SkaterXL VS Session v2.0

All the way back in August 2019, I posted an article about two competing skateboarding games. Session and SkaterXL both gave hope to many who thought skateboarding games were completely dead. The similarities between the two were numerous, however, and ultimately they were bound to be compared to one another, even more so than any previous competing games about skateboarding.

Speaking of former rivals: my original blog post came way before we had a new, amazing Tony Hawk game, and before EA announced the return of the much-loved Skate franchise. Even with these two heavy hitters coming back to consoles, Session and SkaterXL have held their own, offering something decidedly more realistic than their more well known counterparts.

SkaterXL has now enjoyed a full 7 months as a full retail product, making great strides with help from the games hugely talented community. On the other side, Session has recently released a substantial update to it’s early access build (v0.0.0.7), which revolutionises the game and answers many criticisms players had early on (myself included). At this juncture in the lifespans of both games, I thought it was worth revisiting these two games to update my recommendation.

To sum up where we are: In my original 2019 blog post, I felt Session was the better game at the time. In my SkaterXL review back in the Summer of last year, I began to warm to that game as the better of the two. So, if you’re keeping score, we’re currently tied with one recommendation a piece.

SkaterXL v1.1

For this article, I’ll dive into SkaterXL first, seeing as it’s technically more advanced in build number (v1.1). SkaterXL had a bit of a slow launch on consoles. The PC version of this game has had an explosive surge in content from players, as they modded the game to include their favourite brands, new maps and tons of quality of life improvements. On console, things went disappointingly quiet shortly after the game launched in July 2020.

I’m not blaming the dev team at Easy Day Studios for just how quiet things got after the game launched. They’re a small team and what they accomplished with SkaterXL is impressive. It’s a project the team funded and published themselves, as far as I can tell, and the effort to get this thing to v1.0 couldn’t have been easy… day. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself there.

Having said that, I’ve seen small teams pull together some amazing post release content on other games in very little time. I wasn’t expecting new maps (as I know environment art is a slow and long process), but the devs at Easy Day had shown ready-map smaller maps in pre-release videos, like the Easy Day mini ramp, that might have been good to throw out 2 months after launch. I think the lack of content, and radio silence on any updates, really hurt the game’s reputation during the latter half of 2020.

Easy Day’s remedy for this was to add a “mod browser” in their December 2020 v1.1 update – an exciting prospect for anyone who played the game on console and couldn’t access the overwhelming amount of player created content on PC. The mod browser came equipped with 3 new maps (one of which features the best bowl in the game), and a huge selection of character customisation mods including fictional board companies, clothing items and HESH SOCKS.

Pictured: Hesh Socks.

I’ll add that nothing has been added to the gameplay of SkaterXL – no new tricks or options to change up how you skate, it’s all the same as vanilla version 1.0. Some might think this is a negative, but in all honesty it’s actually really cool and perhaps reinforces just how deep and solid SkaterXL’s simulation physics have always been. There are tricks I didn’t realise were possible that I’m just figuring out now, and from skating the new bowl on the Riverfern map I finally understand transition skating in the game. I’ve spent so much time in it that I lost my Skate3 muscle memory, and returning to “my favourite skateboarding game” just feels weird to me now.

The mod browser is keeping a fresh supply of new content coming in, with a new map being added to the game in January, and I’m sure more to come throughout the year. SkaterXL’s greatest asset is most definitely it’s community. With the game being made in the incredibly accessible Unity engine, it’s no surprise we’re seeing so much stuff being made for it.

The problem with the new maps and character mods is that, whilst they look impressive, some of them are quite buggy and aren’t polished to the standard of most of the Easy Day content. The maps especially have some glaring issues with the game’s physics, and many of the ramps just highlight the problems the game has with specific lip tricks (e.g. Rock fakies and Lipslide don’t work on transition properly, and you hang up 9 times out of 10). Easy Day’s excuse for this is by explaining these maps as community creations which are not “official” maps (which is a valid point), but I think the issues in these maps detract from SkaterXL and make the game more frustrating than it needs to be.

