Airblade has certainly come a long way since its initial development stage, when it was originally titled Stunt Squad. Debuting two years ago at E3, Criterion Studios had no publisher or set release date for this wonderful looking hover board game on the PS2. The game's development was quite early, and if I recall correctly it wasn't even displayed in video form, but only three screenshots. Criterion kept a tight lid on both of their projects (Burnout and Airblade), until this year's E3 rolled around and the cat was out of the bag. Airblade was displayed in playable form and the results were nothing but praise. After the European release, Namco decided to pick up the US publishing rights to Airblade. Granted the review is late -sorry, I forgot -either way here are my thoughts on the game.
I'd refer to this game as a visual mix between Jet Set/Grind Radio and Tony Hawk 3. The sci-fi futuristic atmosphere, of course, ties in with Sega's jet blading in-line skater, meanwhile the realistic visual details set the pleasing and incredibly gorgeous scenery, which is free of any noticeable aliasing or flicker issues. The texture detail is considerably better than Tony Hawk's; everything that surrounds you almost has this pre-rendered feel (as shown here), but make no mistake about it, everything is real time. The character detail is absolutely fantastic! Each and every one of the 5 riders has a distinctive design with unique physical proportions and cool clothing. On top of that they have some very high polygon counts, as each and every boarder's facial detail is well noticed. There's no doubt about it, Airblade is one of the most breathtaking PS2 games available. The amount of detail that Criterion poured into this game is incredible. The lighting effects are absolutely gorgeous, and this screenshot is the perfect example of my claim. Airblade definitely runs on a very powerful game engine. I'd like to see this game engine remodeled and used to design another extreme sports title. It looks like Neversoft has met their match.
To say this is a Tony Hawk clone on a hover board is preposterous. Airblade is like no other game out there. First of all, the game is story driven, and come to think of it the story does share a little dash of Jet Grind Radio. You see, a group of armed forces is after you because your best friend stole a secret package. In hopes of recovering the secret package, a bunch of suits break into your apartment and kidnap your friend. The package contains the Airblade -- a hover board, think 'Back to the Future 2'. As the main character, Ethan, you rip the package open and hop on the Airblade to help your friend. Airblade's gameplay is mission based, so expect rendezvous points, knocking out snipers from roofs by slapping them over the head with the board, to destroying huge glass billboards in a city street with your name and face below a 'wanted' sign. There's a whole lot to do in the 6 environments you are presented with. Interactive obstacles are scattered all throughout the levels, not to mention that this is also a living-breathing world as pedestrians and traffic vehicles inhabit various levels. The trick system in Airblade can be described in one-way; extreme.
Unlike Tony Hawk, Airblade takes everything in our imagination and presents it through vibrant and decorative finesse. The game's coolest trick is that you can swing on poles, vertically or horizontally. This eventually becomes a tactic, as some objectives may require you to reach higher ground, or destroy an object by swinging on it. The game has regular tricks that you would most commonly find performed by snowboarders or skateboarders, in addition to grinds of all sorts. Pulling off a couple of tricks will fill up your boost meter, something that is a key necessity in order to achieve higher air. The story mode altogether may be a bit challenging for some. For example if the timer runs out and you have yet to complete every objective, you'll have to redo the stage altogether - quite discouraging - but the mode certainly has its strong and enjoyable points. As for the game's value; it's there. While the story is reasonably short, it's still something that the casual gamer will come back to from time to time. And it should be mentioned there are secret characters to unlock, as well. Gamers will also have a choice of a two-player versus mode to further expand the longetivity of the game. The game plays well, and if you get over the challenge of the Story mode (which also unlocks a Stunt mode upon completion) and unlock every stage, you'll surely be playing the game's trick attack and freestyle modes for a long time to come. Completing the story would later prove to be worth it, as the stages (which must be first experienced through the story and then can be played regularly) are a lot of fun - in particular the Industrial stage.
The audio is good stuff, despite being typical UK techno sounds. I happen to like Airblade's soundtrack, as it generates an exciting feeling that kind of almost brings out the atmosphere of the game. I admit it, I listen to techno or anything along the pipeline of music, such as housebeat, so I'm pretty happy with Airblade's kickin' soundtrack, to say the least. In addition to an admirable soundtrack, the game's cut-scenes feature decent voice-acting. Although, it's nothing great and easily forgettable, it still manages to create a little cinematic feeling in the game.
As you can see by the control score, the controls are flawed, and the camera contributes to that even more. For one, you don't control your character as you would a skater from Tony Hawk, which is very bad. If you were to pull back on the analog, instead of coming to a halt, the character will instead start hovering towards the opposite direction. Not only is this painfully annoying, but the camera goes into 'stupid mode' and loses stability for about 2-3 seconds and has the potential to affect gameplay, if one were to say, scaling a building. The consequences of the camera can be dreadful at times, but hey it's nothing that we haven't seen before (Sonic Adventure, anyone?). If you could get fully adjusted to the controls, take some time to get to know them, chances are they'll be more forgiving, because aside from that everything else is dandy.
While Airblade is one gorgeous looking game, it's not without its gameplay and control flaws. Had Criterion tweaked a couple of things before allowing Namco to distribute the game here in the US, we may have certainly been looking at Tony Hawk's biggest competitor. Otherwise, Airblade wins the 'good first try' award, and also fails to earn a cookie from yours truly. That is not to say that the game is bad, it's just it can be discouraging and disappointing at times, and seeing as how I'm a very tolerable gamer (hey, it comes with the job), I have doubts that others will be with this game. Airblade is indeed a fun game. If you're tired of everyday skaters, and are looking for something new, give Airblade at least a rental. You may be pleasantly surprised.
3/27/2002 Arnold Katayev