Updated: Touchgrind Review

Touchgrind went and got itself an update. We gave it a quick push, and liked the changes. Not quite enough to bump it up to a 3, but the game is definitely working better. Illusion Labs lists the following changes:

  • Session markers
  • Instant replay
  • improved obstacle course behavior
  • faster turning, loosened trucks
  • bigger training park
  • better menu operation and bug fixes

We can’t verify all of that (looser trucks?), but in our experience, the game just seems faster, the play is improved, and the board looks to take up less room than before. In any case, the replay feature is the clear standout. It’s pretty awesome to nail a hard trick and watch it over and over again. If you were on the fence about this game, the update should make it a go.

Our skateboarding experience, we admit, has been small in scope and depth. We played Tony Hawk. We like that Lupe Fiasco song….. and that’s pretty much it. We don’t know how to do any of those tricks we got our video game version of Tony to do. But we used to love SSX, the fabulous snowboarding series from EA, even though we’re terrible at snowboarding. Perhaps Touchgrind, we thought, could similarly narrow that gap–a tall order, to be sure. Touchgrind fell woefully short of that standard, so we held it to another one: did we want to keep playing it after completing our review? Not particularly.

It isn’t for a lack of trying on the developer’s part, though. There are 14 boards to unlock, not including the Default and n00b boards you’re given to start with. There is a rather extensive tutorial to get you started, and then you can go into the Warm Up to… well, warm up. After that, you can graduate to the Jam Session, where you skate aimlessly and endlessly, but you get to see scores for your tricks. And finally, once you’re confident you can skate, you hit the Competition circuit, where you can unlock new boards and impress the judges.

The control scheme is the focal point of the entire experience, for better or worse. Your fingers alight on the board as your feet would, and the tricks are performed in ways that call to mind the actual physical execution of skating tricks. For instance, ollies have you lifting the lead finger right before the plant, and it feels just like it should. The physics throughout are pretty dead-on, as are the graphics. The frame rate is fast, the board looks great, and the ramps have a pretty decent sense of scale. The little touches, fit and polish, are all there; heck, the option screen is a skateboard wheel you spin around. Even the control scheme–which we initially hated, but later came to appreciate–works just about as well as you could ask. Without buttons, we couldn’t come up with a better scheme than the one Touchgrind uses for the controls.

So, if Touchgrind’s graphics are polished and its gameplay is accurate, why is it a 2? Because those strengths aren’t turned into a compelling game. First of all, the game’s scope is really limited. The option screen, in its entirety, lets you turn the sound effects on or off. There’s really no effective difference between one course and another, and the 14 unlockable boards play more or less the same. We wish that there had been different objectives, crazy courses–anything to liven things up a little.

Worse, the screen is zoomed way too far in for its own good. All you can see is the board and parts of the objects immediately around you. The little radar arrows pointing out obstacles and terrain features are useless in gameplay, because there’s not enough visible ground around your board to really steer effectively. Skating games are at their best when you can achieve a free-flowing, graceful mastery of the course, but that feeling is absent here. What ends up happening when you play is a series of attempted tricks in one direction until you hit the wall, then another series in the opposite direction. No matter how good we got at pulling off kickflips, or ollie-ing onto ramps, we never felt like there was anything else to the game. It felt like we were skating around in a very small room.

Touchgrind really swings for the fences with its innovative viewpoint and control scheme, and that’s admirable. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get $4.99 worth of enjoyment out of it, though; the promising idea at the core of this game is stuffed into a much less compelling framework. We’d like to see the developer experiment with the level designs and unlockables, and see if it can’t improve the camera action as well. Until then, you should move on down the line.

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