by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
A More Grounded Skating Experience
One of the first video games that I ever played a significant amount of was Tony Hawk: Pro Skater for the Nintendo 64. I spent hours jamming out to Goldfinger's song Superman and painting the town red and blue with my brother in Graffiti mode. While there have been a few more realistic takes on video game skateboarding over the last decade and a half or so, arcade-style outings have dominated the market space, but Session: Skate is here to swing the pendulum the other way and deliver the most immersive and grounded skateboarding sim ever released. It doesn't quite stick the landing, but it does a lot right that's sure to satisfy its target market.
The first sign that Session: Skate is targeting a more realistic feel came before I even started playing. There are four difficulty settings, and, in addition to various listed metrics and in-game assists that differentiate each level, the main text equates the difficulties to real-world skating experience. I have zero hours spent on a board, but I still chose "Default" as I almost always do in games, and, after spending time in-game, I'm not sure that experience (or a lack thereof) is really a big difference-maker.
The game's campaign opens with a brief tutorial that seems the player character stepping on a skateboard for the first time after sustaining an injury, and, simply put, it might have been the most challenging and frustrating tutorial I've ever played due to the pure novelty of the control scheme. Whereas most skating games map movement to the joysticks and various tricks to the triggers and face buttons, Session: Skate instead maps each joystick to the corresponding left/right leg, forward motion is done by tapping the X or A button, and steering is done via the triggers. It's a rewarding system, but there's no doubt that it is incredibly challenging.
The first trick the game had me learn was a simple Ollie, and a basic grind came shortly after. The Ollie (which requires pushing down with the back foot and flicking up with the front one) was simple enough, but grinding was a frantic affair. It takes rapidly pressing the acceleration button, steering with the trigger, holding the back leg stick down, flicking the front leg up, then pushing the desired part of the board down onto the rail. It's not just hard to remember, it actively fights the muscle memory that my brain has developed for movement and control in almost every other video game that I've ever played. I faceplanted dozens of times before hitting a 50/50 grind (which had a different name, but I don't recall all the terminology), and I can absolutely see some players that aren't committed to putting serious time into the game turning it off right there and walking away.
Fortunately, the effort is worth it. Landing a tough string of tricks elicits just as big of an endorphin rush as beating a tough raid boss or platformer puzzle but in a completely different way. There's also a bit of an art to actually finding the coolest places to string together the best moves. Like in real life, the three cities of Seattle, New York, and San Francisco (well, sections of them) are open playgrounds rife with potential for experimentation. The missions in-game lead players to certain hot spots, and certain environments like skate parks are more straightforward, but there's something fulfilling about making a custom route that presents all the right obstacles.
That being said, while the maps are generally well-done and look nice, there are also some frustrations. While general textures are good, some animations are wonky, particularly when stepping off the board to run. I did occasionally have some glitches that saw my character twist in odd ways, but, more common issues were annoying, like the awkward, stuttery way that I moved on stairs.
Also, hit detection is sometimes quite rough. It clearly makes sense for the skater to fly off his or her board when hitting something at high speeds, but it was odd to have my character barely tap something, fall down, and have to reset. I can't say how realistic hit detection is because I don't skate, but I can say that it isn't always fun to have things so sensitive. It would have made much more sense to allow characters to briefly step off their board instead of flying face-first into the ground when tapping the front of a stair or a cardboard box at half a mile an hour.
In-game cameras aren't normally something that I spend much time with, and that extends to Session: Skate. I definitely see the appeal, though, since pulling off sick moves is a much more impressive display of dexterity and accomplishment than any other skating game I've ever played. For those interested, there are a plethora of nice filters and recording options to capture your skater's best tricks (or most hilarious fails).
Capturing impressive moves is important, too, because the game is only single-player, with a campaign that delivers missions and allows to player to chase some unlocks and customization options. I did find myself missing multiplayer, though. Even without any competitive multiplayer modes, allowing friends to free-skate (even if only in a smaller, segmented-off area of the maps) seems like a natural fit in a game that begs people to show off what they can do.
Tweaking The Experience
In Session: Skate, there are a ton of settings that range from control-based options like turn sensitivity to physics sliders like pop-height, and it is absolutely worth going in and seeing what helps. Of course, none of these options are going to mean much without some time put in with the defaults. There aren't really any "must change" settings that make things more natural. The only possible exception is locking the joysticks to left = front foot and right = back foot so that everything doesn't reverse itself when skating with the other foot forward. Is it realistic? No, but it is what I needed to do to have fun.
Session: Skate is not a game I recommend anyone pick up that is looking for a casual experience to jump into once in a while. Instead, it's a project that needs (and rewards) a substantial investment of time to internalize and commit to muscle memory the unconventional controls and game "feel". While it has its flaws and frustrations, the simple fact is that there really isn't anything else filling this niche in the market right now, and, fortunately, fans of the genre will likely find a lot here to like.
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Extensive settings, well-designed maps, rewardingly challenging controls
Some wonky animations, a lack of multiplayer options, and too high of a learning curve for some