Another showcase game from Illusion Labs
As much as developers have tried, the curious genre of skateboarding video games has traditionally had a difficult time on touch devices. When in 2008 a Swedish studio Illusion Labs demonstrated the options of multitouch with the original Touchgrind, it was a fun little demo too far away from the triple-A titles on home consoles. Yes, you can control the board with your fingers but there's not much game there.
In these five years videogame skateboarding has taken two distinct paths: There's the Gameloft route of recreating the likes of Tony Hawk with virtual controls and everything in Skater Nation, not to mention the actual port of Activision's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2. The second option is a far departure from the console giants, experimenting a little bit with what mobile gaming on touch devices could be without slapping virtual controls of every game. A clear example is True Axis' True Skate, where controls mimic the foot movements on the board you would use in real life. Fruit of experimentation with Touchgrind BMX while keeping the sandbox approach brings us to the new Touchgrind Skate 2.
Moving from the top-down perspective to a third-person view is a total win. This is critical to add an element of perspective, allowing you to navigate the environment and plan your run. This changes the nature of the game, moving away from a toy where you could pull off tricks to more of a simulator where you can chain tricks jumping and grinding on the objects around you.
Touchgrind 2 has changed perspective but it is still a game of skill with a very steep learning curve
Unfortunately for casual players, this doesn't make the game any easier. Much like real-life skating, the game is a test of patience, trial and error until you get it right. Start with the tutorial: the videos are great to show what you need to do, asking you to try before moving on to the next, more complex move. Replicating the gesture movements is easy; touch controls are responsive. The real wall is to remember and associate everything you've learned once you are on your own, struggling to tame that horse that is your board.
A game of struggle
And just when you are about to give up, you start to get the hang of it. My preferred play style is 'Jam', the free skating mode where you can get used to your surroundings, familiar with the skate park and more importantly, camera and navigation controls. I love the way the developer sets a list of challenges to complete as you goof around, working as a great tease and my biggest motivation to practice a trick until I nail it. If you choose this approach your effort will pay off: the same guy who couldn't stop crashing into walls is, after one hour jamming, a sponsored skater with a bunch of tricks under his belt and ability to pull some late manoeuvres to avoid an inevitable crash.
Despite all the initial frustration, the game rewards you big time. The feeling of completing a jam challenge after the hundredth attempt is a massive boost of confidence that leads you to celebrate with a varial heelflip combo with two pop shovits you didn't even knew you knew.
Playing jam mode is also ideal for quick sessions, making you focus on one single trick in a contained area of the skate park. This keeps the levels (huge levels) very fresh, eventually visiting areas you haven't spent much time with, making it feel like a whole new level. There's a top-down map view and spawn points to skip the manual navigation although it doesn't work that well when you restart.
The competition mode and asynchronous multiplayer are based on getting the highest score in a limited amount of time. As you get more confident with your tricks, chaining them and finding those more valued by the judges is a game mode on its own. There's a competitive aspect to Touchgrind Skate 2 but the real joy is to challenge yourself and your muscle memory. In my original notes I put 'no replays' on the cons list but the latest update just addresses this, allowing you to save videos and upload them via popular sharing options.
Illusion Labs has managed to incorporate some of its signature 3D modelling and lighting with great flair, which gives Touchgrind Skate 2 that premium final coating. The developer is truly pushing the boundaries of mobile gaming with unusual experiences that are fun and look great — skipping plot or stories that would be unnecessary. Unlike other Illusion releases, Touchgrind's theme and learning curve is fairly niche, but it's still something that needs to be played this year.