As much as it’s often unfair to compare games based on loose similarities, it’s impossible to talk about Session without thinking about its spiritual predecessor Skate: both offer a skateboarding experience which is closer to the real deal than anything which came before and both also try to recreate the feel of skateboarding through the use of analogue stick inputs to replicate real-life movements.
Before we go any further, however, one thing needs to be made abundantly clear: Session is much, much closer to real skating than any game which may have inspired it.
The first thing you need to realize is that this is much less of a pick-up-and-play game than you may be used to. Whilst most skating games focus on big tricks, excessive combos and huge ramps, Session instead wants you to understand the mindset of a real skater and is at its best when you manage to nail a particularly tricky trick or string more than a couple of moves together without bailing. Even the loading screens make jokes about how tough the game is and there are some witty disclaimers about broken pads and the need for you to be prepared to fail. A lot. Truth be told, I spent more time flat on my face or bent backwards over a rail in the first few hours than I would care to admit, but it’s been a lot of fun getting to grips with everything and the sense of reward and achievement you feel when it all comes together is second-to-none.
The heart and soul of the game comes in its innovative control system which utilizes both sticks to represent your feet on the board, two buttons to push (using one foot for each) and the triggers to adjust your weight on the board to turn or spin. This is an ingenious system, but it takes a huge amount of effort to get your head round it initially.
If you’ve ever attempted to ride a skateboard, you’ll probably understand that even the basics like popping an Ollie or learning how to stop take a bit of patience and once you get used to the mechanics of the game you are constantly having to consider a number of factors including speed, angle of approach, stance, weight distribution etc. While this certainly ups the ante in terms of a learning curve (which will put some people off, I would imagine) it only adds to the sense of realism when you figure it all out. Every input from the player is important and if you misjudge what you are trying to do you’ll hit the deck hard (note: the physics for slamming are pretty funny at the moment, so expect to fly off your board and crumple in a floppy heap every 10 seconds or so). What this also means is that you have to contemplate your grinds, flips, manuals and routes in/out of every trick/line almost constantly if you don’t want to end up with road rash and a smashed pad.
If you are riding in regular stance (left foot on the front end of the board, right foot to push) you would perform a basic Ollie (jump) by pulling down on the right stick and then popping up on the left; If you wanted to do a kick/heelflip you would push the left stick to the right/left respectively. Once you have that sorted (which takes longer than you think once you add in the idea of judging speed and distance etc.) you can start to factor in nollies (jumping off the nose instead of the tail) and a whole range of tricks which require you to adjust your starting position/angle, your rotation and the flip/flick of the opposite foot.
The basics of movement and tricking seem straightforward on paper, but you have to reverse all of the inputs if you are riding switch/goofy i.e. you need to use the left foot on the tail and the right foot on the nose and this has to be taken into consideration at all times as you may land in a different stance after a spin/grind. Once in the air you can rotate your body position using the triggers and turn the board by using the sticks to adjust pressure. If you want to grind on the front trucks you would push up on the leading foot while a nose-slide would be completed by pushing the front foot out to the side where the rail/kerb is. As standard, everything is set to be completed manually by the player, but there are a wealth of options that allow you to tweak the experience (even a setting that mimics the controls of other games of this ilk – which I tried when it was too hard at the start but I’m glad that I stuck with the official control system now as it’s much more in-depth).
While other games offer an arcade-style thrill, Session is pure simulation and even hitting a basic trick feels satisfying. Forget double backflips down stairsets or anything to OTT, and instead think about how you can get from point A to point B without hitting a kerb and landing on your face. I spent the first hour or so thinking that the environments lacked enough opportunities for decent tricks simply because I was in the mindset I had developed across previous skate game experiences: I was looking for kickers, ramps and big gaps but instead found closed-off streets and dead-ends. In honesty, I think I was looking for too many obvious jumps instead of trying to ‘be’ a skater. The pivotal moment came when I purposely moved more slowly instead of constantly pushing myself along and this change of pace gave me the opportunity to see how I could find lines if I thought outside the box.
Once I settled into it and found my flow, I became a little bit obsessed with persevering with particular tricks and lines until I got them nailed. Picking a starting point to reload from is as simple as pressing Down on the d-pad (and then holding Up if you want to be transported back to the exact position to retry) and once you spot an obstacle or area you want to get just right, it’s very easy to spend huge amounts of time trying things over and over again (or maybe that’s just me?). When something clicks and you get it right it feels amazing and there’s a cool little video editor which continuously records what you are doing so that you can play it back and change camera angles etc. to bask in your own glory. It’s entirely possible to create clips which are akin to a real skateboarding video if you put in some time and effort and I can see there being an expansive community of players as this game gets into more people’s hands.
At this stage, there is a good selection of underground music to accompany your adventures on wheels and you often find yourself skating to the beat, as it were. It’s a real vibe to cruise around as you hit little runs of tricks and explore the environments. It all feels very authentic and you have to give credit to the developers for trying to make this game as true-to-life as possible. Beyond the main city environment, there are currently a couple of skateparks (indoor and outdoor) and an underground parking garage to get to grips with, but I expect there to be more varied locations on offer in the final game.
As it stands, you can download the game as a trial which gives you 90 minutes to play around before you get locked out and then you can either wait for the full version to launch or buy the full game now in its preview version at a much-reduced cost (less than 20 bucks I think). I can’t recommend this game enough, especially at the reduced price, but it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Session is a truly ground-breaking skate-sim and possibly the first game I’ve played which is truly deserving of that label.