Skater XL Review: Shove It
Skater XL has been out in Steam Early Access for a while now, but it recently made the leap to consoles. Promising a complete skating experience, it's one of the only legitimate and functioning (looking at you, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater) entries in the genre in a decade.
Does the game's full release live up to its promise and breathe new life into the skating genre?
Skater XL Review: Shove It
Skater XL's pitch is that unlike THPS, for example, there are no tricks actually programmed into the game. This means that instead of holding a button to do a kickflip, the board and your skater both have discrete physics that allows you to string together tricks on your own.
The way it works in practice is simple and fairly elegant: each analog stick is mapped to one of your skater's feet and based on where they're positioned and how (and when) you flick them, you'll be able to pull off different tricks.
It feels true-to-life in a way that even Skate's control scheme didn't; it actually lets you understand the timing of the flicks and movements necessary to pulling off a kickflip or bigspin.
And to the game's credit, this system mostly works! The custom controls make landing a trick and stringing several together really, really satisfying in a way that no other game has. The game doesn't snap you to any rails or ramps, so lining up and nailing a kickflip-to-5-0 grind-to-manual combo feels like much more of an accomplishment.
The only issue I have with the control scheme is that since the analog sticks are mapped to controlling your feet, actually moving your character left and right is controlled by the triggers. If you slip up and try to control your left-to-right movement with the analog sticks, you'll perform an awkward ollie or flip trick instead.
The game would have been better served by allowing you to turn with the control stick's left-right axis and prep tricks with the up-down axis, letting you control your feet in a more natural way.
Since they didn't do that, the controls take a lot of getting used to, and even after I acclimated to them, it's very, very hard to expertly follow a line the same way I can in other skating games.
Unfortunately, the physics engine struggles to keep up with the unique control scheme. You'll get stuck on rails. You'll send your skater flying across the map off their board for seemingly no reason. You'll clip through ramps or launch off of them at inexplicable angles.
The devs over at Easy Day have said that some of these issues were fixed in a Day-One patch, but in my experience, there were still plenty of mechanical issues that got in the way of me actually enjoying the game.
But one of the biggest issues with Skater XL is that for all intents and purposes, it isn't really a game.
The devs have openly admitted that the focus of Skater XL is to capture the freeform nature of street skating, without restriction or objective. It's meant to mimic the feel of actual skating and skate culture. There's no story mode; instead, there's just a list of suggested trick and combo challenges organized by type and difficulty that the game encourages you to progress through as you explore each map.
And even though loading screens are a huge issue when loading into a map or editing your character, the game's session tools back this up. You can seamlessly travel across a map without loading screens before jumping back to the start of your run, and record it all with the game's robust replay function. Skater XL makes it really easy to break each map up into sessionable spots, ripe for mastering in as many ways as you may want to.
It isn't trying to be Skate or Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, and that's all well and good. Creating a sandbox skate sim is a worthy goal, even if some may prefer a more story-based approach.
The game could have shined if it put a spotlight on how the sandbox approach can create community and inspire competition and collaboration in a way that other games may struggle to, but the really unfortunate thing is that Skater XL has mostly failed here, as well.
It boggles the mind that for all its emphasis on actual skate culture and community, the final $40 version of Skater XL has launched without any kind of multiplayer component. Maps feel empty and dead, no matter how bright and vibrant they may be. It feels like some apocalyptic event happened, and you're the only one left.
This might be forgivable if the game had other community elements. There's an active modding community on PC creating custom parks, but if you're playing on console, you're out of luck. You'll get a (very small) handful of maps, many of which don't give you much room, with no create-a-park feature.
Though the idea behind Skater XL is sound, it doesn't give you the tools to make displaying your creative skating satisfying.
The game's trick engine needs a few screws tightened, but it's a good one, and the focus on personal creativity as opposed to following a set storyline is appreciated. But you can't hop into a map with a buddy and grind the same line together, seeing who can put together the most impressive combo. You can't create an impossible park to share with your friends in an effort to film hilarious, physics-breaking clips.
What's here is just not enough.
Skater XL Review — The Bottom Line
- The trick system allows for some of the most satisfying skating in the genre
- Doesn't deliver on its sandbox promise
- No multiplayer at launch
- Very few maps
- No create-a-park
- Interminable loading times
Skater XL is a sandbox, yes, but it's a sandbox without toys. Or other people to play with. And that's not really a sandbox at all — it's a desert.
If I wanted to make a fool out of myself skating awkwardly and injuring myself in hilarious ways in a barren, depressing landscape devoid of people, I'd just grab my own board and head outside.
[Note: A copy of Skater Xl was provided by Easy Day Studios for the purpose of this review.]