Review: OlliOlli

OlliOlli

Skateboarding games haven’t been relevant in quite a long while. EA did some interesting things with the Skate games, but the series never really went anywhere special and flamed out after three quick releases (four if you want to include the spin-off for iOS and Nintendo platforms). And, of course, we all know how aggressively Activision hammered the Tony Hawk franchise into the ground, until it face planted into the curbside after one last desperate grab for the shifting spotlight in that game that came with the skateboard controller, the name of which has been expunged from my memory. The Pro Skater HD remake was a nostalgic return to form, as well as a stark reminder of the franchise’s painful fall from grace.

Indeed, as technology has improved skateboarding games have, in my opinion, only gotten worse. Having huge open worlds, realistic physics and intricate control schemes sounds great in theory, but the truth is the Tony Hawk games peaked with Pro Skater 2, before the developers tried too hard to innovate the game for the sake of innovation. Skateboarding games perform best when they are simple and focused, emphasizing skill-based tricking and high-score grinding above all else. That’s exactly what OlliOlli delivers.

Roll7’s pixelated indie skateboarding side-scroller, which first kickflipped onto the Vita at the beginning of the year, is now out on Steam (and will be coming to PlayStation consoles soon enough). Having spent at least a dozen hours with the Vita version and another half-dozen so far playing on PC, I’ve reached the conclusion that this game is insanely addictive. Not to mention punishingly difficult–at least until you grasp the nuances of the trick system.

OlliOlli is all about the purity of the trick, and the skill it takes to string spins, board flips and grinds together into gnarly, leaderboard-topping combos. Across 25 smallish 2D maps that only take maybe a minute or two to complete from start to finish, the main objective is to reach the cheering crowd at the end of each run without wrecking. Tricking out to post a respectable high score to the global online leaderboards is really just gravy on top of the mashed potatoes. You can hit a button to push and gain speed, but otherwise forward movement is automatic and constant, the only way to slow down being to land a trick poorly. As your skater rolls forward and approaches railings or obstacles like stairs or grassy breaks in the pavement, tricks are performed by holding down a direction on the left analog stick (or WASD keys when using keyboard controls, which work well enough but don’t offer the smooth 360-degree motion of an analog stick) and then releasing. Trick complexity and difficulty is determined based on the direction from which the analog stick is loaded and rotated before release. Simply pulling the stick back in a straight line in one of the four cardinal directions performs basic jumps like ollies and kickflips. From there the analog stick can be pulled back and rotated in quarter-, half- and full-circle movements to do shove-its, hardflips, laserflips, impossibles and a wide range of other aerial board moves. Grinds are performed in similar fashion — the type of grind changes based on the direction pressed when hitting a rail — while the shoulder buttons can be held down to modify grinds or put a spin modifier on board tricks, increasing potential point output.

The trick system isn’t overly complicated to learn, but an in-game reference guide called the Tricktionary is available to call up at any time should you need to know the exact stick movements for performing each trick. In fact, the tricky thing about OlliOlli isn’t the act of tricking alone, it’s the landing. Normally in skating games as long as your skater has finished rotating, the board has stopped flipping, or a board grab has been let go, you will land safely back to the ground. In OlliOlli, you not only have to perform the inputs to pull off a trick or series of tricks, you also have to “bank” the trick by hitting a button to land. Landings are rated on a scale similar to that of a rhythm game. Pressing the land button while still way off the ground results in an “OK” rating, a rating of “Sick” falls somewhere in the middle, and a “Perfect” score is awarded for timing the landing just before the board comes into contact with the ground. This amplifies the risk/reward factor and distinguishes the amateurs from the kings of the leaderboard, as better timing equates to banking more points from the preceding combo. And of course, late timing will result in a “Sloppy” landing, completely nullifying that spectacular combo you just worked so hard to pull off.

