Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Very Late, and Far Too Personal Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD Review

While very late, Chris had a lot to say about Robomodo's recent release of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD. The original games have become celebrated classics, and THPS HD looks to introduce those games to a new generation. Or perhaps to sell those games again to nostalgic twentysomethings? Either way, it's not very good. Read on for a very long and rambling look at what exactly went so wrong here.

The original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater changed my life.

Yes, I know that sounds like so much hyperbole, but let me explain. THPS released in September 1999, when I was in that awkward teenage stage of not quite knowing who I was. I was not a girl, not yet a woman. To further compound my teenage strife, my parents made the utterly baffling decision to move from a major city, where I had several life-long friends. And not only did we change towns, we essentially moved to a whole other planet. My new home was a log cabin in a honest-to-god one streetlight farm town. It was a total culture shock.

A large amount of my time in those early days were spent in front of my Nintendo 64. A paperwork screwup basically gave me an entire month between schooling, and I had nothing better to do than play Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. Before then, I had a passing interest in skateboarding, usually beginning and ending with some casual viewing of the X Games. But THPS had gotten some amazing reviews from several reviewers I trusted, including Jeff Gerstmann's glowing review on GameSpot.

I'm not quite sure what it was that grabbed me so hard about THPS, but it's safe to say that very few games have ever stuck with me as much as it did. I loved everything about it. The gameplay was smooth and responsive, the graphics were (at the time) incredibly well done, and the soundtrack was out of this world. I was lucky enough to be able to experience the game in its full punk rock glory on the PSone as well as the N64 version, which suffered from a reduced soundtrack and lack of unlockable videos, due to the limitations of the cartridge.

Tony Hawk 2 on the N64. Once, this was cutting edge.

THPS 2 continued the awesome of the original, and I've spent hundreds of hours with that game over the past decade. The level design, skater roster, video clips, soundtracks, just everything about those early Tony Hawk games were masterful. As I got deeper into the games, I began to listen to the bands that were featured in them, and my first paying job was as a retail slave at PacSun, where we sold all the brands that were prominently featured.

To think of how much of my personality and friendships had a trail of influence that I can trace back to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater in actually kind of amazing. Those games were more than the sum of their parts to me: they were a way of life. So you can guess how nervous and excited I was when Robomodo announced they were remaking the original THPS games in HD for the current generation.

Tony Hawk’ Pro Skater HD attempts to win back the audience the game series has lost of the last generation of iterations. Rather than trot out their ill-fated skateboard peripheral for a third time, developer Robomodo has decided that what gamers really want is Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2, again. And, realistically, that may not be all that far from the truth.

School 2, a classic.

The truly unfortunate thing is, gamers want their memories of Tony Hawk 2, not necessarily to play that game again. I found myself guilty of this as well. The first, let’s say 4, Tony Hawk games were amazing games back in their time, and have nostalgia’d their way into the stratosphere of “classic games” for many of us who played them back then. I went back and spent some time with those games in preparation for this review, and still found them enjoyable, albeit with a hint of rose-tinted glasses aiding my vision.

Those early THPS games rose above peers, like Rockstar’s Thrasher, for several reasons. Chief among them: level design. Fantastic levels such as School 1 and 2, Warehouse, and Roswell allowed original developer Neversoft to show off their wild imaginations. Real life locals such as Philly’s FDR and LOVE parks, as well as the sublime SkateStreet were incorporated into slightly fictionalized versions of themselves.

The other major ingredient in THPS’s success was the gameplay engine. Using a heavily modified version of the Apocalypse engine, Neversoft engineered a game that played like a dream. Physics in the Tony Hawk series have always been decidedly arcade-like, and the action is easy enough to grasp that it takes no time at all to bust out some major gaps, or huge grinds. As skills increase, it’s not unheard of to have minute-long combos, resulting in some huge scores. The THPS games rewarded players who learned the layout of the levels, and the locations of all their secrets.

That secret DVD in Venice is still a bitch.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD manages to fuck both of these core tenets up.

