The Condor has landed.
Nicknames have dominated the sports world since the first competitive event took place back in Ancient Greece. From 'Heartbreaker' Hercules (I swear that's real) to Frank 'Big Hurt' Thomas, nicknames are used to simplify an athlete's greatest asset into one powerful image.
Take the world of BMX. The current grand vizier is Mat Hoffman, nicknamed the 'Condor'. But unfortunately, this nick is fitting for more than one reason.
Sure, like a condor Mat wears all black and seemingly soars through the air astride his bike. But condors are also scavengers, feasting on the remains of the dead. Likewise, Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX scavenges together scraps from the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series and patches 'em together into a brutally derivative (if still decent) experience. At least he's not endangered.
Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX is pretty much what you'd figure - Tony Hawk on a bike. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the THPS games will instantly recognize the menus, gameplay controls and graphics. It almost looks like a mod, though it plays a bit differently.
The lineup of riders is impressive, including X-Games stars like Cory Nastazio, Dennis McCoy and Simon Tabron. Maybe not household names yet, but any BMX fans will recognize 'em instantly.
The tweaks to the THPS engine are most noticeable in the controls. Obviously, riding a bike as opposed to a skateboard opens up a whole new slew of issues. Tricks often take longer to complete since the rider has to get fully back on the bike before landing, else wind up in that awful crotch-meets-handlebars position. Ouch. The timing of button presses is also a little different - you need to hold the directions longer for the tricks to take effect - but by and large the scheme is identical to THPS.
Thankfully, they included the manuals from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 to help tie big tricks together for monster scores. The addition of the ability to pull off tricks by riding fakie (backwards) also adds all kinds of possibilities. Add to that the ability to 'stall' on a ledge to rack up points and you've got a more robust trick system than either THPS game. Some of the more complex combos look amazing.
But while the controls are simple enough, the engine itself seems to have suffered in the translation. You'll occasionally get caught on mysterious ledges, hang in the air too long and crash. A few times I even managed to fall off the bike in mid-air in the middle of a trick. Great for realism, but not great since it's actually a glitch. You'll often nail a landing you should have missed and vice versa. For a game that took so long to ship, you'd figure it would be bereft of bugs.
The graphics are decent if largely bland. The textures are chunky with the occasional big fat wall of pixels standing out. The framerate is solid, but the aforementioned occasional glitches can mar the whole thing.
The gameplay flow is so identical to the original THPS that you might even forget you're playing Mat Hoffman during a load screen. There are eight levels (two are competitions) and each one has five requirements to fulfill in order to gain 'magazine covers' (ie. the 'tapes' in THPS). The requirements themselves are totally redundant - spell T-R-I-C-K, get a Pro score, get a Championship score, find the Secret cover and knock over 5 of something or other (vending machines, satellite dishes, etc). As opposed to the wealth of varied req's in THPS 2 or even the specific trick req's in Dave Mirra Freestyle, the repetitive req's in Mat Hoffman lead to levels that are poorly differentiated.
Some of this can be attributed to the developer switcharoo. While the game is published by Activision and is using a tweaked version of the lauded Tony Hawk engine, it was not developed by Neversoft, the folks behind the Hawk games. Rather, developer credits go to Runecraft and Shaba Games.
Neversoft built some amazing levels for the THPS games; smart design led to levels that seemed open and lines that were happenstance. You really felt like you could go anywhere and do anything. Perhaps due in part to the new development teams, the levels in Mat Hoffman are largely the opposite. It's painfully obvious where to go for the big points with too many connected rails and too many obvious lines. The joy of discovery that made THPS such a great game is sort of lost here. With the exception of the fun Sewage Plant level and the final competition, the areas are pretty forgettable.
At least you can always design your own using the Park editor (another carryover from THPS 2), but it's so much smaller than the normal levels it barely seems worth the effort. Adds some replay, though.
The soundtrack is pretty diverse with tracks from a wide range of bands, including Jurassic 5, OutKast, Bad Brains, the B-52's and token old-schooler Paris. Not shabby, but still nothing here is as good as 'Bring Da Noiz' from THPS 2. Chuck D, where art thou?
The depth brought to the table in THPS 2 is lacking here. You can gain access to 3 bikes per character and can tweak a few settings, but you can't alter stat points to better customize your rider. This was one of the better additions to the THPS franchise and it's odd that they didn't put it in here as well.
The multiplayer adds more game, though it's exactly the same H-O-R-S-E, Trick Attack and Grafitti modes found in you-know-what.
And that's the big problem with Mat Hoffman - it's doesn't do a good job separating itself from it's forbears. I know that consistency is important in a product line, but this ends up looking like such a total copycat job that you wonder where all the effort went. It ends up feeling like Tony Hawk 1.5 instead of it's own actual property. A good game doesn't necessarily have to re-invent the wheel, but how about at least picking some new fonts?
I realize this all sounds pretty harsh, and the fact of the matter is that there's still some fun to be had here. Grinding rails into manuals into big silly tricks for mad points is still plenty of fun, and fans of the 'other' games will certainly enjoy this one for a spell.
But frankly, this type of fun we've all seen for the PSX twice already, and there's not really enough here to warrant dropping the dough and adding it to the collection - so rent before you buy. A move to the PS2 and some serious glitch smoothing could make this a winner, but in the meantime I'll stick with my deck.