I used to love the Tony Hawk games way back when. I sucked pretty hard at them but I they allowed freedom on a different level than most games did. That was one of the things I immediately liked about OlliOlli.
Skateboarding games really do provide a sense of freedom. Within the level, you can go wherever you want, do whatever you want, and try and get the biggest combos. While OlliOlli doesn't share the "go wherever you want" part, it exudes the same kind of freedom that other skateboarding games traditionally do. Yeah, you're on autopilot, going in one direction, but you have a choice over how you get there and, along the way, you can do a variety of tricks. Unlike games like BIT.TRIP Runner, which the game shares auto-running similarities to, there isn't only one way to complete the level.
That isn't the only way that OlliOlli channels actual skateboarding, though. There's an intuitive control system based on holding and flicking the left control stick in different directions. You hold down and then release to jump, as a skater would crouch down and then pop up to jump. You rotate the stick different amounts before releasing to do a trick other than an ollie when jumping. You hold down on the stick, starting just before you land, to grind a rail. You press X just before landing to land correctly. You can use L and R to spin in midair, allowing you to earn more points per trick.
This all takes some getting used to. I cannot tell you how many times I mixed up pressing down on the control stick and pressing the X button when landing. I especially cannot tell you how many times it took for me to get the timing of jumps and the jumping arc down. I faceplanted innumerable times, courtesy of cones, in the first few levels thanks to just not getting it at first. Once you get it, it almost feels like it could never have been any other way. But you do have to get it first and there definitely is an adjustment period.
Now, this sense of freedom, the controls based on actual skateboarding, these are all well and good but there comes a point where the game kind of throws out what I liked best about it. Port is my favorite level set. Earlier level sets provide multiple routes but ultimately, once you have the controls down, the levels themselves are easy. The hard part is getting all of the collectibles or getting the highest score or doing both simultaneously, if that's the kind of goal you're going for. Once you hit Port, the difficulty hits a level that is just perfect. It is a perfect blend of multiple routes via awnings and the occasional difficult jump. During port, you have challenge but you also still have that freedom.
Base, in a lot of ways, kind of ruins this. For the large majority of the level set, there aren't multiple paths anymore. Occasionally, you'll get a guard tower that lets you take an alternate route but it's a brief detour and usually is more trouble than its worth. To add to this, the one route you do get often involves perfecting not only the timing of landings but the timing of almost every single jump. If you want this level of challenge, it's there, but I found it to be tiring and like it started to care a lot less about high scores and a lot more about getting through the level. The shift is odd, sudden even, and I found that it was one I didn't like at all.
If you can get past that, though, OlliOlli is a genuinely great game. It was a formula I wasn't sure was going to work out originally but it works out and it works well. The control scheme, the amount of freedom - it all evokes the feeling of skateboarding in a way that I wouldn't have thought possible for an auto-running game. Just stay away from the levels after Port if you value what I did in the game. Base will drive you mad.
As an addendum, I played both the Vita and PS4 versions of the game and I feel obligated to tell you that they are almost identical. Menus can be explored via touch screen on Vita but there are no other differences that I'm aware of. That being said, with the PC release, I could not, in any way, imagine playing it with a keyboard. I haven't played played it with a keyboard, as I did not play the PC release, but I really can't imagine it any other way than with a controller in hand.
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