I’m bang average when it comes to skateboarding. I always have been and arguably forever will be. I can comfortably cruise around the streets on a board, but my lanky physique and clumsiness just isn’t cut out for kickflips and grinding. Despite my subpar skating prowess, I’ve always been heavily invested in skateboarding video games, and after a lean few years on the skating game front, they’re finally coming back. Skater XL has released and is the first of many skating games to be gracing the video game landscape over the next few years. Session, another early access skating game continues to build momentum in its pre-release, while juggernauts of the genre in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Skate prep for their hopefully triumphant returns. Despite spending just over a year and a half in early access, Skater XL upon release still feels unfinished and unpolished. The simulator-esque level of control when carving up streets is inherently impressive and fun to tinker with, but almost every other aspect of the game feels undercooked.
After completing the tutorial upon launching the game, you quickly assume control of your default player avatar and spawn out the front of Easy Day High School, one of the eight maps present in the game at release. The digital sign you face upon gaining control promptly states ‘Classes Cancelled Indefinitely, Go Skate’. This sign perfectly encapsulates what you will be doing in Skater XL, as there isn’t much in the way of objectives to complete, and there is no story or any actual characters whatsoever – you’re just here to skate.
Skater XL sets itself apart from the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Skate games with its gameplay, acting as a skateboarding-sim that chases realism more than it does crazy combos. This is apparent at the offset when you are introduced to the controls, that see each thumbstick correspond to one of the skater’s feet. For example, completing an ollie requires you to pull back the stick that controls your back foot, before letting it go to move your foot back to the middle of the board to complete the trick. It is a method of control not seen in prior skateboarding games, and despite being new it almost immediately makes sense. You essentially interact with the controls to simulate the actual footwork required to land these tricks in real life, and it feels awesome. Most tricks such as kickflips and shuvits come easy and won’t require much brain power once you figure them out, but nailing more difficult tricks such as tre flips and laser flips on a consistent basis requires a bit on consistency, making it feel extremely rewarding once you learn how to nail them. The best challenges in XL (and there aren’t many so you’ve got to take them where you find them) are the ones in the advanced lines category, as they put all your skills to the test, requiring you to land numerous tricks in a single run. This is where Skater XL feels the most challenging and enjoyable, and they truly highlight how fun the control scheme can be.
The controls in Skater XL are great to mess with
While the core act of getting your skate on is great and controls are unique and enjoyable, Skater XL doesn’t always feel perfect to play. Weaning yourself off of the traditional skating controls of the left stick being movement and the right stick being tricks is extremely hard if you’ve played any games in the genre before, and even if you haven’t, having to turn and spin using the shoulder triggers on a controller just feels odd. After having played many an hour of Skater XL, I still find myself trying to control attempting to turn my board with the left stick. You can technically move the board in this manner, but the game doesn’t intend for you to do so and it can trigger trick attempts you didn’t mean to do. In short, having the sticks represent the feet on the skateboard is a great idea and it leads to an impressive level of control, however the foreign nature of turning controls makes the game control a bit hard to master initially. Once you get a handle of the controls overall, it becomes good fun to attempt all moves at your disposal, such as flips, grinds, grabs and more. You can even record snippets of your skating sessions if you like through the replay editor, which is a serviceable tool some players may enjoy.
Even though the skating itself is fun, the fact you don’t have much to do leads to an empty feeling that quickly becomes hard to ignore. Shredding the streets of Los Angeles throughout the five official maps is cool, as is playing around in the three maps made by prominent creators in the community, but at the end of the day, the lack of content sticks out like a sore thumb. Each level does have numerous challenges to complete in the form of landing a given set of tricks in a particular area of the map, but that’s all there really is. Making them feel even less worthwhile as challenges is the fact that you can easily cheat with them. For instance, you may be tasked to do an ollie over a table, but simply doing an ollie on the spot will complete the challenge. There aren’t sponsorship deals to work towards, or collectibles in the environment to reward exploration, and it ultimately leaves you feeling like you’ve experienced all that Skater XL has to offer after only a couple of hours.
Challenges are the only objectives to complete
Further stoking the fire of game’s shortcomings are the lifeless locales. While skating through each level, you quickly realise that nothing is going on around you. The cars in the street are stationary, and the lack of any people occupying the environments has you feeling like you are the only human left on Earth. This qualm could easily be fixed in a further update, but it feels a bit bizarre to be the only thing moving in the entire environment. Each level feels dead and dull as a result and it is particularly disappointing. Even having additional skaters in the area would’ve added a sense of life to the levels. It just feels odd being the only person present at a giant ramp in the middle of the Californian Desert…
One of the most important and memorable aspects of a skate game is the soundtrack. Although we live in a reality in which we can easily listen to whatever tunes we like through numerous different streaming platforms, it’s always crucial that there are multiple bangers in the soundtrack to make shredding the streets all the more enjoyable. Thankfully, Skater XL provides a solid (albeit slightly limited) soundtrack containing quality tracks from artists such as Animal Collective, Getter, and Band of Horses. The songs on offer satisfy in the short term, but the small selection of tracks means you’ll be hearing them a bit too often for them to not get a little annoying.
There are also plenty of bugs in Skater XL that do their best to sully the experience. The menu stutters each time you go through options, leading to a frustrating time when customising your player character. Being able to kit your character out in skating merch from popular brands such as Element and Grizzly is awesome, but the process becomes less fun when the menu is fighting with you and essentially pausing the game in the process. Further bugs include weird clipping in the environment and the spawn point pin allowing you to clip inside buildings and other inaccessible areas. The spawn point pin works perfectly otherwise, allowing you to place a location on the map to respawn to when you stack it. The framerate while fine most of the time is a bit unreliable at random points. Performance-wise the game just feels off.
Check out my sweet kicks
Skater XL may be fun to play, but it has far too many detractions that severely hinder the experience. In its favour, it offers an unrivalled level of control that is easy to learn and hard to master, and it is generally fun to vibe to your own music and skate around. However, the lack of worthwhile objectives, lifeless environments, sketchy frame rate and seemingly never ending slew of bugs do a solid job at derailing the good times. Skater XL has room to improve, and it may still do so, but for now you’re better off waiting for those fixes to eventuate, or hold on for one of the bigger skate games that will release in the not so distant future.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher