Between elections and earthquakes, the end of 2016 has started to feel a bit like the end of the world. But there's been a solitary light in the darkness of November: Microsoft finally saw fit to make superlative skateboarding game Skate 3 playable on its Xbox One console.
That meant that in the same month that the president-elect of the United States appointed a white supremacist to one of the highest positions in his administration, the country of my birth slashed its economic projections for the future, and a tsunami threatened the country I now call home, I was able to forget the world by spending multiple hours trying to land a tailslide on a small bench.
It's also the same month that Titanfall 2, Dishonored 2, and Battlefield 1 made plays to dominate my time, but it was Skate 3's board-friendly world of Port Carverton that I spent longest in. First released in 2010 on the Xbox 360 and PS3, Skate 3 was developed by EA’s now defunct Black Box studio. The series as a whole, and Skate 3 in particular, was renowned for its more natural take on the sport, with a control scheme that really made it feel like you were on a board.
Skate 3 takes place in a city built for skateboarders. It starts with the name — carve down its long, winding streets — and continues with its factories, facilities, and forecourts conveniently laid out like well-designed skateparks. You’re never far from a grindable rail or a hoppable gap.
Port Carverton is best explored at cruising speed, a leisurely skate-pace of kick, push, kick, push that reveals its best lines. Signs and benches often look like signs and benches, but catch them in the right light, and you'll see them from their golden angles, revealing new ways to chain tricks together. When those lines are broken, Skate 3 lets you connect them up, enabling players to hop off their board and yank ramps, rails, and other obstacles into place.
In this way I became obsessed with trying to grind on a soccer goal. At first I tried to use a small kicker ramp to make up the eight-or-so feet I'd need to reach its top rail, but Skate 3 remains fairly faithful to the laws of physics, and I'd bleed so much speed on the ramp that the jump was impossible. So I dragged the goal instead down the road to a nearby skatepark, heaving it into a swimming-pool-sized bowl designed to allow big-air tricks. By leaping from the side of the bowl, I could theoretically reach the rail, but every time I lined up a run, the goal moved slightly.
But my plan went amiss. Because in Skate 3 you aren’t alone — you share Port Carverton with other computer-controlled skaters, each of whom is riding their own lines, and doing their own tricks. And my hastily inserted goal had served as a giant net for capturing AI skaters. The goal was moving because every time I'd set up for a run, another skater would fall into my accidental trap, caught like a fly in a soccer spider's web. They'd lie there for a time, their boards rolling lazily away, before phasing out of reality and back to their previous position, ready to careen themselves back into the goalmouth.
I hauled the goal to a quieter part of the park and finally stuck the trick I'd wanted: a nollie heelflip, landing in a nosebluntslide, before hardflipping out. Skate games mark progression with discrete challenges: grind, flip, or grab in specific areas or using specific obstacles and you'll gain access to new character customization options and unlock new challenges. But tricking on the soccer goal wouldn't give me new clothes, boards, or friends — I just thought it looked like fun.
Challenges are not laid down by the game so much as dreamed up by the player. That structure is different to the biggest skateboarding game series, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. THPS games tasked players with increasingly weird goals, using skateboards as vehicles to collect secret videotapes, disconnect tongues from frozen posts, tag obstacles with graffiti, and help dogs defecate.
The first Tony Hawk's Pro Skater stoked my skateboarding interest, but by 2007, Tony's games weren't about skateboarding any more. They were about being Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games, lost to to Jackass-esque pranks and wildly unrealistic million-point combos. Playing the later games in that series felt more like a playing a fighting game than anything else.
Skate 3, on the other hand, feels like skating. The right stick handles the board almost organically, allowing for ollies, manuals, and a host of flip tricks with an intuitive flicking motion. A double kickflip isn't achieved by an abstract series of button presses; it's done by approximating the movement your feet would make to produce a real life double kickflip. Skate 3 also apes real-world skating in its approach to tricks and challenges. It rewards persistence, creativity, and the pursuit of perfection on the small scale.
I say it feels like skating, though the closest I've come to real skateboarding is trying to land a kickflip on grass when I was 14. (On grass because I was terrified the board would shoot out from under me and break my wrist.) But it feels good. I can throw out 20-trick combos no problem, linking manuals with hastily concocted flips. But improvising as I bounce off walls and slow to a halt is much less satisfying than finally hitting that crisp varial heelfip into funbox manual with a 360-flip out that I've been trying to nail for the last hour.
Skate 3 is six years old now, but there's still an innate joy in moving around its world that no other sports game has approximated. It's chosen a perfect time to come back, too: in a fraught 2016, the relaxed and open world of 2010 is more inviting than ever.