Review-lution – OlliOlli

On 26th February 2014, the Editor in Chief of Ready Up, Dan Bendon, went quite mad. Declaring himself the almighty ruler of the Internet (well, the Ready Up portion of it anyway), he banned his staff from writing video game reviews and instead set them to toil night and day in his Magic: The Gathering workhouse.  

Some immediately fell into line. Others, like myself, decided to fight back. As an Internet user, I believe that I have not just the right, but the responsibility, to give my opinion irrespective of whether anyone actually wants to hear it. So now, in the shadow of the giant workhouse clock tower shaped in Dan’s image and known as Big Bendon, I lead a small band of guerrilla game critics, a review resistance movement operating inside the Ready Up police state. In direct contravention of Article 2 of the ‘Under Penalty of Death’ section of the Ready Up Staff Rule Book, these are our statements of defiance.

Viva la Review-lution.

Click, crack, crack, click, crack. I hate those sounds. In OlliOlli, Roll7’s new side-scrolling skateboarding game for the PlayStation Vita, I heard them a lot. You probably will too. They are the depressing sounds of pain and failure.

The failure in question is, primarily, that of the entire skeletal structure of my little on-screen skater. His body battered and shattered as he’s once again sent cartwheeling off his board and left a pixelated lump of pain on the ground. But, it’s also my own failure. An equally painful one (albeit in an emotional rather than a, “But, Doctor, will I ever walk again?” sense), in my ability to complete a series of basic tasks with the required speed and accuracy.

Not that the failure lasts for long. Within a BUPA advert blink of an eye, we’re back at the start of the level, bones miraculously healed, life-threatening internal bleeding staunched, pride and confidence restored. OlliOlli’s intense, injury-laden action is offset by a selection of cool, finger-clicking urban beats, but its backing track should really just be the chorus of Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping on infinite repeat.

I have become Skater Meat Boy.

Despite my latest epic fail (1 in a series of 1,573), I’m completely, admirably, naïvely, deludedly convinced this next attempt can only end in crowd-cheering, confetti-fluttering, open-top-bus-parade-around-my-home-town triumph.

As my skater doggedly scurries forwards I’m sure I can see a steely focus in his eyes (although, at this point I may just be hallucinating). “Don’t worry, dude,” I can hear him whispering to me, “we’ve totally got this.” “Yeah,” I reply, “That last one was just a practice. This is going to be the one. This is going to be the run. If we can just build up enough speed with a perfect grind off that rail, we’ll be able to clear that wall and then, oh, son of a” …click, crack, crack, click, crack.

This happens again, and again… and again. I have become Skater Meat Boy.

OlliOlli Screenshot 1
This can only end well.

The reason I keep on playing OlliOlli isn’t because I’m some sort of skateboarding sadomasochist. I have no desire to be forced to play Tony Hawk’s Ride by a stranger dressed only in a gimp mask and leather thong who actually turns out to be Tony Hawk. Instead, it’s all down to the game’s simple and punishingly addictive nature. Actually, when you put it like that, it does sound like skateboarding sadomasochism. In fact, where is Tony? I’m sure we said three o’clock for our next session.

The principle objective on each of OlliOlli‘s 25 short, obstacle-strewn levels is to jump and grind your way to the finish whilst avoiding catastrophe. A single mistake, a single missed trick and you’re swapping your pulsating street skills for some truly electrifying moves on the business end of a defibrillator. It’s game design in a similar vein to recent successes like Spelunky and Hotline Miami, although, if we’re abbreviating, OlliOlli is actually more like a combination of Canabalt, Joe Danger and Skate.

Initially, it seems that the chances to pull off stunts and perfectly land grinds and jumps are simply there to enhance your score and aesthetic credentials. However, after only a short time, it becomes painfully obvious that, far from being mere embellishments, these are vital to achieving success and satisfaction.

