Shaun White’s bizarre fusion of Tony Hawk and de Blob results in an intriguing—if not overwhelmingly captivating—concoction.
Safe to say that nearly everyone was equally intrigued and confused upon the introduction of Shaun White Skateboarding. Arguably, a spicy design refresh was something the extreme sports genre needed; classic Tony Hawk has jumped the shark at this point, and similarly-themed games in the future are going to need some creative reworking if they seek acceptance by the gaming populous.
And, in fact, that’s precisely what Ubisoft has given us here: creative reworking. Shaun White Skateboarding—a bizarre fusion of Tony Hawk and de Blob—dangles a carrot of world-shifting mechanics, with a promise of delivering classic infectious grind-everything gameplay as the main entrée. However, while the approach is undeniably fresh, the otherwise courageous recipe suffers from a lack of spice.
Riding a shapeable rail
The Great Skate War
Shaun White’s world is one of drab, emotionless constituents. Portayed in black-and-white, the ordinary city environments are awash with boredom and conformity. An oppressive organization known as The Ministry is responsible for this rigid authoritarianism; their propagandistic slogans permeate everything from the city walls to the loading screens.
The game opens as you walk into The Ministry’s terrible headquarters, where public enemy number one—Shaun White, of course—is being held prisoner. He entrusts you with his skateboard as he’s dragged through a door. Shortly thereafter you encounter a mysterious old man who begins to teach you the ways of White and his unique powers. Namely, this phenomenon called Flow, and how it can positively affect the sickened world around you.
Flow has the ability to restore the world to its former beauty and rescue individuals who have had the individuality sucked out of them. It’s accumulated by—what else?—performing tricks and combos atop your skateboard. As you traverse the city, your job is to build up your Flow meter by exploiting the skate-friendly environments. In response, the dreary, black and white surroundings are washed in vivid coats of color as you pass them. Bushes shoot up from the soil, trees burst to life and sprout green leaves, stores light up and open their shutters—it’s a nifty effect.
Particular zones and citizens who require a specific amount of Flow to be revived are visibly shaded in a color to reflect their needs—yellow for Level 1 or blue for Level 2, for instance—and if you succeed in reaching them with adequate Flow, you will rescue the citizen or transform the environment in some fashion (such as by knocking down a wall or producing a ramp). But anytime you roam without stunting, your Flow meter steadily depletes—so the incentive is, of course, to continually perform.
Skating in front of the roller coaster
You’ll also find some odd-looking neon green shapes throughout the world that can be leveraged to produce additional skate-friendly elements. You can grind on green lines to produce magical rails which sprawl out progressively in front of you and wrap around through the air in random directions (later one, you learn to control them yourself, too). Meanwhile, verts (ramps, for the uninitiated ;-) can also be constructed by simply riding into the side of a “shapeable vert” icon. There are also shapeable streets (which you can bend up or down while riding with the analog stick)—a cool idea, though not all that thrilling or useful.
All of this takes place in a fairly expansive open world split into four different areas. The environments are typical urban skate sandboxes, ranging from the familiar city environments to an amusement park, complete with classic wooden roller coaster. The game encourages exploration through the use of some sporadic collectibles (which open up new items for customizing your character) and challenge markers, which you can approach to attempt a particular timed challenge (earning you a rank of either bronze, silver, or gold, all of which bear prizes). There are also random propagandistic elements which beg repeal—stuff like skate blockers on grind rails, evil murals, and so forth. And, of course, there’s always the incentive to restore color and life to the surrounding environment.
This is all pretty fun in the beginning; the concept is fresh and the gameplay seems somewhat promising at that point. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. As the game wears on, the gimmicks quickly stale, and the goals which originally seemed novel and worthwhile become predictable and tiresome. Perhaps it’d help if they weren’t so vapid in nature; but even with the rather humorous tongue-in-cheek storytelling, the personality isn’t pervasive enough to offset the repetition.
Worse still is the fact that the gameplay itself turns out to be rather lacking—that is, once you’re schooled in the finer points of skating. Flicking the right stick in a couple of directions produces a number of unique moves, so in a way, that’s a draw—though most will find it much too easy. It’s fortunate that there’s so many different techniques to choose from as you ride around, but there is too little motivation—scoring, objectives, or otherwise—to actually progress. Exploration has its appeal, but as wild as the shapeable items seem, the environments don’t possess the inviting depth that you might expect.
Skating on the roller coaster
Even experimenting with risky combos is widely discouraged, as accidentally bailing will shatter you into a million little white pebbles (a sort of goofy-looking sequence) and, in turn, completely empty your Flow meter—far too harsh a punishment for simply trying to have some fun. Worse yet, at least a small percentage of the bails you’ll encounter are bound to be the result of some sort of questionable clipping (brushing against the broad side of a ramp, for instance), which leads to some frustratingly unfair penalties. Since it’s already irritating enough building up the meter in certain areas, there is hardly any incentive to vary your basic strategies and pull off wild stunts (which is what makes these games great to begin with). It’s like Tony Hawk without the playground feel.
The occasional clipping errors aren’t the only technical issue with the game, either. Other aspects of the production suggest a rushed product: the music skips at times—and at one point, the cut scenes in my game lost all audio, forcing me to exit the game and load it again to correct. You’ll find split-screen and online multiplayer modes too, but good luck finding a match online. Overall, lasting appeal is truly weak thanks to the fissures in the template.
It’s not all bad, though. The game’s still fun if you can look past its glaring mishaps… and shouldering a lot of the burden for you is the phenomenal soundtrack, which is packed with plenty of actually talented rock music, featuring an assortment of obscure artists and even a few you’ve heard of (Weezer, Green Day, Kiss, Franz Ferdinand, Wolfmother, and Free to name a few). Just be thankful that the music continues when you pause the game, because you’ll be taking plenty of breaks if you plan on making it through the often monotonous campaign.