Activision kinda salted the earth with the Tony Hawk series for a while. There were many different extreme sports and even skateboarding games for a while, but once Activision started putting out yearly Tony Hawk games, no one really dared to go against it. Then when that series ended the whole genre basically dried up. Now every developer under the sun is coming out with skating games and Session is one of the major ones promising a deeper more complex style of skating.
Session has been in early access since November of 2017, and a couple years ago I tried it out to see how it faired next to the other big Skateboarding game called SkaterXL. Each tries to take a much more grounded approach to skating as its main focus is to have the control scheme more closely deal with the complex nature of skating. In Session, each analog stick represents a foot, and sliding the sticks in different directions will allow the character to flip the board in different directions.
What Session and SkaterXL fail to realize is that, while EA’s Skate series changed how people played skating games, giving them a bit more realistic basis for skateboarding, it still kept the fun of being able to do moves relatively easy without much getting in the way of feeling like you have control. Session and SkaterXL both have this issue as the main heart of the problem, they forget to make fun video games. They are too concerned with making the control scheme as complex as possible, and leave very little room for anything more than a sandbox environment where you make your own fun.
Session does go a bit above that, where there is a “story mode”, which just has you talk to various NPCs around the map and complete different tricks in front of them in a specific area. Again, leaving the fun or creativity out of the game for the most part. The few lines of dialogue are written in just a very basic way, that it comes off as more of an afterthought, like they were added in at the last moment. And seeing as the story was actually the final thing put in to make the game V1.0… it was put in at the last moment. It serves more as an extended tutorial and makes skating an exercise in repetition.
Early Access is now more a genre, and the two bigger indie skating games show that as perfect examples. It needs a real genre name though, but it showcases that these “games” are really barebones and the developers should be making game engines, not actual games. Session touts itself as a “skating sim” and that is true, but it’s been in development since 2017 and in late 2022 it’s finally come out in its 1.0 version… meaning it’s basically complete. But if you actually play it… it feels very much like an early access game still.
The world had no signs of life to it besides my lone skater and a single NPC that would force me to do tricks of his choosing in front of him before I could move on. But then I started digging into the options, only to see if I could change the control scheme or learn how to actually perform a kickflip properly. Hidden in some random menu, was a NPC and crowd density sliders. Allowing the world to be filled with very basic NPCs that have no personality to them at all. They just walk and run out of the way, sometimes walking into the skater and knocking him over. But that’s really it. It still feels utterly lifeless.
While I was initially frustrated with everything about Sessions, I did find certain things to enjoy. Finding a spot to hunker down and really try and nail a trick was actually satisfying, especially since I never stick in one place too long with sandbox games. But since the world isn’t very interesting, I didn’t feel like there was something new and exciting around the corner, so staying in the same place really learning a spot was ok.
The ragdoll physics also lends itself to some great moments of totally destroying my skater. It’s become commonplace with indie games to really let loose and allow characters to glitch out, due to both less strict guidelines enforced by publishers, and technical prowess of the developer. With Sessions, I had my skater constantly being thrown in the air, slamming his head into rails and even impaled on fences often, and it filled me with child-like glee most of the time. But it also can get a bit stale since the character is an emotionless, flat, cardboard cut-out type of character. If there was a bit of flailing animation before smacking teeth with a rail, or a slight screen before meeting the concret from two stories up… it would be much more satisfying.
Games like this need more to it than an empty open world that leaves the player trying to figure out what to actually do. The game needs to guide them into the fun stuff, and sometimes that does happen. Some NPCs did give me the task of doing some basic tricks in a certain area, only for me to end up spending more time making the trick even more elaborate and having a blast watching my character beef it hard… like really hard.
I’d love to see games like this offer something new; having characters' faces actually animate and clothes get damaged, boards wear down and break with certain tricks, pedestrians watching and commenting while I pass them by. Adding in some more sound effects while I land wrong, making it sound like a bone was broken, along with some type of Hall of Meat-esque engine to showcase how bad the character got hurt… I’d be very excited to see that… little things that would make the game feel more alive and real, because right now it does feel completely lifeless.