Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD Review
Skateboarding games sure went downhill, didn't they? Back in 1999, Neversoft and Activision revolutionized extreme sports games with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater on the PlayStation, N64, and Dreamcast, and every year for the next seven, Neversoft tried to revamp and improve on the formula. Many fans agree that it was the fourth game that was the turning point for the series and where things started to fall apart. Each game that followed got more ridiculous, adding features but getting away from the raw and simple fun of the original three games. In my reviews, I kept urging Activision to Neversoft to slow down and break the yearly cycle to put more effort into something that made bigger changes. Now that EA and their Skate games have run their course and Activision also figured out that their custom-controller setup for Tony Hawk Ride & Shred was pretty awful from inception all the way through to execution, I guess it's time to return to the roots. Hence, Activision brings us Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD, a downloadable title that tries to encompass the best of the first two games, gives everything a high-def overhaul, and drops us back in with much of the original licensed music and attitude.
Tony Hawk HD seamlessly integrates chunks of both games together into one, bringing bits and pieces from the second game into levels from the first, and at first, you'll be doing all of the goals from the original games, like collect SKATE, break barrels, get high/pro/sick scores, and finding the secret DVD (rather than secret tape, and this seems just as archaic now as the VHS tape did back then). As before, you'll be completing goals and picking up cash icons to build up a bankroll, then spending that money on stat points and new special moves for your skater. Unlocking new maps requires you to complete a certain number of goals on the previous one, and while we at some point have all seen videos of people completing every goal on a map within the allotted two minutes, I can tell you that if you haven't played a Tony Hawk game in a while, you're going to be much worse at this game than you remember, or at least until you spend an hour or two re-familiarizing yourself with everything. You'll be fumbling to line things up, forgetting where the "E" in "SKATE" is, and delivering new ragdoll physics-powered bails all over nearly every map until you refresh some of that old muscle memory for correctly landing combos.
Your skater will have sub-par stats at the beginning, too, and only once you have dumped points into some stats will you be able to pull off that ridiculous epic-length grind combo you faintly remember doing a decade ago. And you know what? If you're like me, it'll feel really good; after all these years fiddling around with motion controls and touch screens, I found there's something really enticing about just getting on a controller and playing a fast-paced, twitchy game the way I used to when I was younger. And unlike today's action-RPGs, where forty hours of play turns your character into a nearly-unkillable god but you still feel like the same idiot fumbling at the gamepad, Tony Hawk HD makes you feel like you and the skater you control are both vastly improving simultaneously. That dual progression seems to have been lost in many games we see today, but it's very natural here - it's just like it was in the old days, and it's nice to experience that again. And now, once you've completed all Career-mode goals on a given map with a certain skater, that unlocks a leaderboard display appearing at the top-right of the screen while you're playing, challenging you to beat the next-best score on the leaderboard.
Tony Hawk HD gives you Career, Single Session, and Free Skate mode along with a few new single player modes using the existing maps. A couple of these demand some serious skill if you want to do well, so they're really better suited until after you've gotten the hang of the game again. But leaderboards are available all over the place, too, so if you feel like you're an old-school Tony Hawk pro, then get those knuckles cracking because this game is full of competition for top scores and lowest times. One thing I do want to mention is the list of seven maps included in this game: School II, Marseilles, Venice Beach, Warehouse, Hangar, Downhill Jam, and Mall. Now, everyone's going to have their favorites and I'd say it's probably a vital requirement to have Warehouse in there just for nostalgia's sake (being it's the first map from the first game), but otherwise, I'm just not a big fan of at least three of the seven maps that the developers chose to put into Tony Hawk HD.
As far as visuals go, everything's been re-textured with some decent art, but it's important to mention that the maps themselves were originally designed for the PlayStation, a console released in the US seventeen years ago. In doing this HD remake, Robomodo smartly chose not to change the geometry of these maps, because that would screw up the retro gameplay and memories of how to play these classic levels, but the downside is a certain ugliness that couldn't realistically have been avoided. So while the textures are nice and the developers got to improve the skater models, do expect to see a lot of low-poly architecture and two-generation-old level design. There was no better choice to make, however, not for a game that costs fifteen bucks.
Tony Hawk's mechanics for movement and scoring did change a lot over the years, and but this game pretty much draws the line at what went into Tony Hawk 2. So while the revert command and animation is in, it adds no score and won't continue your combo. Things like spine transfers, leveling out from vert to horizontal, or grind transitions (tapping two-button combinations of X, Y, and B in mid-grind to switch to new grinds) are gone, too. Keeping a combo going with manuals is enabled on all maps, however, including the ones pulled from the first game.
A few other changes should probably be documented here. First: the only multiplayer mode is online, and it's mostly reminiscent of the modes we saw back when the Tony Hawk games were still young and online play was only just getting added to games. Offline multiplayer is out of the game entirely, which is kind of a shame. Next up is the skatepark editor, which has been a long-time standard of a Tony Hawk game - and unfortunately, it has been cut completely, too. Finally, the soundtracks of the first two games aren't entirely intact here, with several of the more beloved songs from the originals not getting the licensing renewal for the new game. To compensate, Activision did manage to add some relatively appropriate new tracks to the mix, but it's just not quite the same as having the originals.
Despite some missing things and relatively minor disappointments, I think the biggest issue I have is that Tony Hawk 3, my favorite game in the series, is not represented at all in this package - or at least, not until Activision goes ahead and puts up THPS3 content for what we've heard will be five bucks. Either way, if this is Activision's way of deciding whether an entirely new skateboarding game running on a regular controller could be successful, then I hope Tony Hawk HD sells well enough to do that and greenlight a new game for Robomodo to make. But that's in the future; right now, if you've got any desire at all to go back to those old games, then dropping fifteen bucks to get a solid distillation of the first two Tony Hawk games on your modern console is a good move. If you're too young to remember them or you just never got around to them, I will certainly recommend a purchase, but it helps if you enjoyed other extreme sports games over the years. So the classics have been resurrected in one nice package, and while it's not a total home run, it'll scratch that itch you might've been feeling for something - anything - like the original Tony Hawk games.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a bought Xbox 360 version of the game.