I won’t lie, the learning curve required to become comfortable with the landing mechanic as well as the fast, twitch stick movements required to trick in and out of grinds can be pretty harsh, but like real skateboarding when you faceplant into the pavement, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, throw caution to the wind and try again until the run is nailed. To me, the learning curve only made mastering the mechanics and scoring rad combos later on that much sweeter since I had endured the bumps and bruises of frequent crashes and came out better for it on the other side. The ability to hit a button and instantaneously restart levels also lowers the frustration of the “die and retry” cycle that inevitably sets in as the courses become more challenging.

Beyond the somewhat daunting initial difficulty hurdle, the only other thing harshing this game’s mellow is a lack of optimization. I’ve encountered bugs and performance issues while playing on both PC and Vita. Thankfully, the more serious technical woes have been addressed, such as regular crashes on Vita, as well as a particularly frightening launch day bug in the Steam version that was wiping saved progress for some players, including yours truly. In my first PC session I got hooked into clearing three quarters of the career maps (all that practice on the Vita clearly paid off!), but when I quit the game and came back later all of that progress was gone as if I had never even booted the game before. That was a total bummer. While the developers were quick to squash that particularly bug, I continue to experience a number of little performance hits in the PC version. On top of a few crashes, the game will sometimes temporarily freeze while cycling through the level select menu or when accessing leaderboards. On other occasions, instead of proceeding to the post-run score menu, the game will get stuck on the scene of the cheering crowd at the end of a level while the audio stutters like music playing from a scratched CD. When this happens I can usually still pause the game and quit back to the level select, but it just feels janky.

OlliOlli could use some beefing up in terms of content — a level editor with Steam Workshop integration certainly would have been awesome — however what’s here is more than enough to keep you 360 bigspinning for a long time to come. (The Vita version’s been a mainstay in my portable gaming library since it came out in January, and yet I’m just as addicted to replaying on Steam now as I was months ago.) Just clearing the 25 maps in career mode, which shouldn’t take most players any longer than a few hours, is only the first challenge to overcome. Each stage has a unique set of five bonus objectives to complete. Some of these are basic things like achieving a total high score for the entire level or above a specified score in a single combo. Others are more complicated, such as gapping a specific section of a map, picking up a series of collectibles before crossing the finish line, or completing a stage without a sloppy landing or performing a trick below a certain point threshold. Clearing all five objectives on a stage subsequently unlocks a Pro difficulty run with a new set of challenges, and by completing all of those a Rad difficulty mode becomes available to put your tricking skills to the absolute test by not allowing anything but perfect landings. Oh yeah, it’s brutal.

Additional replay is offered by Spots and Daily Grinds. Each stage can be toggled to Spots mode, in which the objective switches to achieving the highest score possible within a single combo. Your score is tabulated the second you land, even if the only trick you do is an ollie right out of the gates, so the challenge is to find a grind line that allows for a long run. Daily Grinds follow the same rules as Spots, only they are presented in a more directly competitive environment. Daily Grinds can be practiced an unlimited number of times, but once you attempt a run for keeps, you only get the one chance to post a score for that 24-hour period. Even though there is no reward for topping the charts beyond bragging rights, the do or die intensity really ratchets up the pressure. Even the way the music shifts in tone and volume makes you constantly aware that any misstep will result in leaderboard shame.

I can see OlliOlli not “clicking” for some players right away, but after an initial practice period spent grasping the nuances of the twitchy trick controls and the timing of the landing mechanic the intensely difficult and surprisingly elegant skill-based gameplay really begins to shine. While I would say that the small levels and quick spurt nature of the game’s design are ideally suited to the mobile Vita environment, the way short five to ten minute runs tend to explode into hour-long sessions means playing at home on a PC is just as impossibly addictive.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Skill-based tricking is pure crack addiction
+ Fluid, simple and yet deceptively challenging trick/landing system
+ Daily Grinds add virtually endless replay
+ Rad soundtrack

Cons:
– Expect to faceplant a lot while learning to time landings
– Some bugginess and general performance instability
– Control scheme not particularly well suited for keyboards

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac/Linux, PlayStation Vita (also coming soon to PS3 and PS4)
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Roll7
Release Date: PC – 7/22/2014, Vita – 1/21/2014
Genre: Skateboarding
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: Review codes provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!