Review: Session: Skate Sim
My relationship with the simulation genre is a little complicated. I don’t play this genre that often, and when I do, it’s usually the kind that’s still very much a game. For instance, games like Civilization are designed to (loosely) simulate how actual civilizations grow, develop and change over time. Racing sims are designed with realistic physics and use models of real cars to give a sense of realism while still having the attributes of a game – in this case, competing in a race and trying to get first place or a fast time.
In other words, despite the simulation, it’s still a game meant to be enjoyed. Other titles, like Microsoft’s Flight SImulator, are focused entirely on simulating their subject matter, and while containing game elements are much more simulator than game. And then of course, there are the joke simulators like Goat Simulator, or Speaking Simulator which poke fun at the genre and aren’t meant to be taken seriously.
Enter Session: Skate Sim. It promises the most realistic skateboarding experience, minus the pain of crashing or falling off a skateboard in real life. Its stated mission is to promote the sport, showing people how awesome it can be.
Session has been cooking for some time in Early Access on Steam, and now that it’s reached official release ($39.99 on Steam, published by Nacon and developed by Crea-ture Studos), let’s see what sim category it falls into, and whether it achieves it’s own goals.
One with the Board
Right when you start up the game, Session makes it clear to you that this isn’t Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. You take on the role of a skater whom you can lightly customize to your liking, who has apparently recovered from some serious injury and is ready to redevelop the skate skills they lost in their absence. A fellow named Donovan teaches you the basics, telling you how the controls work and also emphasizing that racking up a high score is in no way a part of this game, unlike the skateboarding games you’re most likely to have played.
After completing the tutorial, you’re free to do whatever you want, although there is a series of missions you can choose to follow, in which Donovan and other NPCs will play some part. So there is some story and some goals here, and completing missions will earn you cash to unlock more customization options such as clothing and gear for your skater and cosmetics for your board.
It will also increase your status as a skater and you’ll be able to meet various pros and take on their challenges…if you manage to tame your board, of course. Which I definitely could not despite hours of trying (We’ll get to that). And while these are good goals to shoot for, until you start accomplishing them, you wouldn’t know they exist unless you check the game’s achievements.
While the missions give some purpose and tangible game goals to your experience, primarily, Session is a sandbox skate sim. You don’t have to unlock or be taught tricks or features. You can choose from a variety of locations to skate in amongst the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco in the 1990s, described by the game as the “golden age” of skateboarding. Although, despite the game definitely giving off a 90s vibe, you have a definitely-not-90s-era laptop in your apartment….
Keeping Your Balance
Now we’re on to the gameplay, and this is where things get harder. Harder to play, and harder to review. As I said, the game gives you all the tools you need from the get-go. At the heart of what Session wants to present as what makes it special is its control scheme. Rather than using a stick to move and pressing button combos to perform tricks, Session (which requires a dual analog stick controller to play, even on PC) maps the left and right sticks to your left and right foot (or front/back foot), respectively. Most of what you do on your board is controlled by manipulating the two sticks in various combinations. This is intended to make the game feel more realistic and immersive, by making it such that to move the board in the game, you move the sticks with the same motion your feet would make..
I developed a bit of a love-hate relationship with this setup. On the surface, it does feel more intuitive once you understand how it works, and I was able to pull off many of the stunts described in the in-game skate guide as I got used to the system, which definitely felt good. However, I don’t really feel like it helps immersion, because it just feels like I’m controlling the board with my hands rather than my feet. To be fair, some games attempted to replicate the feeling of controlling a board by making a skateboard game controller, which didn’t work so great either and potentially did include the “pain” aspect Session is trying to avoid…
It also makes controlling where you’re going very awkward. Since you’re using both sticks together to command your two feet on the board, you need different buttons to control direction, in this case the analog triggers. To its credit, Session is one of the few games of any kind I’ve played that really leverages the analog aspect of the triggers on modern controllers. Pressing the left or right triggers partially will make you turn the board, and pressing them further will make you turn faster. Double tapping either trigger will spin your board around while maintaining direction; this means your body is facing to the opposite side and also means your foot controls are now inverted.
Putting it all together, while the game does make good use of everything on your controller, it really doesn’t feel natural. There’s a very steep learning curve here and the newbies whom this game wants to turn into skaters just are not going to have the patience to learn this system. In the skate guide, the game declares, “Session is a hard game and will test your patience,” but there’s a few problems with this approach.
First is that you have to buy and play the game a bit before you’re informed how hard it will be (though to be fair, less than 10% of players have earned the achievement for completing the tutorial, I’d say people do figure out how hard it is pretty fast). Second is that I feel like the game is hard for the wrong reasons.
Going back to the tutorial yet again, it is very inconsistent. For some mechanics, it teaches you exactly how to do things, but for others, you only get a vague description and you have to figure it out for yourself (and refer to the in-game guide, which is never mentioned and I discovered by accident). So just finishing the tutorial itself is hard, and when you throw difficulty at the player straight from the beginning without relent, I don’t think that’s good difficulty.
I spent literally hours trying to complete the very first real mission after the tutorial. Donovan tasks you with executing some manuals. But he doesn’t even really tell you what these are. You get a very vague description of how it’s done, and then you’re left to fend for yourself. Despite doing almost every stunt the game gives a description for, I still have not completed this mission and thus all the later experiences, like taking challenges from the pros, is locked off to me. I even posted on the Steam forum for the game, and STILL couldn’t do it after descriptions from other members of the community. Am I just a daft, clueless person when it comes to skating, or is this bad difficulty? You decide.
But Session clearly doesn’t want to be just for pros or people who already have good knowledge of skating. This is evident in the huge range of simulation options available. You can choose how much the game assists you with board control, tweak the parameters of the board, and control almost every aspect of the simulation.