The game features a paltry 7 levels. As a downloadable title, this is somewhat forgiven. That is, until you see the levels that were chosen to be included. Pulling from the first two THPS titles, there was a wealth of classic parks to choose from. NYC, Philly, School 1, any of these would have been great inclusions. That’s not what Robomodo serves up here, though.

I guess part of the blame for the dismal level selection can be placed squarely at the ever-aging feet of the Birdman himself. Tony Hawk has always been very hands-on with the development of his games, and that’s usually a good thing. Here, however, that comes back to bite THPS HD right in the ass. Mr. Hawk has always been very peculiar about his favorite THPS levels, particularly levels the fans aren’t all that fond of.

Since his name is on the (digital) box, Tony Hawk has convinced Robomodo that dogshit levels like Mall and Downhill Jam had to be included in THPS HD. Now, let’s get a few things straight: These levels blow. Hard.

Mall and Downhill Jam are among the worst in the entire series. They are relics of the original Pro Skater game, when Neversoft was still testing the waters with what types of level design was fun. It’s no wonder then why downhill levels never appeared in another Neversoft Tony Hawk game. Because they are terrible. They were bad then, and they’re worse now. How could they be worse? Because the gameplay was also totally fucked with.

Cool socks, bro.

Somehow, Robomodo managed to completely shit the bed when trying to recreate the feel of the Tony Hawk engine. THPS HD was built in Unreal 3, presumably because they already had it on hand, and didn’t want to go through the trouble of creating a new engine. That’s all well and good, but several key pieces of THPS gameplay were killed in the process.

Skaters no longer recover after bails, simply the screen flashes to white, and the player resets, typically in the least convenient place possible. If I bail trying to ollie a huge set of stairs, why in the world would you respawn the player in the middle of the staircase, often facing uphill? Speaking of bails, be prepared to watch your skater ragdoll often, as the physics model is so helplessly broken that I often found my skater rocketing into space after crashing into a rail or ledge at an awkward angle. It was funny at first, but rage-inducing after the 500th time.

Controlling the skater is an exercise in futility, as I often found myself fighting against the game, typically when trying to do something as simple as stop my damn character. Part of the blame can be placed on the generally shitty 360 d-pad, but playing THPS on an analog stick is simply wrong. Attempting to turn corners or to reset in front of a rail I wanted to grind was like trying to have sex with drum machine. My skater would shimmy back and forth, bouncing off walls and rails, and generally pissing me off, all because I wanted to stop and turn around.

That's totally normal, right doc?

Simple Tony Hawk Pro Skater tricks, such as Wall rides and wallies, take on new levels of difficulty, due to how utter crap the control is. I often approached a wall; ollie’d up to it at the appropriate angle, and had my skater bash his skull directly into the concrete. If the game really felt like shitting on me, it’d then send him hurling into the atmosphere, presumably to burn up upon re-entry. It’d be hilarious, if it wasn’t so fucking pitiful.

All this being said, I did spend quite some time playing through the game, enjoying it in spots. When it works, the game manages to pull me back to the turn-of-the-century, and all is right with the world. There are plenty of skaters to choose from, ranging from series stalwarts like Rodney Mullen, to newcomers like Tony Hawk’s son, whose name I forget and will not look up.

Online features are what you’d expect, with Score Attack, Graffiti, and other classic multiplayer modes making their return. New modes are included as well, such as a humorous big head game, which challenges the player to rack up combos in order to stop their inflated head from exploding. Career mode goals are just as you remember them, for better or worse, and future DLC promises to bring some levels from THPS 3 into the mix.

The soundtrack features a nice mix of classic tunes, as well as a few new cuts that fit right in. Too often though, I found tracks repeating themselves ad nauseum. If I never hear “Bring the Noise” again, that’d be fine with me. Custom soundtracks are supported, so I’d suggest just plugging in your iPod and going with that.

If you can look past the faults, there is some fun to be had here. It just takes an awful lot of patience to it. Robomodo clearly knows what made the early THPS games so fun, but fail to deliver fully on recreating that. The real problem with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD is that it attempts to be something it’s not: a great game.


Christopher Linendoll is ready to gleam some cubes. He can be reached via Twitter, or found in the hummus section of your local grocery store.


No comments:

Post a Comment