I've never partaken in any "extreme" sports, although I enjoy watching these kinds of exhibitions on ESPN. Skateboarding has dominated the "extreme" landscape, thanks to the likes of one Mr. Tony Hawk, and the same can be said for "extreme" video gaming. There's the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series... and then all of the other games seem to fall well short of the benchmark established by those games. Aggressive Inline developer Z-Axis has developed several games in this crowded genre, including Thrasher: Skate & Destroy and the Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX series. These games weren't necessarily bad games, but they weren't good enough to compete with the Tony Hawk games.
Aggressive Inline, Z-Axis' latest effort, received an unusual amount of pre-release buzz. I had a hard time understanding how a game based on inline skating would be able to compete against the Tony Hawkjuggernaut. Inline skating doesn't have the same kind of fan or spectator base that skateboarding, snowboarding, and BMX exhibitions have. But even with my doubts, I decided to give Aggressive Inline a fair shake. After all, I liked Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2 a bit more than many other gamers and journalists did how bad could it be, right?
At first glance, there are a lot of similarities between Aggressive Inline and Tony Hawk 3. The controller configuration is practically identical, which makes it easy for anyone familiar with the Tony Hawklayout to get started. Grabs, spins, flips, reverts (known in this game as "cess slides"), grinds, and manuals are easy to execute. Scoring points is one of the main objectives in Aggressive Inline, so each stage is full of trick-busting opportunities including rails, ramps, and pipes. The stages in Aggressive Inline are markedly larger than in most other "extreme" titles, although they aren't quite as sprawling as in Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2. Each stage has at least one area that is initially unavailable to explore and these require a key (which can be found on other levels) in order to be accessible.
Once I got into the game, I noticed a few key differences between Aggressive Inline and the Tony Hawk games. The first big difference is that the stage timer is gone. This means that players are free to explore each stage without worrying about time running out before completing certain objectives. Instead of a timer, there is a "juice meter" which gradually dwindles over time or if your skater wipes out. This meter can be refilled by simply pulling off tricks or by collecting juice boxes, which are scattered throughout each stage. It is possible to completely fill the meter; when this happens, your skater becomes supercharged and can pull off special tricks (a la Tony Hawk). These specials don't come standard, however they are also hidden in each stage in the guise of a "big head" icon.
Another big difference lies in the game's challenge system. Initially, there is a fair list of challenges that stand to be completed in each stage. This list also has some blanks, which are revealed once players talk to certain characters in each stage or complete other challenges. Some of the challenges are fairly basic, such as scoring a certain number of points. Others require certain tricks to be performed over certain obstacles. Many other challenges are environment-related. Here's an example: one objective involves grinding the edge of a cliff, which happens to have a big boulder on it. Once your skater grinds this cliff successfully, the cliff falls away and the boulder begins to fall, only to be held up by two chains. A new challenge opens up, which involves grinding these two chains. After grinding both chains, the boulder is released and proceeds to bowl through everything in its path, thus changing the layout of the stage. That's just one example of environment-related challenges. I found these be a lot of fun to complete as more trick opportunities generally become available as these environment-related challenges are completed. All in all, each stage has at least 15 different challenges to complete.
One last big difference between Aggressive Inline and the Tony Hawkgames lies in the former's experience point system. The premise is simple: for each trick that is successfully completed, your skater earns experience points in certain skill areas, such as jumping, grinding, manuals, spins, speed, wallrides, and fakie (which is a term for skating backwards). As experience points are accumulated, skaters gain levels of proficiency that improve their performance. Gaining levels in jumping, for example, allows your skater to jump higher. Added levels in grinding allow for extra balance while grinding. Certain challenges almost require that skaters have gained sufficient levels in certain skill areas in order to be completed. I really like this addition, because it kept me playing the game in spite of frustration with certain challenges at times. If I checked my stats and found that I was close to leveling up in one or more areas, it was easy to keep playing until I advanced to the next level. This adds an extra dimension to simply scoring as many points as possible.
It's no secret that I really enjoyed Aggressive Inline, but a few issues tempered my enjoyment. The game's soundtrack, while comprised of more than a few great music tracks (including Hoobastank, Sublime, and P.O.D.), recycles far too quickly. There are a few sporadic cases of random slowdown, with no apparent rhyme or reason. A few of the challenges are extremely difficult to complete; while this might not necessarily be a bad thing to some players, I found myself counting to ten before snapping on more than one occasion. Aggressive Inline's biggest offense takes place when the game erroneously deposits your skater into a locked area. This bug doesn't halt the game, as players can still score points while in these locked areas, but there's no chance of getting back out unless you exit the level and restart. I would have been fine with this if it happened once or twice, but this bug occurs with a fair amount of frequency when executing trick lines near locked areas.
Even with these gripes, there's no denying that I had a great time with Aggressive Inline, and that it comes very close to replacing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 as my favorite "extreme" game to come out so far. The easy-to-learn play controls and large, inviting levels set the stage for fun, and the game's new experience point system, numerous challenges, and hidden items and secrets helped to maintain my high level of interest for many hours. Aggressive Inline is easily Z-Axis' best effort to date, and while I'm a bit leery of the "mature" content slated for their next project, Dave Mirra XXX, I must admit that I'm looking forward to seeing whether Z-Axis and Acclaim can continue their success. Rating: 8 out of 10.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.