Disclaimer: Ade The Terrible works for Electronic Arts. His opinion on skateboarding video games, and any negative points he may raise, is purely his own opinion and not the opinion of Electronic Arts. And regardless of who he works for, the fact remains that SKATEBOARDING GAMES ARE BACK, BABY.
It’s been a long road to this moment, folks. Back in 2017, the skateboarding video game landscape looked dire. Truly, only OlliOlli was out here keeping the genre alive. Most of us were mainlining 2010’s Skate3 7 years after its release to get our virtual shred fix.
And then, in 2017, Project Session was announced. The buzz that Session received upon announcement, and the cult-like following that grew out of its initial kickstarter campaign began an entirely new arms race of skateboarding games: with the return of beloved franchises, entirely new, experimental experiences, and suspiciously similar competitors (more on that later).
5 years on, and the game has finally reached Version 1.0. For those of you not in the know, Version 1.0 is when a video game is considered a minimum viable product – it’s the moment you can wrap the thing up, print discs with it and sell it as a complete game. For years, Session has been out in the wild as an Early Access title – an unfinished version of the game that players can try out and see develop in real time as the developers add to it.
It’s such an impressive package that French publisher Nacon swooped in and bought the studio and rights to the game, very much elevating it from an independent passion project to a powerhouse AAA skateboarding game on the same level as Tony Hawk or Skate.
Over the course of 5 years, Session has gone from an unknown curiosity to the game that most accurately represents core skateboarding in 2022, featuring the likes of big names like Daewon Song, Mark Appleyard and Nora Vasconcellos, to viral sensations like Donovan Strain and Ribs Man.
With this long road to V1.0 finally at an end, how does the main game stack up? And how does it fare against its current main competition, SkaterXL?
The Elephant in the Room
We can’t dig into Session without mentioning SkaterXL. A game that suspiciously cropped up into Early Access merely a year and a half after Session was announced, it is also a skateboarding simulator, with twin stick controls, that aims to replicate the true difficulty of skateboarding.
Heading into this review, SkaterXL is on the back foot. It has had absolutely zero new content drops in months (maybe even a year?), and what content it has received isn’t great – it’s all sponsored cosmetics, and no actual improvements to the core gameplay. Compare this to Session, which has consistently added meaningful cosmetics, new locations, and in some cases not only introduced new features, but completely rebuilt existing features from the ground up, and you can tell the approaches of the two teams are very different.
The only area SkaterXL excelled compared to Session was that the game managed to take the core concept of a twin stick control scheme and make something far more approachable. But to be honest, that is all it had. This fight was Session‘s to lose, and after staying quiet, working hard, improving and iterating for most of this year, it very much seems like Session is the true skateboarding simulation you should play if you want that sort of thing.
But to find out why, I gotta finally do a proper review of the game.
I’ve talked about Session being somewhat less approachable than SkaterXL before, and to start off on a negative note, this is still the case in V1.0. I personally feel Session’s controls can be a little on the clunky side, and quite often I find my skater doesn’t behave the way I would expect. This downside almost feels like a necessity to enable the freedom that the game’s systems offer, though.
I’ve charged at stair sets over and over, popping at what I feel is the right time, only to slam because I popped too late. I’ve angled myself onto ledges and banks, assuming I would land in a specific trick, only to find the game deny it and have my guy do something entirely different. I find the characters spin far too quickly and can’t seem to adjust the settings enough to get the perfect rotation speed. All of this can be frustrating, but it all appears to be in service or an incredibly deep and rewarding system that is very special when it all comes together.
To make an odd comparison: Many people lament the “buggy” nature of modern games from Bethesda Softworks, like Fallout 4 or Skyrim. The truth is, when you offer a game with the huge level of freedom and complexity that one of these games offer, there is a trade-off. The systems in these games work very well when they are fulfilling the best-case scenario that the developers intended, and that enables us to have these huge games with so much to do, at the risk of some less than stellar issues occasionally cropping up.
If you’re still with me, that very much applies to Session. When you nail a kickflip back tail, it looks phenomenal, it feels great, and it brings a smile to my face. It gives me that dopamine hit from landing a trick that SkaterXL doesn’t.
Everything feels like it has weight and it feels like you have grafted for tricks. I threw myself at a handrail for 15 minutes trying to do a Nollie Front Tail, and when I landed it the time and effort felt worth it. And for that, I will happily accept some buggy animations or behaviour, as well as some clunkiness in the controls, and frustration of human error trying to figure out how to make my guy do the trick.
It helps that Session has huge locations to explore and skate. The game faithfully recreates huge sections of New York, Philly and San Francisco, and each location features iconic spots. The brick bank nerd in me was buzzing at the idea of cruising around the Brooklyn Banks as well as the China Banks (a spot that inspired my one and only obstacle suggestion for my local park in Leamington Spa).
As mentioned in a previous blog post: these locations feel rough, lived in, and expertly crafted. The lighting is lovely, the texture and feel of the terrain is varied and realistic. And when you are skating around, the scale and design of these locations is dense. At the best of times, it’s possibly the nicest a skateboarding game has ever looked.
