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Shaun White Skateboarding review: Life as a grind

Chris Plante

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There's a popular story that goes something like this: A boy asks a punk singer, "How can I be punk?" The singer looks at the boy, bites on his cigarette and kicks over a trashcan, grumbling, "That's punk."

"So if I kick over a trashcan, then I'll be a punk?" asks the boy. "No," says the singer. "You'll be a follower."

Despite its best efforts to capture punk skateboard culture, Shaun White Skateboarding gets hung up on kicking over familiar trash cans and somehow feels more derivative than its straightforward snowboarding predecessor.

Gallery: Shaun White Skateboarding (PS3/Xbox 360/Wii/PC) | 12 Photos

Humanity has gone 1984. The Ministry, a monolithic governmental organization, has extracted the color out of life, leaving behind icy architecture and a paralytic populace. Skateboarding, for whatever reason, has been found to restore warmth to the world and spunk to society. Thus Shaun White, the world's best skateboarder (natch), is public enemy number one.

As a Ministry employee touched by Shaun's whimsy and magical board, you'll abandon your post and set out to restore the world's missing Sense of Whatever, Dude.

Earth, however, can't be saved with a mere kickflip, nor even a gnarly grind. Shaking people out of the Ministry's stupor requires an advanced set of tricks that reshape reality. Amassing high scores, grinding long rails, and popping high ollies literally restore color to the world, convert new followers and reveal concealed paths.

This manifests in the actual skating in the form of "shaping." Dashed across the world are emerald green ramps and rails that, when ridden, lengthen and often shift direction to carry the skater to unseen corners of the map. At first, you can't control the green rails' routes, but as you progress, they can be directed (or "shaped") up, down, left or right within an allotted time span assigned to them.

Presumably the developers restricted this level of control early on because steering an amorphous green rail unconstrained by gravity is about as easy as, say, steering an amorphous green rail unconstrained by gravity. When it works, you'll love shaping. When it doesn't work, you'll consider hurling your controller through the television.

Earth, however, can't be saved with a mere kickflip, nor even a gnarly grind.

A few safety nets provide some much-needed support. When aimed correctly, the green rails lock on to other nearby rails. And it's often obvious where the game wants these things to be steered. But then you accidentally lock onto the wrong rail and grind into water – which, viciously, saps all your points. Or worse, there's no clear path to the next objective -- 50 meters up.

It's a pity the game's biggest gamble is a bust, because the skateboarding itself is a pleasant hybrid of Skate and Tony Hawk Pro Skater, blending the thumb-flicking controls of the first with the nigh-infinite combos of the latter.

Also, cushioned deeper on the disc, are some incongruous but satisfying mini-games. One linear level is a thrilling action set piece that has you careening through skyscrapers and construction sites as you evade an attacking helicopter. Another, a hacking mini-game (yes, really), requires you to navigate a micro-robotic ball across computer chips a la Super Monkey Ball. Stop laughing, it's more fun than it sounds. It's a surprising turn of an old complaint, but I really wanted to spend less time on the core gameplay and more on these mini-stages.

Multiplayer's serviceable if uninspired (score mode, King of the Hill variation, free skate and, most interestingly, shape the most objects) but single player is really the focus of Shaun White Skateboarding. Most of the campaign is spent taking orders from The Rising, the shaggy-haired band of Young Turks with whom you must team to free Shaun and restore right to the world. They're the Rebel Alliance to the Ministry's Imperial Forces.

You have Snail, the lazy dude; Lily, the strumpet; Francisco, the exotic lady's man; JB, the token black guy; and Bob, who I swear is just Bill Paxton in Weird Science. Their dialogue is crass, dumb and, occasionally, laugh-out-loud funny.

For a group named The Rising, however, these rebels are stupendously apathetic. They stand dead-eyed in one space, waiting to deliver missions. No one seems to skate much, let alone strategize on how to "Stop the man." At one point the leader, Snail, delivers you an important device he'd never have found had he not raided the panty drawer of a fellow rebel. Then there's The Rising's affinity for Wendy's restaurants and Stride billboards, which unintentionally underlines the speciousness of this rebellion.

Can you taste the nugg -- I mean anarchy?!

The Rising is also incredibly needy. They need you to break this camera. Or this bot. Set this high score. Then do it again. And again. And again and again and again. Who knew insubordination could be so tedious?

Though it can be a grind, all puns intended, Shaun White Skateboarding is a noble goof. For huge fans of experimental gameplay, the skateboarding genre or Shaun, it still comes recommended. For everyone else, maybe catch the Flying Tomato where he's still best -- on the slopes.

This review is based on the 360 retail version of Shaun White Skateboarding provided by Ubisoft. Chris Plante is a freelance writer living in New York. Learn more about his life, career and haunted apartment at his website.

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