Skater XL Review
An empty park
I've always been wary of Early Access games. That's not to say they're all bad; there have definitely been projects which benefited from this approach and communities which have strongly assisted in making games great, but the final product always seems like a crapshoot. Some projects remain in Early Access for so long that the community seems as lost as the developer in knowing whether something is actually good. It may be better than it was at the start - content has been added - but is that content any good? Will it be fixed? The moving target on developing a game is so complex that there's almost no way to evaluate the quality of a game until the green Early Access banner has been removed. Then you finally get a look at whether or not the Emperor's New Clothes are real or not. In the case of Skater XL - they're very much not.
Skater XL is a game that clearly has spent its years of creation with developers fretting over physics, developing skate parks, and locking up professional skate licenses. That's all well and good, important even, but it also means that little time has been spent giving players something to actually do in the parks and with these skaters. Skater XL is painfully missing content, progression, and any sense of achievement - the equivalent of an American football game that creates an inventive method for you to call plays and simulate throwing a football, but doesn't let you do anything except play one game.
It seems like Easy Day Studios is almost hoping you won't notice. The vibe of the game is similar to cruising a skate park on a lazy Saturday afternoon. You're not out here to show off to fans or compete against other skaters, you're just riding through empty parking lots, downtown streets, and skate parks of Southern California, practicing tricks for your own amusement. It's a nice pitch in theory, but video games need progression, they need advancement. A simple solution would have been locking off clothing, skate decks, and other cosmetic customizables to the player until they earn enough money performing challenges - but something as simple as that is missing. Because the game opens all clothing and customization options immediately, you quickly choose what clothes and equipment you like best and never bother with it again. I'm sure these customization options felt like a big deal when they were added in Early Access, giving the community a big win, but it doesn't work well for newcomers at full release.
All maps are unlocked from the beginning. Downtown LA and Easy Day High School are the standouts, with sizable space and tons of places to perform tricks. These maps almost play like an open-world game as you can cruise around looking for something to do. The smaller maps like the skate park quickly lose any charm they have as you can only mess around for so long before getting bored. The same is true of the community-made maps, like Grant Park.
The only real scripted activity in the game is a series of trick challenges offered in each of the parks. It's a sterile way to play as you simply select the trick you want to perform, the game demonstrates the trick and the controls to pull it off, and then you try to replicate it. Tonally, it's just weird in a skating game. Skateboarding has always been about expression and invention - simply replicating the action the game demands feels in contradiction to the rebellious nature of skateboarding. There's no spirit to the way the game presents itself, none of that counter-culture ideology which is baked into extreme sports. This is emblematic of the aesthetic, at large, which feels toothless. As if it's not bad enough, the challenges themselves are a bit broken. They often want you to do specific tricks in specific areas, but the game doesn't really track if you follow the path, only if you do a trick. So if you're supposed to ollie over a picnic table, but just ollie next to the table, it still counts.
The technical issues run deeper than the flawed challenge system as the game is rough on the base PlayStation 4. I encountered framerate drops whenever I tried to pick up speed, and long loading times whenever I was changing maps. The game just doesn't run smoothly and it can betray you at frustrating times as you skate your way through the maps.
The most interesting thing about Skater XL is its control scheme, to simulate performing skateboarding tricks. Instead of using the analog sticks to control your character, you go forward by pressing the “X” button and then steer left or right using the trigger buttons. The analog sticks position your feet on the board. So to perform any kind of jump, you'll need to hold the analog sticks up or down and then release them to get air time. Then you maneuver the sticks to kick the board to perform a trick. It's quite cool and very detailed. Sequences of buttons can result in you grabbing the board, lifting feet on and off the board. There's definitely the drawback that none of it feels comfortable since the natural layout of the controller is pushing back on the design of the Skater XL. It just means that the learning curve is a little more extreme than in most games. Scripted content would have helped a lot here, slowly working your way through more complicated routines or doing a variety of tasks set up throughout the world. Instead, you're thrown into a lifeless tutorial.
Again, that's the biggest aesthetic problem - the game looks lifeless. It's understandable that downtown LA, courthouses, skateparks, and other locations are devoid of human life - adding peoples and cars would have required significant development time. But even ignoring these strangely empty worlds, everything looks so sterile. There's no graffiti, no notable landmarks, no memorable locations. The game tells you certain locations are in LA and some of the game has a bit of the SoCal vibe, but the maps are lacking in any sort of personality.
The soundtrack is alright; it's largely a throwback to the 2000's. It does seem to be missing some variety, mostly leaning on indie rock/pop bands. Featuring bands like Interpol, Modest Mouse, and the Silversun Pickups, it's a skater soundtrack for people who are parents with little contemporary influence.
And I wonder if that's a little bit indicative of skating culture. In 2010 EA declared they were moving away from their Skate franchise because the moment for extreme sports was closing. Of course, that doesn't mean that skateboarding is dead, but the household names and icons have faded back into niche culture. Tony Hawk's most popular Twitter posts these days are him having conversations with people who can barely recognize him, or posting videos of his daughter. The days of ESPN promoting the X-Games to fill the void of late-summer sports TV have largely given away to the same kind of promotion for Esports. I'm sure skating culture still exists, in fact, I was hoping to get a new perspective on it from Skater XL. Unfortunately, the game doesn't tap into that culture. It's an empty world that is in need of personality, style, and something to actually do.