As the game quickly begins lining objects up in mercilessly close proximity to one another, the only way to survive is by chaining moves together with enough technique to build and maintain forward momentum. Achieving an almost zen-like mental balance is an essential prerequisite for sustaining flawless physical balance on your board. Any breaks in concentration result only in broken legs.

To start with I was terrible. Failure frequently came from the inability of my brain and hands to come to a consensus on what I needed to do next. Either I’d be pushing down on the left analog stick to grind when I should have been pressing the X button to land a jump, or vice-versa. I know this is meant to be twitch gameplay, but I was experiencing full on Dr. Strangelove-style involuntary arm spasms and, in my worst moments, central nervous system shutdowns where I’d just sit, watching the scenery flick past for a few blissful seconds before the inevitable return of the sounds of pain.

OlliOlli Screenshot 2
I spend a lot of my evenings grinding against poles.

After a little while though, things improved. Thanks to the OlliOlli’s subtle but uncompromising learning curve and sharply responsive controls – vital in a game where every input is of crucial importance – I reached a state of skateboarding hyper-consciousness, staring not directly at the action in front of me or the unobtrusive background blur but almost through the screen. By the time I reached Neon City, the last set of levels, I was visualising each run before I began and practicing Karate Kid-esque wax on, wax off motions with the stick. I’d even worked out a rhythmic blinking pattern but was contemplating going the full Clockwork Orange and just pinning my eyes open to eliminate all visual interruptions.

It could still be an immensely frustrating game, heartbreaking (about the only thing left to break) when a grind would stall millimetres from safety or my skater would suffer a brutal bail within touching distance of the finish line. All of this, however, was worth it for those times when everything clicked. Not in the usual bone-splintering, two months in traction way, but in a way that sent me soaring, spinning and sliding like a skater dude demi-God with a glittering vapour trial of magic energy in my wake. Every time this happened, it made me want to bellow, “Behold! I have harnessed friction, humbled gravity. I have mastered movement as an art form. I am the one truly creating masterpieces on the urban canvas. Sod you Banksy.”

The opportunities for these fleeting; publicly embarrassing power-trips don’t end there in OlliOlli. Each of the game’s levels also include a set of smaller challenges (hit a certain score, nail a certain trick, et cetera). Complete all these and you’ll unlock the even more taxing Pro version of the stage with its own objectives. Finish those, and you’ll gain access to the Rad version, the ultimate test of any skater’s OlliOlli-ing abilities.

Aside from the standard high score chasing, leaderboard-bait also comes in the form of the Daily Grind, a new stage available every 24 hours that, after practising, you get one chance to post an official run on. There are also Spots, small sections of each level set aside to encourage super scoring trick combos or, if you’re me, to hammer home just how pitiful your skills are. I replayed the first of these several times searching for the X10 score multiplier I was sure I’d missed before it finally dawned on me. Not that it mattered, just the basic way Roll7 has you constantly riding a knife edge between elation and agony gives OlliOlli that fantastic Homer-Simpson-jumps-Springfield-Gorge-on-a-skateboard sense of fun.

Final Score: Wow.

Review-lution score conversion guide:

Wow – What a game; one of the best. If Jesus were around today, he’d quit Christianity and start a new religion around this. At least that’s what it says on the note attached to this cheque from Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo/EA/insert your own evil gaming megacorp of choice.

Hey – It’s somewhere between a 7.6 and a 7.7, but it’s definitely not a 7.65.

Hmmm – An average game. So, it scores whatever you think an average game should score. If that’s a 5, great. If that’s a 7, fine. If it’s a 4, then what the hell were you thinking? You disgust us.

Err – If you’re normally a fan of this type of thing you may get some enjoyment out of this. Alternatively, if you are normally a fan of this type of thing then you may actually be more disappointed. Basically, you’re on your own with this one.

Yikes – Spending the rest of eternity slopping out Satan’s scrotum is preferable to even glimpsing this game’s title screen.   



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