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Phil Savage

Jul 22, 2014

OlliOlli

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Price: £10 / $13
Release: 22 July
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Roll7
Link: Official site

If OlliOlli proves anything, it's that skating games, unlike the sport that inspired them, aren't yet passé. It perfectly captures the layered thrill of not only mastering a route, but also enhancing it through a performance of tricks and personal flair. There are missteps, for sure, but the core act of flipping, grinding and spinning ensures the action remains stimulating across its many challenging levels.

OlliOlli looks like a more colourful Canabalt, sounds like the final hours of an electronic club set, and plays like a cross between Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and EA's Skate. The action is centred mostly around the left analogue stick. Yes, you can technically use WASD, but don't—the keyboard controls aren't pretty. With a 360 pad in hand, you flick the stick to launch your side-scrolling skater man into a trick, and—once in the air—hold it down in any direction to grind a rail. Once in a grind, letting go of the stick causes another jump, which can lead into another grind. Each linked action builds your multiplier, and most levels are designed to encourage lengthy combos.

When you do return to land, you'll need to tap the A button before hitting the ground. Do it close to the surface and you're rewarded with a "perfect" rating, granting the maximum number of points for that combo of tricks. Miss, and you're called "sloppy", granting almost zero points and nudging your skater off-balance. He won't bail, but the automatic recovery animation will at best upset your timing and at worse propel you into a run-ending hazard.

So far, so simple, but this is only the first step to mastering the game. The flip-grind-flip-grind structure will get you through each level, but it won't maximise your score. To do that, you'll need variety, and the most advanced maneuvers in the OlliOlli's library of tricks. This "Tricktionary" is filled with quarter and half-circle turns, letting you execute Laserflips, Backside 360 Shove-its, and other improbably named gravity-defying stunts. More complex moves can be performed by combining an analogue flick with a tap of the pad's shoulder buttons.

Got all that? Good, now for spins. Hold either shoulder button while mid-air and you'll start to rotate, again increasing you multiplier. It also dramatically increases the mental bandwidth required to co-ordinate your fingers. Right now, I'm able to complete certain levels in near-unbroken combos, peppered with perfect grinds and varied tricks. But if I attempt to add in a spin or two, this precarious balancing act comes tumbling to the ground—skater and all. It's a compelling reason to persist. Levels are a battle against the upper limits of my skill. My desire to climb the leaderboards, or to complete the later, more advanced challenges, forces me out of my comfort zone.

Each campaign level consists of five missions, which range from besting a specific score, to performing a certain trick. Reach the end of an Amateur level and you'll unlock the next—no easy task on the final Neon chapter. Each chapter also contains a number of Pro levels, made available once you've finished the corresponding Amateur missions. Completion of a level also unlocks a Spot—a single-combo score challenge that ends the moment you touch the ground. All of which means you're never short of things to do: whether it's progressing further in the campaign, going back and completing remaining missions, or setting a high-score on a newly unlocked Spot.

There's a downside to the sheer number of levels. In all, OlliOlli has 100 separate leaderboards—plus an even harder RAD mode for those who complete every mission. In a score attack game, that muddies the purity of its point-based rivalry. If I'm 100,000 points ahead of a friend in Urban 5, but they're 20,000 points up in the more difficult Junkyard 1 Pro, who gets the bragging rights? I have no idea, which makes the game's competitive side seem overwhelming.

The Daily Grind Challenge helps. Like Spelunky's Daily Challenge, each day you're given a randomly selected Spot and a single chance to set a score. The difference is practice: you can replay the run over and over until you choose to try it for real. It acts as a nice, temporary focal point for competition, but the game would still benefit from a small set of clearly marked runs, designed purely to prove the best of the best.

For some, the answer will be to attempt dominance on every leaderboard. For me, though, the game's constant challenge means extended periods of play will wear down my resolve. The 3D skating games that inspired OlliOlli had the benefit of letting you take a break from the intense skill-based progression. At any moment you could roll off to practice, explore or generally mess around. That's not the case here—you're always being pushed to improve or face failure.

That means OlliOlli is best played in short sessions. It also means it's a game that offers a consistently meaningful reward. Not of unlocks and achievements, but of measurable improvement against a demanding, expressive and enjoyable set of systems.

OlliOlli

Satisfying arcade skate-'em-up that's fun from the off, and promises many hours on the hard path to mastery.

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