Some skating games show things that are, and ask you "why not?" Shaun White Skateboarding sees things that aren't, and leaves you to ask "why."
Ubisoft hitches its hopes in the skating genre, populated by heavies like Activision's Tony Hawk series and EA's Skate, to Shaun White, a gold medalist snowboarder. The differentiator in this game is the player's ability to transform his world, bending rails into light-beam paths and liberating the landscape from Soviet-style grayness into the colorful skatepark it really wishes it could be. Tricks are learned and purchased through an experience system, skaters are clothed and customizable with unlockable apparel, and some safe teen rock-n-roll serves as the soundtrack to the exploits of White's band of freedom skaters, "The Rising," which you'll lead.
Someone who's both a skater and a fan of 3D platformers. Well behaved 13- and 14-year-olds who need a safe means of dissipating a nascent rebellious spirit.
If you're not into the skateboarding genre, you probably won't. If you are, you likely heard about Ubisoft's on-the-fly terrain shaping and want to know if they pulled it off.
Did they? Not really. It sounds great but the uses aren't as open-ended as has been implied. There are three types of glowing, translucent terrain that may be manipulated: A rail, a "street" and the ground. The ground raises or lowers to a fixed height or depth, not in between. Rails and streets have a finite length, often set to exactly where it's supposed to reach. The height on streets and rails are controlled with your left stick, which you're constantly leaning on for momentum when you skate, so there's a tendency to shoot off into the air when you first hit one. They also move very heavy and are slow to change directions. You also have to deprogram your instinct to balance with the left stick, as that also turns the rails. The shapable terrain allows freedom to move but not true freedom of choice. It's still largely used to get you to a very specific point that can't be accessed in other ways.
What's the terrain shaping all about? Are these guys superheroes? No, the game is set within some grayed-out dystopia of deprogrammed people, but the rebellious ones - i.e. the skaters - have some free-your-mind-and-your-ass-will-follow enlightenment that allows them to see all this stuff and manipulate it. They've taken it upon themselves to break The Ministry, the government that imprisoned Shaun White (who cameos at the beginning and is playable at its midpoint) and keeps everybody in bland conformity. That forms the story of your core mission set.
Ride the rails and break the world's conformity - just do it the way the game intended for you to.
Is this The Matrix or a skateboarding game? Oh, it's still a skateboarding game. The Ministry has the misfortune of managing some eminently skatable property. As far as static terrain goes, the game is packed with rails, edges, bowls, verts, half-pipes, and ramps, and basic tricking is very quickly mastered (with the exception of the transfer. It depends on where you execute it and how much momentum you have; sometimes you'll end up in a front flip.) Advanced tricks are purchasable through an XP system and you'll settle on one or two after studying the deep trick book. I was an airwalk guy, mostly.
So, shapable terrain, meh; skating good. What's the problem? The fact that neither are really put toward traditional skating. This is a platformer, which isn't what I had in mind. While the paths the game plots for you are imaginative, the visual cues taking you in the right direction seem sometimes to dead-end, and the missions can quickly get repetitive as you attempt and re-attempt to traverse some obstacle or jump to a specified location. Busting zeppelins - these mini-blimps that slowly fly overhead - is just a stupid chore. There is a lot of setup in real-life skating, a lot of trial and error, and I suppose it's good that's reflected here. But screwing up in the wrong spot can lead you to having to start a long jumping/grinding/aerial sequence all over from the beginning - and pulling it off doesn't feel as cool as it should on the 10th try, when you're just trying to get through it. The platforming obligation really gets in the way of what is actually an entertaining tricking mechanic.
So it really puts the grind in grinding. Yes, in another big, repetitive way too. As a skater, you have something called "Flow," basically a mojo-meter. You build it up by performing tricks, but it's constantly draining (especially if you step off your board). At certain levels of it, you'll free the citizens, bust up pavement to create launches and color in the world. You lose all of your flow if you bail (drop from too great a height, or fail to land properly in a vert). Some stages will reset your flow to zero at their beginning, which is a surefire way to tell you'll need a lot of it to break through an obstacle. That can lead to some tiresome skating sessions just to get to a magic flow level to move a piece of construction equipment or activate a computer. Protip: Trick grinds and not aerials are the fastest path to high flow, provided you can keep solid balance (I turned on the visual balance-meter). There was one requirement to achieve 200-plus "Flow" with a single trick - in 30 seconds. I went nuts on the verts until I realized grinding on the lip was the answer. It felt like the game gave me only one, extremely cheap means of satisfying a challenge.
Shaun White Skateboarding is a good pick-up-and-play, mess-around skater and its side mission challenges do most of the work in satisfying your urge to do crazy stunts and hit big air. There are a good number of tricks in your repertoire and everything is sensibly mapped on the controls. But this isn't a game-changer in the skateboarding genre. The shapable terrain too often hews to a single, correct application to really tap skating's greatest resource - the performer's creativity. Coupled with some ponderous platforming challenges, weird design decisions (the hacking minigame in particular) and a story that doesn't rise much above self parody, and there are simply too many moments where you're ready to do something other than play this game.
Shaun White Skateboarding was developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft for the PC, PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360, Oct. 24, 2010. Retails for $59.99, $49.99 on PC and Wii. Completed singleplayer campaign. At the time of review, there was no one online to try the game's multiplayer.