Shaun White and Ubisoft have made a favourable pairing in the past, as both the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 and separate Wii versions of Shaun White Snowboarding received mostly positive reviews last year. The two games were different and appealing enough that many critics went so far as to recommend buying both if you were a fan: the 360 and PS3 versions for their impressive visuals and open-world design, and the Wii version for its excellent use of the Balance Board. Past success bodes well for the upcoming Shaun White Skateboarding, and the PS3 version was playable at the Sony Holiday Preview Event in Toronto earlier this week.
“The game is set in a world that’s controlled by an authority called the Ministry,” explains Nick Harper, creative director for the game. “The Ministry have decided that if people are putting their lives at risk, then they are no longer productive to society because of the chance that they might get injured, and get put on sick leave, and so on.”
“What about 60-work weeks?” I ask. “Those can be dangerous.”
Harper laughs wholeheartedly. “They’ve gotten rid of those because everyone’s now working so efficiently,” he counters.
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” I reply.
“But nobody’s having fun anymore,” says Harper, getting back on track, “and nobody’s living with any passion. So in the game what you discover is that your passion is for skateboarding. By skating in front of the other people in the city, it awakens the passion inside them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be skateboarding that they’re gonna be into. It could be whatever.” The story mode was written by Family Guy writer John Viener, along with collaboration with White himself, who Harper says was devoted to having a game with an involving plot.
The level Harper had playable was called Escape the Ministry, one of the earlier levels from the game’s story mode. While most of the levels are more open-world areas, this one is a linear chase scene. You’re racing down a long path that goes over rooftops, and through building lobbies filled with dumbfounded citizens. A helicopter wielding a laser cannon of some sort fires occasionally at you, forcing the player to improvise — often by shaping new terrain as they go. Occasionally Nick mistimed a jump and fell to his doom, and his player character exploded into what appears to be a pile of PlayStation Move balls.
On one occasion, Nick shaped a small ramp at the edge of a rooftop to extend it far enough for him to launch and land on the next building. At another, he’s manipulating an elevated monorail track, pulling it downward so that the oncoming bullet train passes above him instead of running him down. At the very end he angles another ramp to launch him far enough so that his player can grab onto another helicopter piloted by Bob, a friend of yours who was recently awakened from his Ministry-induced stupor.
You don’t get much of a chance to view the scenery in this chase scene, but some of the environmental effects of transforming the terrain are visible nonetheless. The incredibly grey and oppressive palate is changed once the player grinds on an appropriate ledge, or twists a rail to suit his purposes, awakening the fun-loving spirit in passersby. In more open areas, repeatedly performing tricks on different parts of the level paint the dreary concrete in vibrant colours, often covering them in graffiti tags. Trees grow in the once-barren parks. Benches made of petrified wood bleed out, turning into lush, burnished oak. If you’ve played de Blob on the Wii, you’ve got an idea of both the visual flair and narrative drive behind Shaun White Skateboarding. Harper says the single-player mode will take about 15 hours to complete, and will cover five city districts, each approximately a few square kilometres in size.
There are three multiplayer modes, the first of which is a pure score challenge. The second keeps track of the number of times the players transform and shape terrain on the map, and whoever has the most transformations at the end of a time limit wins the match. Harper noted the importance of the transformable terrain; one player may re-shape a rail or ramp to suit his play style and stymie the opponent’s, and vice versa. The final mode is a team mode called Ministry vs. Resistance, with the latter team colouring in the world with transformations and tricks, and the other team trying to revert it back to its grey, inert form.
This being the Sony Holiday Preview Event, Shaun White Skateboarding was playing on a fancy 3-D television. There are impressive depth-of-field effects as the player leaped across rooftops and the enemy helicopter circled the screen. The major downside in this particular case was the kind of 3-D technology the screen used: it produces two images side-by-side and then merges them together via the 3-D glasses. This means that the images displayed were of considerably lower resolution than when played in traditional 2-D; upon close examination the buildings and models did not look significantly more complex than they would on the Nintendo Wii. Harper expressed some regret about this: the game was designed to work with five different 3-D technologies currently available, but limitations are imposed by the screen itself as a result.
Fiddly 3-D tech aside, Shaun White Skateboarding looks to take the crown of skateboarding games this holiday season (does it even count as an “extreme sport” anymore?). The version I played will be available for the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC on October 28. The Wii version, which will again use the Balance Board, arrives the same day.