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Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 Review

By Jeff Buckland, 7/26/2003

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The Tony Hawk franchise has seen success on just about every platform it's touched: PC, GameBoy Advance, Dreamcast, PS1, PS2, N64, Xbox, and GameCube. Not all of these ports have been universally great, but the sales show that people love the THPS gameplay. Usually published by Activision, they have instead offloaded the work onto Aspyr to publish the PC & Mac ports of the game. The PC version was developed by Canadian developer Beenox, who is relatively unheardof when it comes to PC gaming.

The PC version of THPS4 could best be described as a port that gets the job done. The visuals aren't significantly improved beyond the increased screen resolution or FSAA capability, nor is there any new content. Still, one has to ask if anything else needed to be added to a game that focuses on tons of goals and challenging gameplay.

The game engine itself works well enough, although the frame rate isn't always consistent. What's more is that the settings that run acceptably on some levels may not be so great on others. The game includes a "distance fog" option, but it completely neuters the game's visuals, and there is no way to adjust at what distance stuff fades into the "fog". You either get a gray soup 50 feet in front of you, or you can see the whole level at once - nothing in between. Distance fog gets turned on by default, which might mean that novice PC gamers who don't want to fiddle with settings may think THPS4 PC looks terrible compared to the console versions. The game doesn't seem to want to behave well with other applications - alt-tabbing out caused several problems where it would continue to take over the computer, or even crash while in the background. It didn't suffer any crashes while actually playing, though; just when I was attempting to switch tasks in WinXP.

Anyone who has played any of the THPS series before can tell you that control is one of the most important parts of the game. For this reason, a gamepad is basically a must for the PC port. Sadly, many PC gamepads are simply inferior pieces of hardware when compared to what you can get on a console; this is why I heartily suggest any PC gamers who need a gamepad to grab a PSX -> USB converter and a PS2 controller. Once you set that up, then this game plays just as well as its console counterparts.

The actual joystick support itself still seemed incomplete to me, as I couldn't set up my PS2 controller's right analog stick to use the game's camera controls - it seemed to want to only accept buttons, not joystick axes, for these functions. Considering that the console versions all used the right analog stick for controlling the camera, it is a bit of a nuisance.

When it comes to the game's menus and other pieces of interface, it's a direct port of the console versions - and if you have no gamepad, then you'll need to get accustomed to using the keyboard's arrow keys and the like. Still, just about everything that's in the console versions is here, although the lack of custom soundtracks (which can be done on the Xbox) is disappointing. You'd think that the PC platform would be the best for doing things like this, but there's zero support at all.

As I said before, THPS4 PC offers no major visual upgrades aside from what is inherent for the platform (high-res and FSAA). Compared to other non-sports games on the PC, the visuals in THPS4 are good, but not great. It'd have been nice to see some higher-quality textures in this PC port, but that didn't seem to happen.

As is with the console versions of the game, this is without a doubt the best-looking Tony Hawk game yet. That's not to say that Gearbox Software's THPS3 port from last year was a failure, but THPS4 upped the size of each level by a pretty significant amount without taking away from the visual quality.

Overall, the characters are well-animated, even if there aren't enough polygons going into the non-skaters placed throughout each level. All of the skate animations look great, and the levels in THPS4 are visually some of the best yet. It shows just how imaginative the series' original developers, Neversoft, are - they have put together four games and managed to keep each new sequel interesting. When it comes to graphics, anything missing from the PC version was missing from the consoles, too.

If you've never had the chance to play a Tony Hawk game before, then starting off with THPS4 can be a bit overwhelming. This is the first game in the series where players can skate around freely, then pick a specific goal to try. As with the console versions, you can pause the game and quickly retry a goal - which will even place you back at the starting point for that goal. Considering how tough some of these things are, it's simply a godsend. For a game with skateboards and tricks, some of these missions can seem a bit complicated, but it goes without saying that you have to add new stuff to each new game in a series if you want it to stay successful.

Don't get me wrong, though; THPS4 is all about skating and skill. Many of the goals are a bit outlandish in nature, but again, originality is needed to keep the series going. At least there's plenty to do in THPS4 - completing all the basic goals will probably last you 40 hours of gameplay to get through, and some of them are very difficult to get through. Once you're done with those, then each of the game's pro skaters gets a specific "pro challenge", and then a bunch of new, harder goals open up once you beat at least one skater's challenge.

For those that have played previous Tony Hawk games, you may or may not find THPS4 to be very fun. It simply depends on how sick of skating you are; few can deny that this is the biggest Tony Hawk yet, but if you were tired of #3 in the series after only a few hours of it, then number four might not rekindle your interest. It seems that fans who have played the hell out of all four games seem to consider the second or third games as the best ones in the series, but by all means, THPS4 is still a fun game on its own.

The best part about these games is that they can easily appeal to non-sports fans - they've almost moved into their own genre (and spawned plenty of clones to go along) since the first one was released over four years ago.

If you already own a console version of THPS4, it probably isn't worth the $40 or so to pick this one up. Unless you're really wanting to get into the multiplayer (more on that next) or just have to have higher-resolution graphics, then you'll find little new in this port.

The one major thing I find different about THPS4 for the PC is that it mostly has the multiplayer capabilities expected of PC version. It supports up to 8 players online, and the MP interface is set up fairly well. Of course, typing in chat messages isn't exactly the most intuitive, as you'll have to bring up the game's menu and pick "Chat Message" from there, but it works. It's still better than the PS2 version's online play, and of course it certainly outdoes the other console versions which had no online play at all.

Note that you'll have to use GameSpy Arcade to browse servers online. While you can type in an IP address to connect to while in-game, you won't be able to pull up a list of servers without an external program. To some, this is a big deal, while it's not for others - for me, I'd rather not have to quit the game just to switch servers, so it's definitely a bad thing in my opinion.

The actual online modes are unique, although you may find that most players will stick with the skill-driven ones to compete on. That being said, I doubt there will be much room for newbies in online play - if the online modes of the PS2 versions of THPS3 & 4 are any indication, only the serious players will be online after a week or two of game time.

Beenox' port of THPS4 does include a couple of new music tracks by a local independent band, but otherwise, the audio is exactly same as the home console versions. And that's for the most part a good thing; the original developers, Neversoft, did a great job in reusing their best skating sounds while redoing just about everything else.

The voice work in THPS4 isn't exactly the best, but you do get to hear the actual pro skaters blurt out some stuff or challenge you to specific goals. It's nothing truly impressive, but it's more than I expected from the THPS games. Not being able to add my own custom soundtracks is frustrating - could it have been really that hard to add?

The PC version of THPS4 is a by-the-book port with one major upgrade: the online mode. If you have no need for online play, though, and you've already gone through the game on a console, then you might want to save your cash. As with the previous Tony Hawk titles, THPS4 is still a great game, and highly recommended for anyone who is new to the series - it's even fun for non-sports fans.

Overall: 87%



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