Reviewed on Sony PS Vita
I suppose I should get this out of the way now, at the start. I have a confession to make. It’s nothing major, I think, but it’s worth airing just so things can be clear between us. I really, really dislike anything to do with skateboarding. It’s not an outright hatred, because that would just be unnecessarily mean, but rather an old man-style disdain for the ‘sport’. I dislike the almost entire lack of safety equipment employed (chaps, a t-shirt twinned with a silly hat is not enough to protect you), I don’t like this addiction to counter-culture and non-conformity, especially when it manifests in this entirely non-individual branded way, and the ability for anyone with a skateboard to immediately turn up at any public space with any kind of rail and ‘grind’ it is just plain annoying. Don’t they know they’re scratching the veneer of public property? That grumpy people with nothing better to do are annoyed by this? Clearly not. And you know what? If one thing were to change my mind and make me reconsider my own grumpy views it would probably be OlliOlli.
What’s OlliOlli, the unwashed oiks among you might be crying right now, and why does it have the power to potentially cure anti-skateboardingness. Well, it’s a Vita-exclusive developed by boutique Indie developer Roll7 – in fact, it’s one of the many games that you can pretty much thank Sony’s Shahid Ahmad for. Go on, shoo – go find him on Twitter and thank him now. Done? Good. OlliOlli is a fantastically cut-down 2D skateboarding game with a huge emphasis on score attack and chaining combos. It can also be frustratingly difficult, generally annoying and will see you faceplanting incessantly. In game, of course. It’s also nigh on impossible to put down once you get going.
You’ll start in the Career mode, which is less an actual career and more a thinly disguised series of score-attack levels. The controls are presented in a deceptively simple way – point and release the left analogue stick to start a trick, hit X as you land. If you see a surface you can grind on, you can pull the stick in any direction as you get there to slide along on your board, while if you are feeling brave you can throw in a spin or two with one of the shoulder buttons. You can pump your speed by hitting X when you’re on the floor (two pushes takes you to maximum speed), and you can pull off more complicated tricks by rotating the left analogue stick and releasing it at certain points (the whole range of moves are listed in the amusingly titled ‘Tricktionary’).
So yeah, everything sounds simple, right? Good luck! Piecing the various moves together at first feels like the gaming equivalent of getting a kid to rub their tummy while patting their head; or vice-versa, whichever way round it was. There’ll be comical crashes as you hit the stick instead of X, there’ll be horrific falls on stairs as you grind too late and there’ll be sloppy landings galore. Scores will be embarrassingly low, and your main goal will be to simply finish levels. Thankfully there’s an instant restart button, and throughout your OlliOlli career you should expect to hit it many, many times. It’s in these first few hours that the game feels the hardest, but even then there is nothing unfair about the proceedings. You’ll fail a level because you jumped too late, because you missed a grind, because you pulled a trick with a fancy flip and not enough space to finish it all up. As more and more pieces fall into place these issues are all dismissed and the action on the screen takes on a kind of dancing quality as you begin to embellish each and every move with a spin, or a more complex trick, or a double grind on a short rail.
Each of the twenty-five Amateur career levels has five challenges, and beating all five challenges will lead to the Pro career version of the level being unlocked. These are slightly longer and usually contain more obstacles – although, by this point you should be seeing everything in terms of score opportunity. For instance, more difficult tricks will award a higher base score, and following that trick with a grind will add both more score and a multiplier. Manage to nail a perfectly timed grind and you’ll get an extra multiplier, while squeezing in a spin somewhere will award yet another. Although fiddly to pull off sometimes, you can also pull more complex tricks out of a grind for even more score. Finally, to actually bank the points, you’ll have to finish up with a landing – anything other than a perfectly timed button press will see your potential score diminished, and in the case of a sloppy landing you’ll end up with virtually nothing. Perfect landings also manage to conserve your speed, while perfect grinds actually give you a small, short speed boost, and to make the most of OlliOlli it’s imperative that you begin hitting these as frequently as possible.