Whilst the Easy Day content in the game is polished, the game itself doesn’t look particularly pretty. When the game launched I remember plenty of comments from players ridiculing the game and saying it looked “worse than Skate3”. Whilst I don’t agree with this sentiment, SkaterXL does look comparatively worse than Session and other competing skateboarding games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2.

There’s a distinct lack of detail in environments and the lighting can sometimes be a bit flat, and overall I feel it just looks too similar to it’s mobile-based predecessor, Skater. It’s not got triple A video game visuals, and this is fine, as Easy Day isn’t a huge triple A developer – however some of the community maps have some lovely visuals and make the official maps look worse. I think for many skateboarders this won’t be a problem, and you quickly get over it, but if you’re looking for a graphical showcase to push your PC or console to it’s limits, SkaterXL isn’t that.

As I said in my review as well – SkaterXL is really missing the “video game” part of being a video game. There isn’t really anything to do other than skate. I’m not sure how you solve this with a game so clearly designed to be a simulator, but I think the lack of content combined with a lack of progression was the main problem when the game launched. Whilst the content is coming in strong now, the actual “game” part is basically missing. This is fine if you want a real simulation, but I think it will turn a lot of people off – especially as you can buy this game on a disc, and for any players not connected to the internet, you’re going to miss out on the great improvements being made to this game.

SkaterXL is most definitely a simulator though. You aren’t here to get high scores, or collect the letters, or level up your board company. There’s a deep simulation here and it’s definitely got its hooks in me over the last 7 months. I guess I just wish it was something more – my play sessions usually last half an hour, where I find a line or trick to do, nail it, film and upload a clip to Twitter, and then stop playing. It’s just ever so slightly short of greatness, but with innovative ideas like the mod browser and a budding army of content creators, I’m sure it will get there.

Session v0.0.0.7

This brings us to Session. Truth be told, I haven’t touched Session since SkaterXL came out in July. Easy Day really one upped Session developers Crea-ture Studios on the controls front – SkaterXL offered a really intuitive halfway house between Skate and something new, different and more realistic, whilst Session sort of doubled down on what I felt was a rigid, extremely tough to master control scheme. After many complaints, Crea-ture appeased Skate fans with “legacy” controls, but these just proved further that Skate and Session were too different to cross pollinate in such a way.

Clearly Crea-ture took the release of SkaterXL, and it’s innovations, seriously. The last Session update was almost a year ago, and since then the team have kept their head down, offering regular hints and communication about what they were up to. The latest version of the game (v0.0.0.7) dropped at the tail end of January, boasting an incredible and impressive amount of changes to the game.

Core systems which were the cause of a lot of player frustration have been gutted and rebuilt to create a better user experience. Key amongst these changes were the way grinds and slides work – previously requiring you to perform exact complex stick combinations which often didn’t work as intended. Every grind is now physics and position based, almost matching SkaterXL’s implementation if you so wish – but still requiring a more relaxed version of the stick combinations to ensure you still have full control over what trick you wish to perform. There are even multiple ways to perform certain grinds or slides, which helps you craft your own unique style. Your Back Tail might look completely different to someone else’s, and it’s a really cool touch. Crea-ture saw the challenge laid down by their competitors and stepped up, and then some.

If you feel that things are too hard or easy, you can also tweak your settings to get your perfect level of ease in what I admit is an overwhelming number of accessibility options. Session’s options are numerous, deep, and literally let you adjust everything to your liking – I’ve always felt that player choice is king when you have a game as complex and involved as this, and Crea-ture Studios have gone in on this hard.

At surface level these options allow you to make Grinds easier or harder to perform, and enable the new selection of freestyle tricks (primos and caspers are now in). Going deeper you can customise the game’s physics to match your playstyle, changing rotation mode and speed, and even adjusting the individual tightness on each of your trucks. It’s impressive, for sure, but also requires a ton of experimentation and tuning to get things just right.