There are also options to increase the density of NPC’s – you can go from empty streets to keep spots clear for you to skate, to full, busy, crowded streets. The NPC’s (currently in an “experimental” stage) have some very basic AI, and will often get in the way, but they occasionally run to stay clear as you skate toward them. A nice touch is that they react to you landing tricks, applauding and cheering. Again, this just makes the maps feel lived in, if only on a surface level.
All of this is a backdrop for a straightforward campaign that draws you through the game’s locations. You will complete quests, earn XP to increase your reputation, and earn cash to buy new gear and obstacles to improve and change spots. The campaign structure itself is pretty simple – go to this location, do a trick, go to another location, do a trick – but it works and gives you more to do than just “make your own fun”.
The game is also filled with “historical challenges”: hidden challenges which require you to do specific tricks at specific spots. These are all based on real tricks done at iconic spots, and from what I can tell it basically requires you to research skate videos filmed at the game’s 3 main cities to try and discover which tricks are possible at each spot. These offer cash rewards and are an extra layer of progression on top of the campaign. It’s a novel idea, but a little obtuse if you aren’t a literal historian of skateboarding.
Session is steeped in authenticity, and it very obviously feels like something made by people with a deep love and understanding of skateboarding. The choice of locations, the pro skaters involved and the brands on offer in the game’s skate shops all speak to a game deeply in touch with core skateboarding.
The list of pro skaters is a healthy mix of legends (e.g. Daewon Song, Mark Appleyard, Louise Barletta) and modern pro’s at the forefront of skateboarding (e.g. Manny Santiago, Nora Vasconcellos and Dane Burman), and whilst their involvement is simply as character models who give you unvoiced campaign challenges, the little clips of the characters skating when you meet them are clear recreations of the types of tricks you can expect of them in real life.
The game set itself out to be a love letter to a very specific era of skateboarding from the start, and this is evident in its extremely nerdy and in-depth camera options, which honestly nail the look and feel of a VX. The replay editor is extremely powerful stuff, and the results look incredibly realistic. It’s an achievement for art direction: not only replicating the realism and authenticity of a location but showing a real understanding for what makes the VX look so iconic.
There’s also a lot to be said for the board customisation in the game – You can choose boards with different widths and shapes, trucks with different widths and heights, different wheel shapes and sizes, add rails and risers, and choose from a huge selection of grip tape designs (including Grizzly and Mob designs). Like the environment, the detail on the boards is amazing, and they even have the glow in the dark Heroin boards which actually glow in the dark.
Pretty much everything in Session can be customised to your liking. Boards, your character, even the in game locations can be adjusted with DIY objects you can purchase from the skate shops. Wanna build a janky bank at the Brooklyn Banks? You can do that. Wanna add lights to that dark stair set you wanna get a rad clip at in Philly? You can do that. Wanna tweak with the game’s physics and settings to make it easier (or HARDER) for you? It’s all there. The game is a huge sandbox for skateboarding, and there’s a lot of possibilities in the options here.
Where there isn’t so much possibility is in transition skating. I feel like this is just something I complain about in every skateboarding game now, but Session, like SkaterXL before it, is a game that favours Street skating over any form of park/transition skating. To its credit, Session is very good at replicating Street skating. However the transition skating (admittedly in an early state, to be improved during the game’s post launch period) is in a really weird state right now. My main complaint here is that it’s just too over-complicated for its own good.
Similar to everything else, there are possibilities you can see in the transition skating, and if you know what you are doing you can really pull off some great tricks. The problem is, it isn’t very intuitive and for someone who has spent their entire skateboarding life skating transitions of various types it just doesn’t feel like what I expect it to. I felt like the pumping was really hard to figure out and there is no immediate feedback as to whether you are doing it correctly. This was a complaint I’ve had ever since the game first introduced transitions into the game, and it’s a shame that this area still requires a lot of work (especially with Nora Vasconcellos in the game).
There are also no grabs or footplant variations like no complies, bonelesses, etc. I’m unsure if this is a side effect of the game having such in depth and complex controls for flip tricks and navigation, or whether they are in the works for later down the line, but again as someone who utilises these tricks regularly in real life, their omission really hurts the experience for me. On a positive note, I’m hoping that over time the developers will really continue to add to the game and give these things the polish and love that the rest of the game has.
These complaints are minor in the grand scheme of things, however. When you take the package as a whole, Session is miles ahead of its immediate competition. I still feel like SkaterXL is better at giving you that “pick up and play” feeling, but honestly nothing in that game feels as rewarding or polished as Session. At times it can feel frustrating or clunky, but honestly I feel this is in service of offering something greater than its competition – which is a lofty ambition that Session gets right far more often than it gets wrong.
As a simulator, Session: Skate Sim (to give it it’s full name) lives up to its name and then some. It brings AAA quality to what is considered two niche genres (Skateboarding Games, and Simulators) and truly elevates them both. Visually, it sets a very high-quality bar. Its campaign, whilst simple, offers just enough structure to ensure the “simulation” part of the game doesn’t feel aimless. It’s a game that you want to spend time in, a game that rewards you for battling with a trick, and a game that is just fun to bomb around the streets in. When just doing a kickflip feels this good, you know you’ve got something special.