As you progress you’ll also unlock a ‘Spot’ for each completed level, Amateur and Pro. Spots are shorter combo-based levels, the idea being to score as highly as you can, finishing in one super large point-scoring move. Some can be tricky, with gaps thrown in that require you to manage your speed downwards instead of up, but as they are shorter than the main career levels you may find yourself starting them over and over again in the hunt for perfection. Finally Roll7 have also thrown in a ‘Daily Grind’ challenge, giving you one chance to score and register in each 24-hour period. You can take as many practice runs as you want, but as soon as you start that ‘actual’ go you’re locked in – do try not to choke, won’t you?
But, as difficult as the game may seem when you first start, all you really need to move through the Amateur and Pro levels and challenges are some experience with the game and some decent twitch ability. Over time, challenges that seemed impossible and scores that seemed unreachable will all fall to you as you trick, grind and spin your way through everything the game can throw at you. And then, just when you thought you’d mastered OlliOlli it’ll throw Rad Mode at you. Unlocked when you’ve completed every single Amateur and Pro challenge, Rad Mode tasks you with returning to each of the fifty levels and completing them again – only this time you’ll instantly faceplant if you fail to perfect every single grind and landing. It’s a revolution in the gameplay – your fingers have to stop their dancing and refocus once again on the basics, with (initially, at least) simple grinds and jumps again the order of the day. Rad Mode is a great reward for the players skilful enough to get there, the simple challenge of completing many of the levels providing a nice foil to your score attack antics everywhere else in the game.
It’s almost criminal then that with all this score-attacking going on here that there are no real leaderboards in the game. If you’re connected to a network then the world’s best score is shown, as is your position in relation to it. And that’s it. No chasing friends’ scores, no attacking the guy above you in the rankings, no ghost to chase or learn from. It’s old-school score attack in the worst way, with no real meaningful way to link your score to the outside world. Ok, fine – if you hit a top ten spot that’s great. But what about 75th? 300th? Is there a massive gap between you and the top? A small one? Are there clear bunches? Should you be trying something radically different, or refining? OlliOlli provides lots of reasons to keep you coming back, and it’s a shame it couldn’t cement itself onto your brain entirely by exploiting the competitive nature of gamers.
That’s not all though. OlliOlli does suffer from the odd crash, and there will be very occasional moments in game where you manage to grind along on some surface you really shouldn’t be able to. More unfortunate is the interaction between the shoulder buttons when you get to the stage where you’re comfortable with advanced grinding and spinning between grinds. Going from a Crooked Grind (right on the stick and right shoulder button held) into a right shoulder button spin, and then trying to land a Smith Grind (stick down and left shoulder button held), for example, can see you release the right shoulder, engage the left shoulder and hit down on the stick and then see you continue your previous spin and crash land. It’s as if the game doesn’t care that you’ve released a shoulder button (i.e., stop spinning) and are then queuing up a shoulder button grind, that depress of the second shoulder button just continues the spin. It’s a minor point, and one that’s easily solved by taking your finger off the spin a half second earlier, but it does muddy that line of whether the failure was the fault of you or the game.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect though is how the combo system fails to adequately reward displays of isolated tricks and spins. Take any series of quick-fire single jumps that you may face, for example. You’ll start with simple ollies and OK landings, happy just to progress past the challenge, Once you’ve gotten used to the twitch nature of the game and built up some muscle memory you’ll progress to a fancier trick. Finally, you’ll end up with an amusingly convoluted trick coupled with a good few spins after, all squeezed in before a perfect landing and a repeat performance. The problem is the game can’t reward you in any meaningful score way for this performance – the landing finishes your combo, leaving no effective way to reward your series of over-the-top trick jumps, each with a high chance of failure. Obviously the main focus of the scoring game is in chaining combos, is in the flowing grinding element of the game, but when you can hit a few thousand points for these difficult twitch jumps compared to an almost instant six figures on a simple series of grind tricks you’ll begin to wonder whether you shouldn’t just go back to ollieing your way over them.
Regardless of the above quibbles OlliOlli is a game that’s going to live on your Vita for a long, long time. It’s a great example of the kind of game that works perfectly on the move, but just couldn’t be achieved on a mobile platform. It’s twitch gaming of the finest quality, with the simplicity of the controls obfuscating the true depth of the combo system that overlays them. Give OlliOlli a chance and you’ll be hooked, more so than with any other Vita game that’s appeared for a while. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dream about hardflips and salad grinds, impossibles and laserflips down at the South Bank. Potentially while wearing a silly hat.