Developer: Robomodo / Publisher: Activision / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: 1200 MSP ($15) / ESRB: Teen (Violence, Blood)
Tony Hawk has been synonymous with crappy peripherals and boring gameplay lately. The golden years of the Tony Hawk franchise of skateboarding games were more than a decade ago with the release of the first two games (and some can argue the third and fourth), but since then the series has taken a sharp turn for the worse. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD is the first attempt to amend the issue by bringing back what made the first two games successful while improving the game’s visuals and adding online play.
THPS:HD takes the mechanics of the first two games and throws out everything that came in later games: no more story segments, the only time you’ll be off your skateboard is when you bail and miss landing your trick, and the only words spoken are the song lyrics. The core gameplay revolves around performing tricks like grabs and grinds to attain a high score. The amount of tricks your skater can perform is impressive, with a handful available from the beginning but dozens open up as you complete objectives and earn cash to purchase new ones. The single player mode is what fans of the first games will remember most. Each of the seven levels are taken directly from THPS1 and THPS2 including classics like the Warehouse and Venice Beach, with each stage tasking you to complete any number of eight goals in two minutes. These goals are relatively similar for each level, including attaining a high score, collecting the letters S-K-A-T-E, and finding a hidden VHS tape DVD. The placement of these collectibles are identical to their placement in the original games, so purists will appreciate the attention to detail. Completing goals earns your skater money which you can use to improve stats like hangtime, rail balance, and speed, as well as use to purchase new tricks. Put simply, THPS:HD feels just like it felt when playing the series in the early 2000s. The game is rooted in nostalgia, and rediscovering how much fun you use to have grinding on railings and jumping over ridiculously long distances is incredibly pleasant and satisfying.
Aside from the main single player mode there are a handful of other modes to play around with. Free skate lets you tear it up on a level without worrying about a time limit, which can help you hone your skills and find the perfect combination of tricks to get a high score later. Big head survival mode constantly inflates your skater’s melon unless you keep performing tricks and get a higher and higher score. Hawkman mode places pellets throughout each stage you must collect by performing a specific trick type when next to each. These modes are fun diversion, but not nearly as in-depth as the main game. An online mode has been added, allowing four skaters to compete in a variety of modes, including trick (high score wins), big head elimination, graffiti (perform tricks to tag the area as yours, and the player with the most tags at the end wins), and free skate (in case you wanted a skateboarding videogame lobby). Online play is quite fun, with trick being my favored play mode, and can easily add hours of game time to your experience. There is no offline split-screen play however, so if you want to throw down with friends you’ll have to play online.
The basics of the gameplay feel almost identical to the first two games, but just about everything else feels slightly off. First difference is the roster of available skaters. The roster includes the Hawkman himself, as well as veterans Rodney Mullen and Andrew Reynolds among others. But the addition of brand new skaters (like Hawk’s son, Riley) come as a strange, unwanted addition. There are only seven available levels, and this number is criminally low, especially considering the Xbox version of THPS2 featured every level from the first two games, and then some. Also MIA are the create-a-skater and level editor found in THPS2. These omissions take away tremendously from the overall appeal of the game: it’s over too quickly and doesn’t feel like a complete, nostalgic experience. I’ve read that future DLC will allow for more levels, but frankly these should have been included with the original release.
Seeing as I’m about as balanced on a skateboard as a monkey in roller skates standing on one foot while eating a bowl of cereal, THPS was the only way I’d ever get close to being a kickass skateboarder. I loved how well the game handheld on the N64 and PS1: it was easy to execute tricks and string together 100,000 point combos like it was nothing. The same can’t be said for THPS:HD. You perform tricks by pressing a face button in unison with a directional button. Each direction is linked to a different move (which can be changed as you see fit), but pressing B and right at the same time is easier said than done. In every session I played, I performed one trick when I meant to perform another. Certain tricks, like your skater’s special moves, require two direction presses and then X, B, or Y button, and doing these are very difficult. The problem is just as bad (if not worse) on the d-pad as it is on the control stick. Even when I took my time and precisely entered the inputs I still was only successful 50% of the time. Outside of performing tricks, movement is tight and responsive. Mastering spinning and landing your tricks perfectly takes time, but doing so will warrant significant increases to your score. It’s just too bad the game doesn’t respond as well as it could and should.
With a name like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD the game better look good. I can say this: THPS:HD is a significant improvement over the visuals of THPS1 and THPS2. Characters look much less blocky than they did before, and have more details like sponsor’s insignia on shirts. The stages themselves look much better, too. Everything old is new again as the Schoolyard and Hangar received a shot of Botox in the form of cleaned up colors and smoother graphics overall. There were some hiccups I experienced with the visuals: I clipped through the floor a few times after falling off my board, and the camera can get caught up in awful places when you’re in a corner. But for the most part the game looks great and takes the look of the older levels and gives them a facelift.
The soundtrack for each Tony Hawk game is almost as recognizable as the games themselves, with countless songs rekindling memories of half pipes and 90’s. Much like the characters included in the game, the soundtrack is a mix of old favorites and new entries. This time though it isn’t as sorely missed as the skaters. Hearing Goldfinger’s “Superman” or Powerman 5000’s “When Worlds Collide” play while skating through the Warehouse or Hangar makes me feel 12 again, like I’m playing on the PS1. New songs might not sit well with fans looking for complete translations of the original soundtracks (which were awesome in their own right), but there are still standout songs. Each tune has a fast pace, rocking beats that feel very fitting for a skateboarding game. Overall I thought the soundtrack was a great mix of classic and fresh songs, and should be appreciated by fans of the series even if their favorite wasn’t included.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD was supposed to be a return to form for the series, and it successfully captures the essence of the original two games that made them so fun all those years ago. Single player mode, with its objective based gameplay, feels just like the first two games. The updated visuals give the dated games a fresh look, but the exclusion of levels and options like the park editor are sorely missed. Finicky controls and a lack of content hurt too, but the core gameplay and mechanics are solid and entertaining enough to warrant reliving the first games, and, for some, discovering why the Tony Hawk franchise was so popular.