The unmistakable shadow looming over Skate 3 is something intrinsically linked to videogames, and that's endless cycles of restarts and retries. Black Box might have framed their title around images of ollies, grinds and airtime but the very heart of the series comes from the do-over.
Skate 3 does not upset the formula. The fledgling series has proven to work so well because the marriage of trial-and-error and obsessive compulsive gamers is a winning combination on the same level as strawberries and cream; pie and chips; peanut butter and marmite. Unlike those three, consuming copious amounts of Skate 3 will not make you fat.
But like the average British stomach, Skate 3 is expanding outwards. Its efforts are focused on providing more of what it's good at, so instead of trying to reinvent the wheel it's getting you to sell some to adoring fans. Four million wheels, to be precise, attached to one million in-game skateboards. Whereas Skate 2 had you pulling tricks to save San Vaneolona from the corrupting influence of MongoCorp, Skate 3 has you doing it to line your pockets with dosh.
Flogging boards to the masses is accomplished by, unsurprisingly, playing Skate like you normally would - doing challenges, landing tricks and falling over at the worst possible times. Get things right and your fans will desperately reach for their wallets, get things wrong and you'll be compelled to have another go.
Everyone is less hostile. There are no more security guards turning up to ruin your impeccably well organised stunt attempts, and pedestrians no longer have a habit of constantly getting in the way. The world is now skater friendly. Everybody loves you, and they're delighted to move from a bench if you want to grind over it. Hooray for skating!
The lighter tone is matched by a brighter city. Port Carverton is a sunnier adventure playground than San Vanelona, and a place you'd be far more willing to pack your suitcase for. On top of carving out an infrastructure that's practically begging for you to skate across it, EA have pared back on the grungy filters, eased up on the fisheye lens and zoomed back on the camera, making it easier to see more of what's going on around you at the expense of Skate's previously distinct visual style.
Sacrificing form for function has the side effect of showing the game's age, however, and scraping off the visual filters only further highlights the fact the engine, despite still having some amazing animations, hasn't progressed much since 2007.
This does not mean it is an unattractive game, though, and neither should the fact Black Box is sticking to what it knows best be construed as a negative: it's a pointless desire to innovate that caused last year's tumultuous Tony Hawk: RIDE to be conceived, and the last thing we need to see is a repeat of that. Skate 3 sticks with what it knows and is all the better for it.
One of the reasons it continues to work so well is thanks to the series' trademark 'flickit' control scheme. As always, expect your right analog stick to take a serious beating. Having so many moves mapped primarily to one stick can cause the occasional hiccup - there is still very little difference between the bread and butter ollies and kickflips, for instance - but the system is fair and difficulty in execution always rests with the user. Skate 3 makes itself a little more helpful than previous games by providing an on-screen input display to help refine technique, but it's still a system that takes many hours of practice to master.
Still, mastery is not required: you can just as easily play for a few hours to pick up the basics and go from there. Skate 3 very rarely demands a specific trick from the player, which greatly helps alleviate any creeping frustrations from getting the better of you. For the most part you can skate around quite merrily without the necessary muscle memory to pull off each trick on command, giving you more time to focus on getting the right lines, jumps and grinds at the right time.
There's a tangible sense of EA realising their challenging skateboarding series was too difficult for many casual users, so the game goes out of its way to help these players settle into the mechanics. An easy mode drops the barrier of entry so that more people can get to grips with the engine without dumbing down the larger mechanics at play, and gives you more speed, higher jumps and a greater degree of magnetism when trying to grind. Conversely, Hardcore mode does the exact opposite and should appeal to those who've logged hundreds of hours over Skate and Skate 2.
Other bits, such as running around on foot, have been changed so they're not horrendously frustrating. This is a very good thing.
But the single biggest new addition is in a suite of online features, allowing teams of three to engage in team-based challenges against a rival posse and stoke the flames of the most important battle in videogames: red or blue? Own the Lot has your team skating around an area performing a checklist of tricks: the first team to successfully cross them all off wins. It's a simple idea and beautifully executed, and manages to evoke frothing rage after close losses and immense delight with each well-earned victory.
1-up has the six of you pulling your best tricks before the clock runs out, and the team that accumulates the highest score is declared the winner. The final mode, Domination, has each team competing to pull off the best trick at certain areas, with the highest score claiming the area for the team. The team with the most areas wins.
Other online features include an extensive range of screenshot and video tools, which can also be uploaded to EA's Skate 3 community site, as this is 2010 and we're all part of the YouTube generation. It's a nice touch. There's also a heavily customisable skate park editor, which should delight anyone who slacked off in Geography to doodle the skating utopia of their dreams.
If you're not smitten by the concept of online there's a returning staple of single-player modes, too, but offline 'party play' multiplayer has been cut from Skate 2 - presumably to encourage you to play online. The closest you're going to get to offline companionship is a posse of CPU allies, who attempt to take the place of real-life friends and tag along in single-player so you can partake in those team-based challenges.
A few annoyances from Skate 2 remain present. Occasional camera niggles can frustrate, and it has a funny knack of resetting itself at the most bizarre times. The game also doesn't do very much to identify the specifics of some of its more overwrought challenges, which means you'll find yourself using an altogether more basic facet of social media - forums - to work out just exactly what some of the objectives mean.
Skate 3 doesn't deviate much from the series' winning formula, but by heavily focusing on the multiplayer it ignores some of what made the first two games so unique. Still, the subtle changes all work for the better and the underlying design mechanics are still as entertaining as ever. If you're prepared to take it online then it's easily the best game in the series.
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