There is no better sound than hearing the cobblestone sidewalk click under the wheels of my skateboard. I’m barreling towards the crooked handrail that I am going to frontside noseslide down, and there is nothing else going on in my mind: just my skateboard beneath my feet, the many ways I could bail if I don’t place my board just right on the rail, and how my fingers will manipulate the analog sticks to make this trick happen. Yes, I am talking about a videogame: Skater XL, the newest “big(ish) and realistic” skateboarding game since Skate 3 in 2011. It is better than that game but the comparisons will continue to be made because Skater XL is less of a new virtual skateboarding experience than it is a natural extension of where the genre was (and now is) heading. There is an alternate reality where Skate 4 came out in 2012 or 2013, and it would most likely have looked a lot like Skater XL. But this is 2020 and Skater XL makes physics-based skateboarding feel alive again, and it just might be the best videogame that I’ve played this year.
Yes, Skater XL is pretty barebones as far as “full game releases” are concerned, and while that might be a slight for many, it works in spades for me. Skateboarding is and always has been about one’s imagination and making the most out of relatively little. With a board and four wheels underfoot, just one parking block can offer days and weeks of endless creativity, fun, and frustration. And while Skater XL does get at what makes the flow and artistry of skateboarding so unique and special, it only does so for generalized street skating. Not a lot of love is given to vert skating, grab tricks are hardly built out, and it is nearly impossible to do any slappy or freestyle tricks (i.e no complies, hippie jumps, etc.). What this means is that the street skating of Skater XL is big trick and ollie oriented—there is not a whole lot to do on flatground or small curbs and ledges if you do not ollie. This is my biggest problem with the game—a problem I overcame once I came to terms with the skating that Skater XL goes for—and it goes to show how fractured and weird skateboarding and skate culture can be. In our current moment, skateboarding is so content driven on a constant basis (see skaters’ Instagram pages, Thrasher’s YouTube channel, and more) that everything is focused on constantly doing the biggest and/or cleanest looking tricks and lines. What the game lacks in its freestyle and slappy trick suite, it makes up for with its rich and rewarding flip trick and grinding catalog, which is even further emphasized by the environments themselves. They are built for the sort of skateboarding that is often seen in Thrasher Skater of the Year videos and in the vast skating contests that take place all over the world. But it is possible to just cruise to an extent, and that is where I found the most joy in Skater XL.
In real life I’d consider myself to be a pretty good skater, but even then I cannot do half of what is offered to players in Skater XL. While I can go for the big tricks down the most crooked and gnarliest rails, it is much more fun to view the various in-game environments through the lens of one’s own ability and attempt to make the levels work for even the most average of skaters. And this is a good thing because Skater XL’s learning curve might be steep for those not already acquainted with the Skate series, and even then it will take some getting used to due to some changes in the control scheme—the biggest being that you lean into your trucks and turn with the right and left triggers. You can still turn and flow with the analog sticks but using the triggers allows one to turn and curve in a more drastic and often necessary manner. Plus, tricks are so reliant on the analog sticks that using them to also turn can become cumbersome if one is planning out a flip-trick and pop-heavy line. But the game’s various environments are open to one’s imagination insofar as huge tricks can be done but it is also easy (and often more fun) to focus on smaller tricks and lines—often recreating what we already see in so many of the more interesting pro and amatuer skate videos that are releasing everyday that do not adhere to the X-Games/Street League mantra of “go big or go home.”
Once one has the controls down, it’s time to properly skate and engage with all that the game has to offer. The in-game environments are split up between developer-made and community-made level-selection screens, and both level-lists are compelling in their own ways. What is arguably most endearing about them is that they all try and create facsimiles of some of the most famous skate spots in America. For example, the famous Radio Korea Plaza in downtown L.A. has been lovingly recreated in the downtown L.A. level of Skater XL, and it just feels fantastic to create lines and skate in areas that I’ve seen in skate videos since I was a child. There is a history to skateboarding that often gets overlooked in mainstream skateboarding circles, and just in general. Skateboarding has no real collective anthropology beyond zines made all over the world and the occasional Vice documentary series on skateboarding’s history. So, Skater XL’s recreation of some of the US’s most famous spots feels like a living, interactive history in a way. These spots are often shut down to skaters, rife with heavy foot traffic, or skate barriers (knobs on ledges, etc.) are placed to deter skaters from continuing to skate, but in Skater XL there are no cops or business owners or foot traffic or skate barriers to get in your way. These spots live in a sort of dreamlike skater reality where they exist for no reason other than to be skated on and filmed. There is a sort of serenity to Skater XL in that regard. It is only ever you and your board in motion. Everything else is always still even though the daily hum of urban life can be heard all around you.