Along with these changes comes a wealth of new content – new maps, extensions and improvements to old maps, new boards, new brands, new character customisation options, and brand new pro skaters. Daewon Song joins the cast of pros in the latest build, bringing some much needed clout to the game. He’s the start of an ongoing list of new pro skater additions including other legends like Mark Appleyard and Billy Marks. They’re bringing in a great mix of legendary “skater’s skaters”, and this is perhaps an early indicator of where the skateboarding industry’s bets are in this bout.

Best of all, Session has the building blocks of some actual progression and campaign content – you can pick up quests/challenges around the various maps and earn rewards and cash, and there’s a skateshop to spend money at. The quests are still in early stages and are a little bit broken and easy to exploit, but they’re a welcome addition to a game that’s clearly only just found its feet, and a glimpse at the future of this game.

Both SkaterXL and Session rely heavily on users sharing clips and photos of their tricks, and one of the areas I was particularly disappointed with SkaterXL was a lack of decent camera filters or lenses. You can zoom in, and zoom out to get a mad wide angle, but something just feels off about it. On the other hand Session’s replay editor is still somewhat of a mystery to me, and I’ve had trouble getting into it the same way I’ve figured out SkaterXL’s replay tools. Where Session shines is in it’s amazing camera effects and filters, including a legit pair of Fisheye lenses for both 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios, and a VX1000 filter that really makes everything in that game look incredibly realistic

Speaking of the game’s looks, there is no doubt about it that Session is a gorgeous looking game, even at this early stage. It’s built in the Unreal Engine, which is a firm staple of some of the best looking video games in existence (including Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2), so it’s not a surprise that Session looks super realistic and truly looks like a next generation Skateboarding game, and it looks especially striking at night. The game’s maps feel “lived in” (despite there being no one around apart from you and the various quest giving NPCs), and the detail in every single brick, ledge and obstacle is really impressive. Session is a game that really nails the small details, and in turn everything just feels weighted, grounded and engaging.

In many ways the latest update really one up’s SkaterXL – the only area it’s lacking is transition skating, which admittedly hasn’t been implemented yet. It’s certainly working better than it previously has though, with the ability to accidentally lock into various stalls if you hit the transition just right. As they begin to add the ability to do lip tricks properly, and pump transitions, I think this game is really going to start coming together. Even without this, there is plenty to see and do across the game’s huge maps, and plenty of options to tailor your experience and make this the ultimate skateboarding simulator.

The Conclusion

If you’re looking for a straight up winner in this bout, I hate to disappoint but I can’t pick a clear winner right now. Both games have their strengths and weaknesses. At this specific point in time, I would call it a tie between the two games, as I think there’s a similar level of fun to be had in both titles, and neither one has a clear lead on the other.

SkaterXL’s more advanced transition skating and more intuitive replay editor, as well as its steady conveyor belt of new user generated content will keep me coming back for months. On the other hand I can’t wait to dig more into Session’s quests and challenges, explore it’s huge, beautifully rendered, detailed maps, mess about with it’s pro level replay editor and experiment with it’s freestyle tricks. Between the two of them, anyone who is after a skateboarding simulator is well served.

As an aside to this, if you’re playing on PlayStation, there is really only one option for you here – SkaterXL is the only game of the two available to you. Session’s early access status disqualifies it from release on Sony’s consoles, which means it’s only available on Steam and Xbox systems right now. Crea-ture have plans to release the game on PlayStation consoles once they hit v1.0.

Looking to the future, my prediction is that if Session can follow through with the promise of it’s v0.0.0.7 build, it might steal the win next time I write one of these blog posts. Crea-ture Studios recently got the backing of game publisher Nacon, which brings a wealth of additional grunt to the development efforts of the game, and could potentially push Session to become something far more grand and ambitious than it’s main competitor.

It’s clear that Session developers Crea-ture have not only set their sights on beating SkaterXL, but might also be aiming to topple EA’s return to the Skate franchise (being developed by the newly formed EA studio “Full Circle”). If the phenomenal work that’s gone into v0.0.0.7 is anything to go by, the future of Session, and skateboarding games, is going to be incredibly interesting.

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