And this is where I have to give the game genuine praise; clearly a lot of effort went into the sim aspect of the game. From the spinning of the wheels to the movement of the wheel trucks and the board itself and the skater too, it is very realistic and detailed. You can also configure environment aspects, like the time of day, sun angle, and cloud cover. There is even simulated wear and tear on your board (but thankfully, not on you after all of your inevitable crashes).
Probably my favorite feature is the replay system. The game is always tracking the last few moments of your activity and, at any time, you can enter replay mode. You can go forward and back and play back choice moments, change camera lenses and various other cinematic features that you can really get creative with to make fun video clips and also take those perfect screenshots. You have total control of the camera and how you’re viewing the scene and, overall, it’s one of the most sophisticated systems of it’s kind I’ve seen in a game.
Taking in the World
Being the sim that it is, Session offers a solid, realistic look and feel. Though surprisingly, even on max settings, the game didn’t seem to be pushing my not-that-new system all that hard. Overall, the environment looks great,(particularly at a distance), the models and environment meshes are all very detailed, the texture resolution is very good, and the game harnesses the power of Unreal Engine very well with good lighting effects. That being said, there are some objects here and there that stick out with lower quality visuals than the other stuff around them. The cars you see parked all around, for example, look noticeably worse than anything in their surroundings.
The game offers good customization options for your outfit and your skateboard. But your skater himself, not so much.
There’s only a few templates, and all of them are male, for the record. More options for gender, build, height, etc. really would be welcome.
The main weak point for me, though, was how static the world is, particularly when you play with the standard settings the game boots up with. You’ll enter the world, skate (or walk) around, and discover the game world to be utterly static and devoid of life, aside from you, your board, and the occasional NPC. Sure, the environments look good, but without animation, without life, it’s just a bunch of geometry.
After digging through the settings I discovered something that changed this quite a lot, though. Buried in the “experimental” options, which contain various features that aren’t completely ready for prime-time, I found the all important setting: Pedestrians: On/Off and Pedestrian Density. Suddenly, NYC actually felt a little bit more like NYC! Now there’s people walking around, and they even react to your skating. Nice improvement, but still. The rest of the environment is still totally static. There’s parked cars all over the place, but there’s nothing moving. Lighted signs and such are all static as well. Perhaps they didn’t want to depict skaters getting hit by cars in the game, which I can understand, but still – the world needs more life.
Finally, the one visual element I probably have the most problem with is what happens to your skater (and the pedestrians) when you collide with things. Flubbing a trick or hitting a curb or a pedestrian with them turned on causes them to INSTANTLY go into a ragdoll mode, kind of like when you die in a modern 3D action game. You don’t get up after you fall; you just reset to where you were before you crashed. Same thing with the pedestrians. Knock them over and they just magically reset, severely breaking your immersion.
There’s also a few visual glitches. I’ve had cases where my upper body somehow gets turned completely around leaving my feet/ankles twisted in an impossible circle. There also seems to be an AMD graphics card-specific issue which results in very visible visual artifacts in the skybox. Here’s hoping that gets fixed.
The soundtrack is pretty solid. There’s a good variety of tunes in various styles, much of it is very laid-back and chill, which reflects the nature of the sport to a degree and enhances the immersion. It feels like you’ve got a boombox set to your favorite station to skate to. Very well done stuff. I’m very confused that they aren’t offering an external soundtrack DLC, but the game offered some nice music to listen to while writing this review.
Rounding out the sound package, in the SFX department, it’s no less than what you’d expect from a good simulation. the sound package does a good job of making me feel like I’m out in the real world skating, with the board and wheel sounds it all sounds very much like in real life.
BS 360 Pop Shove-it
So. Where do I stand on Session: Skate Sim? Well…. I have to say, I feel like it does some things right – mainly the simulation side of things – but it also does a lot wrong. The controls, while intended to feel natural and increase immersion, just didn’t do that for me. While I did eventually get used to it and the system made sense after a while, it took many hours. And as I mentioned before, it is very telling just how few players managed to complete the tutorial (Yes, you can skip it, but still).
Worse is apparently during Early Access, the game offered “legacy controls” that were more like how you’d expect a video game to control, but this feature was removed. I also have a strong dislike for games on PC which REQUIRE a controller to play. The game is up front about this on the Steam store page, but mouse and keyboard controls should always be a thing, even if they’re more limited or less realistic. This ensures that everyone who buys your game is guaranteed to be able to play it, using just the devices that come with any PC. Yes, mouse and keyboard controls would have been more limiting considering how heavily the game depends on analog inputs, but still. It should be a thing. Options are always good, and while these legacy controls might have been more functionally limiting, they might have been easier for a beginner to understand.
The game claims to be very hard and wants people to be patient with it, but frankly I find that’s asking a lot for a sim that isn’t being marketed as something like, say, a flight simulator that puts you in a cockpit with a massive number of controls and screens and all the complexity of something like an airplane. The game says it “promises to make you experience what skateboarding is and why it’s so awesome, minus the pain.” And while it nails many of the simulation aspects and I’m sure the most serious and dedicate skate fans will be satisfied, anyone who is curious about the sport and stumbles upon this game is probably going to be turned off entirely by the weird controls where pushing the left stick doesn’t make your character move at all. They’ll come away from the experience further away from wanting to pick up a skateboard in real life than they were before they opened the game, and that’s a darned shame, because I can clearly see the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making this game.
Unfortunately, I feel that while it’s a very good *simulation*, it isn’t a very good *game*, and I can really only recommend this to the hardcore skate fans who don’t like all the arcade-style skate games out there. While I did have some fun with it, there was just way too much frustration with even basic elements that shouldn’t be as difficult to understand as they were.
Review copy provided by Nacon for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.