Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4
This is not a modern version of Tony Hawk Pro Skater. THPS was made for gamers who thought skateboarding might be cool, whereas Skater XL is a digital playground for skaters who like to play games.
THPS was designed to let you pick up the controller and immediately perform cool tricks. Once you got good at the game, performing a 900-degree aerial rotation wasn’t a big deal. It made you feel cool, and that kept you engaged. You didn’t need to know anything about skating to have a good time.
Skater XL, on the other hand, engages you via its enormous challenge, which is a product of its control scheme. Your left and right analog sticks correspond to your skater’s left and right feet. To accomplish a trick, the player needs to perform the correct sequence of analog stick inputs that correspond to the way a real-life skater would need to move their feet.
There are no pre-canned trick animations. Landing on a curb is no guarantee of achieving a grind. Transferring from one surface to another requires accurate board orientation and proper foot movement. But achieving a string of tricks feels rewarding, even if it takes an hour for you to pull off. If that doesn’t sound fun, this won’t be your game. But for a particular set of gamers, this will be a blast.
Usually, I follow up an introduction like this with an analysis of other gameplay mechanics, but there aren’t really that many to talk about. You can grab your board using the shoulder bumpers, which can let you perform vert tricks while on a ramp. You can steer with either analog stick or your triggers; if you push both sticks left or right and hold the corresponding bumper, you’ll turn sharply. You can also set your own respawn point so you don’t have to skate to the top of a set of stairs to attempt a grind for the 40th time.
Skater XL allows you to explore several large maps, including LA downtown, a high school, and a skate park. Most of the locations are fairly realistic, with an emphasis on street skating. But the Big Ramp map is probably my favorite. I like vert skating more than street skating, so an enormous ramp with a smaller halfpipe was the most appealing to me. I can usually pull off a decent vert trick with a grab, but I’m not sure exactly what determines whether my skater flies straight up in the air and spins, or flies forward and eats dirt on the ledge of the ramp. Five hours in, I’m still not sure.
Aside from a video clip recording mode (which still requires OBS or another stream recording program to export the footage), that’s it. That’s the game. It doesn’t keep score so there are no leaderboards. There’s no multiplayer. It’s just you, your board, and a few maps. You set your own goals and you make your own sandboxy fun. You decide which parts of the map intrigue you the most and present the right balance of challenge and opportunity.
It would be remiss to review Skater XL without talking about its competition, Session. It’s still in early access but uses a near-identical control scheme, to the point that you might think one might be getting ready to sue the other.
Session is a whole lot less forgiving than Skater XL. It took me a while to figure out how to perform a kickflip properly in Session whereas in Skater XL I completed one during the tutorial. Session seems to take into account how far I push my sticks; if I push them too hard while in the air, my board spins too quickly for me to land on it wheels down after an ollie.
Session also cares a whole lot less if you stay on your board. Tapping a curb in Skater XL is no big deal, but in Session, it’ll send you soaring. I played Session a few weeks ago, so Skater XL feels like a breeze in comparison.
Session also focuses on New York maps, which, as a child of the NYC metro area, I like more than Skater XL’s California locations. I have family in Manhattan’s Chinatown, so being able to skate at Chatham Towers is a blast.
If you like one, you’ll like the other. I’m glad I have both for the variety of maps, but in terms of sheer fun factor (due to ease of use) Skater XL wins out.
Fit and finish
Graphically, it’s a solid AA game. Don’t expect ray tracing or dynamic foliage, but it’s easy on the eyes. The lack of falling animations is alternately weird and hilarious. As soon as you’re off the board, your skater rag dolls. This can be funny as hell to watch, but having animations where the skater tries to catch themselves would improve immersion. There’s an occasional visual glitch, but it rarely gets in the way of your enjoyment.
While you can customize your own skater, they all look like bug-eyed weirdos. You can play as a few male skate pros, but it would’ve been cool to see some female skate pros. Elissa Steamer’s appearance in the original THPS was significant to skaters today, so it’d be nice to see some playable female pros in Skater XL. You can make your own female character though, so that’s nice.
The “challenge” option in Skater XL’s menu screen provides a long animated list of how to accomplish certain skate tricks. It’s akin to a move list in a fighting game. I’m glad it’s there, but I wish that you could pin the animations to the gameplay screen; there’s a lot to do and it’s easy to forget all the steps, and having to go through multiple menus to find the trick you wanted to see is a bit of a pain.
THPS’s amazing soundtrack set a high bar for music in skating games, and while Skater XL has some cool tracks, Built to Spill, Animal Collective, and Band of Horses aren’t what come to mind when I think of skateboarding culture.
But THPS was a long time ago. Maybe skaters don’t listen to punk and hip-hop anymore? Maybe it’s all about low key indie rock these days. I’m old and I wouldn’t know. But it’s easy enough for me to zero out the music volume and blast the Tony Hawk soundtrack via Spotify.
Between each track, the game also plays some low key musical loops that are just a little bit too repetitive and long. I wish they had a few more tracks or at least some more interesting loops. This bugs me as someone who moonlights as a DJ but probably won’t bug anyone else. Minor niggles with the soundtrack aside, the actual skateboard sound effects are solid.