In regards to the living history aspect of Skater XL, I am deeply compelled by the community aspect of the experience. The tools at place for the community to create their own levels are quite detailed so one can only hope that skaters from all over the world will start to recreate some of the most famous spots in their areas. And I can only hope that this leads to the recreation of actual skating spots that have been destroyed and/or just generally lost to time. An example of this could be Love Park in Philadelphia, Penn. Love Park was one of the most famous skate spots of the 1990s and early 2000s, but it was eventually made unskateable due to heavier and heavier police presence at the park, as well as just generally being sheened over and turned into a heavy tourist destination/urban development area. To recreate such a level in the game could see it live on in a way that is different from skate videos. Its dimensions would grow deeper as it becomes interactive rather than viewed.
Yes, the skateboarding in Skater XL feels fantastic—though it is sometimes hampered by wonky physics and some general bugs that break the immersion every so often—and the environments offer a serenity not often found in urban environments. Personally, though, what tipped this game really over the ledge into “oh shit, I might be in love with this” is Skater XL’s in-game video creator and editor. For those unaware, skateboarding videos are one of the biggest and most visible (and professional) aspects of skateboarding culture. Someone holds a camera (often a Sony VX1000 with a fisheye lens) and follows a skater on a board of their own while they do tricks and lines. These individual video parts are often edited into longer, more-feature length videos and have been a staple of the culture and economics of skateboarding for decades. These videos used to be sold physically on DVD and VHS, but are now mostly consumed digitally. Board, clothing and shoe brands will sponsor skaters, which means that, on top of getting paid and getting their own merch, these sponsored skaters are often obligated to film for and appear in skate videos. These videos are often big deals (the collective hype between Baker 3 and 4 was immense) and they help spread skateboarding all over the world. While Skater XL’s video editor is far more focused on individual clips than full-length comps or features, it is still nonetheless robust. After landing a trick or doing a line, the player can pause the game and enter Replay Mode. Replay Mode is the video editor, and from there players can trim clips to desired starting and end points—then it gets creative. The camera can orbit the skater, be set up on a tripod in a desired location, or be completely free, and then all of the camera manipulation (height, focal depth, angles, and more) are all controlled by the player in real time. You can even add keyframes. What this editor does is open up Skater XL to be both a skateboarding game and a skate filmer simulator. Skate filming is an art unto itself, and while the version of it in Skater XL is limited compared to how much goes into it in real life, it is still affecting. Landing the right line in-game might take an hour but once it is landed, capturing that footage feels monumental in both seeing how your line went, but also how you can manipulate the footage itself to make it more cinematic (yes, skate videos are cinema) and how through camera manipulation and editing, your trick or line can take on a brand new life. It is still a trick, a manual into a kickflip, for example, but through some simple video editing and camerawork, a brand new meaning and purpose can be made of that footage. Where does the camera focus? How deep is the shot? Do you unlock the camera and just capture footage of these still-life environments? Skater XL never answers these questions for you. Rather it just asks you them, gives you a vast toolkit to go about tackling them, and lets you formulate your own answers.
Skateboarding is an extension of one’s imagination and physicality, but it is also a question. Getting on a skateboard does not answer anything, rather it poses endless questions and problems. How will this board get over that curb? How will it make its way onto that handrail? It is in the doing of skateboarding that answers these questions and how committing to the act itself will always lead to a resolution; only for a new problem or question to be found due in part to the boundless nature of skateboarding as an expressive form. Skater XL understands this and does not get bogged down in missions or stories or anything of the sort. It is definitely a “find your own fun” experience and, well, it should be because that is exactly what skateboarding is.
In the end, what Skater XL does right and the potential it holds outweighs the rougher edges of the experience and how limited the skateboarding suite is in regards to some specific styles of skateboarding. It just feels right to have a game like this again. Skateboarding is an artform turned into a sport and Skater XL does its best to embrace those conflicting ideals. Those fracture points are where the game is at its lowest, but just cruising city streets looking for a new spot to become the canvas to your board’s paintbrush is the most fun and relaxing experience I’ve had with a videogame this year. Also, the soundtrack is limited but pretty good (they’ve even got a Future Islands song in there). Skateboarding in the time of COVID has been easier than ever due to so many public places being devoid of people, but having a digital analog to an artform that is often best experienced with others has made this time all the more easier. Skater XL is one of the rare “find your own fun” games that trusts players to do just that. So, hop on your board and see where the wheels take you.
Skater XL was developed and published by East Day Studios Pty Ltd. Our review is based on the Xbox One version. It is also available for the PlayStation 4 and PC.
Cole Henry is a freelancer writer and an avid taco enthusiast. You can follow him on Twitter @colehenry19