With most superstar-endorsed sports games, the front-and-centre presence of the star is pretty much a given; the weird thing about Shaun White Skateboarding is that Shaun White spends most of his time on the sidelines, as your character strives to save the world. The approach signals a break from tradition, which is what the game as a whole really strives to achieve. Unfortunately, Shaun White Skateboarding doesn’t really pull off all of its goals, but it’s still a fascinating lateral shift for the genre.
In single player mode, you’re dropped into the middle of a cliched-but-still-interesting Brave New World setting, where an agency called The Ministry rules the roost. The Ministry’s the Big Brother of the piece, albeit a Big Brother with fantastic slogans such as “average is the new awesome!” and “we’re sure we’d have your vote. If we allowed you to vote.” Needless to say, The Ministry’s influence has turned the whole world grey; pallid people wear boring suits and trees look caked with ash.
The main figure of the rebellion, Enemy #1 himself, is Shaun White. Unfortunately Shaun’s been captured, and his anti-Ministry group “The Rising” needs your help - to take down The Ministry and set Shaun free. It’s a nice setup, albeit a tad over-idealistic: when Shaun passes you his gear through the bars of his cell, he tells you the board “is gonna set you free.”
But freedom is what you’re going to bring to these sad grey people. After a quick character customisation, you bump into Jonah, an Obi-Wan type who’s keen to help you discover your hidden talents as Major Ministry Disruptor. Jonah takes you through a few drills, where you learn the basics of skating, and learn about flow.
Flow is your main weapon against the eternal grey of the city; you generate flow by pulling off tricks, and you then use the flow you accumulate to influence people and places. Flow can unlock a secret area, or turn a character from a grey suit to a rad skater. There are different levels of flow, which means some people and areas are more difficult to affect than others. But flow has some other cool effects, that you’ll notice just as you skate around the city. Pull a wicked grind, and watch as the energy from your board spreads out all around you, turning grey to colour in your wake. Trees sprout up green from the cracked pavement, rainbow half-pipes appear, and suddenly people are skating everywhere, and cheering you on as you bring colour back to the world.
Another cool skill you learn early on is shaping. Shaping is the ability to create a path where there wasn’t one before. Shaping’s limited to rails and verts, and initially you don’t have control over where they go. But as you develop your skills, the complexity increases as you have to link the rails (which only last for a limited period of time). Take a wrong turn and you’ll wind up hanging in midair.
The first half of the game is great fun. The effects of spreading colour all over are really quite cool, and just skating around making people happy again (cheesy as it sounds) is awesome. Shaping rails, really the core of the game, is interesting at first, but becomes horribly frustrating as you fall off again and again, and have to restart your approach. There are also a few mini-games inserted here and there, that are reasonably amusing (a helicopter chase through a building site, and a bizarre hacking game with a giant robotic marble), but they don’t add much to the game really (though they’ll take up a bit of time).
You’ll come to meet some of the other rag-tag crew from The Rising (the anti-Ministry group), who are crass and funny, but also sort of personality-free. The Rising gang will give you all sorts of guerrilla-style objectives to achieve, but these get repetitive and, well, boring after a while.
The skating itself takes a bit of a backseat to the story, but there are still plenty of ollies, grinds, grabs and hand plants to be had - of varying levels of difficulty. They are primarily pulled off through a combination of jump + the right analog stick, and while there isn’t a huge degree of complexity to the moves, there is still enough to keep the boarding interesting.
If you’re looking for another Tony Hawk or Skate, you’re not going to find it here. But what Shaun White Skateboarding does bring is a fresh take on the genre, and skateboard culture in general. While at times the ‘us vs the man’ sentiment can come across as twee, I really like the twist of bringing colour to a grey world without stooping to a tagging mini-game approach. The game does get infuriating in the second half, but there are also some good multiplayer options if you just want to cruise with a mate and go with the flow.