ground without your ankles exploding, and then… skate off through the desert. It just doesn’t feel finished.
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There’s a halfpipe on the Big Ramp for transition skating, too, but it’s unreliable and I find whenever I get into a groove I end up exiting the pipe or landing on the coping unintended and bailing. The bails aren’t particularly great, either; if skaters aren’t freezing their limbs in odd positions they’re regularly clipping through the environment. They can be hard to predict, too; sometimes you’ll pop off the same low rail half-a-dozen times and collapse in an unexplained heap all but once, and other times you can accidentally fall from a freeway bridge and skate away with no hassles.
The audio is very good, however, and there’s a nice suite of honest skating sound effects. With the short soundtrack turned off there’s an almost meditative quality to the hiss of rolling wheels and scraping ply.
Source: IGN Games Reviews