It’s the skateboarding game nobody remembers or likes, reviewed.
I could be your angel or your devil. Such as it went in 2001 with the release of two big skateboarding games on the PS2: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and Airblade, an early sixth-gen offering from Criterion, who went on to create the car-crashingly amazing Burnout series. Pro Skater 3 was, obviously, the next step for a landmark skateboarding series, but Airblade had the strength of Sony behind it as a first party title. Who won? That one’s easy to put together – Pro Skater 3 is still in the discussion of “greatest PS2 game ever” and nobody sane (hi!) cares about Airblade. So, how did it go so wrong?
Airblade is not exactly a skateboarding game in the traditional sense. Sure, the goal is to rack up combos on set stages using skateboard tricks; but the twist here is that you’re on a hoverboard, and the setting of the game is a strange urban dystopia set 20 minutes into the future where public surveillance is widespread and oppressive. It’s a stylised game which seeks to create more of an experience and a universe than Tony Hawk’s which was mostly about the engine. As such, it distinguishes itself with a completely disparate philosophy, but at its bare bones, it’s still essentially a skateboarding game, even if it happens to be a few more inches above ground than usual.
The actual skating is perhaps the dictionary definition of mediocre. Sterile. Dull. Not boring by a long chalk, but extremely pedestrian in the sense that the most glowing review you could give it is “functional”. You can do flip and grab tricks, much like Hawk’s. You can grind on rails, much like Hawk’s. You can even combine all of these together with special tricks to make a combo. My goodness, what will they think of next?! It works, but you won’t crack even so much as a smile during gameplay, and because the design of it all is so lacklustre and uninspired, it won’t pose too much of a challenge – it’ll take about half an hour to master the controls. If games are meant to be (first and foremost) a fun experience, it’s recommended that you do something more entertaining than playing this game, such as doing your taxes or counting the exact number of blades of grass in your back garden; it’ll be much more amusing and cheaper than Airblade!
However, what stands in the way of gameplay, even as uninspiring as it is, are two frustrating points of contention: lazy controls and a camera that does what it wants. The camera will follow you to an extent, but if you even brush a wall or hard surface with the tip of your pinky, it proceeds to go ballistic, totally disorienting you while you fight for vision again, costing you valuable time and taking you out of the already snooze-worthy gameplay. Yet the icing on this cake of mediocrity is the control scheme, which will be familiar if you’ve played even one Tony Hawk’s, yet is frustrating in that it lacks the precision that made Pro Skater and Underground such bona fide classics. The controls are (ironically, for a hoverboard game) floaty and unconducive to racking up decent combos, meaning that they ultimately stand in the way of the gameplay, meaning the two are fighting off against one another for supremacy – the loser of course, is the player, who won’t be able to have a shred of fun between how uninspired gameplay is and how shoddily built the rest of the software was.
One of the stellar parts of Airblade is music, and like the proverbial siren song, has led many a sucker to this game. Simply put, the musical direction of this game is amazing, taking a funk/house direction reminiscent of dance music in 2001 yet more than capable of standing on its own today. Have a listen to one of the best tracks of this game: if anything at all from Airblade deserves to live on, it’s this.
The wider graphical design of the game is fairly sharp – it certainly looks great for a PS2 game from 2001 (considering that developers hadn’t quite learned how to squeeze all the power available from the Emotion Engine thus far; compare something like Smuggler’s Run to Black), and the design, a gritty dystopia with cybernetic elements thrown in, looks great – in parts. The Downtown level is perhaps the greatest demonstration of this, as an urban setting at night is where the game shines, albeit dimly. When the game moves away from this setting into quarries and industrial buildings, the intriguing nature of the twisted future is no longer there, and the package is less intriguing, despite any visual clarity that this game may boast. Even if this game was the prettiest in the world, it would be meaningless against a backdrop of painfully boring gameplay, which is a shame – creatively, Criterion had something decent going here.
With all this, it’s a fair reckoning that this game would have disappeared without a trace – another 5/10 for the annals of PS2 history, worthwhile only to historians and hardcore enthusiasts. Criterion couldn’t stop there, though; this game contains a generous six-stage story mode (contain your wowing!) which is the most damning thing they could have put into this game, as it exposes the game for how shoddy and frustrating it really can be. A simple rule for anything is “accentuate the positive” – if you’re not good at something, don’t do it. Airblade’s story mode puts everything that stops the game from achieving its full potential on a grand shiny plinth. At points, the game is frankly schizophrenic in nature, jumping at a rail and trying to grind or grab feels like a truly random event; thanks to the lethargic controls, if you do these tricks exactly the same ten times in a row, Airblade will allow you to grind 7, perhaps 8 if you’re lucky, times out of 10. 80% of the tasks in the story involve these mechanics, making what should have been a breezy playing experience an absolute ordeal; this game is an exercise in artificial difficulty, not hard because of genuine challenge; difficult because they just didn’t care.
Verdict: This game looks more like a tech-demo produced by Criterion to get in tight with Sony. At best, it lacks effort to make it even remotely exciting or special, but at worst, it’s completely frustrating, having to wrestle with the controls in order to do things you had no problem doing two minutes ago. Ultimately, nobody cared about Airblade, so why should we?