Fourth time’s a charm?
When a sports team wins a championship, it’s considered a monumental achievement. When they win it again the next year, it’s validation. When they pull off the rare three-peat, it secures the team’s spot in the history books. And if they manage to nail four in a row, they’re officially an elite dynasty.
By those standards, the Tony Hawk series is a shoo-in as the greatest
action sports trio of all time. They not only birthed a genre, but they also
managed to get better and better with each iteration. That’s not an easy task.
Just ask the Lakers.
after scores of accolades and millions of games sold, the folks at Neversoft
and Activision attempt the supremely difficult by trying to improve upon their
past. And while the excellent Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 easily does justice
to its storied history, this veteran is also getting a little… old. But give
credit to Neversoft for always looking at ways to improve their products, because
THPS 4 is full of nice new touches that will make fans of the series
kickflip with joy.
The game follows the mold of its forbears pretty directly. Pick one of 14
pro skaters and get to work. But this time around, the Career mode has been
altered in an attempt to solve some of the redundancy issues.
It’s now sort of a hybrid between the standard Free Skate (which is still here
as an option) and the classic Career. You pick a level and start skating, but
unlike all the earlier versions, there is no initial time restraint. Instead,
you’re free to explore the level to your heart’s content until you decide to
start a goal, which is done by skating up to one of the various people hanging
out with arrows flashing over their head. At that point, a goal will begin,
usually starting a timer and requiring you to complete the objective before
time runs out.
With about 16 initial goals per level, this new formula gives you much more
freedom in your quest to unlock further levels. Accomplishing goals gets you
points, which in turn are used to open levels. It’s a much quicker process all
around and will allow even novice THPS gamers to start making headway
into the game fairly quickly.
Once again, the levels themselves uphold the fantastic design Neversoft has
become famous for. They’re enormous, for one thing, featuring tons of cool lines
and gaps aplenty. It also takes much longer to grow tired of each level, thanks
to the wealth of things to do and interesting goal types. New to this version
are mini-games, which can be found scattered around a few of the levels. You
can play a game of tennis or whack some baseballs, though they’re all pretty
lame and don’t work very well.
As if there weren’t enough to do, you’ll also gain cash by beating goals or finding it lying around the levels, which is then used to buy new boards and gear. Cash can also be used to unlock ‘cheats’, including 2 extra levels, 4 extra skaters and a ton of weird modes and clothing.
But despite the new twists to Career mode, the same problems that affected
Career mode in the past arise again. Sure, you can skate around and explore
the level to get a better lay of the land, but you’ll still need to collect
the ‘S-K-A-T-E’ letters in 2 minutes, beat the level score in under 2 minutes,
string together a 200,000 point run in under 2 minutes, etc. It just makes it
a little less frustrating initially.
Gone are the days when you have to play through the whole thing a dozen times
– instead, your skater points are carried through all the skaters in Career
mode, so if you beat the game with one guy, you’ve essentially opened up all
the levels and the new ‘pro challenges’ for every guy. The pro challenges are
specific to each skater and are unlocked once you reach a set number of pro
points. They’re quite creative, but also quite tough.
For that matter, THPS 4 is a hard game overall. The controls and gameplay
are pretty much identical to THPS 3,
so if you’ve mastered that, you’ll jump into this like a duck to water. The
moves list is truly sick – flatland tricks in particular have been expanded
greatly. And as always, perfecting the manual-grind-manual-vert-revert-manual
combos will net the monster scores, which is cool…
…but also a little too familiar. The guts of the game have not changed much
since the original THPS,
though each version has added an important new twist. THPS
2 gave us the manual. THPS 3 gave us the revert. THPS 4 gives
us two new abilities: the ability to skitch (holding on to the back of moving
vehicles, Back to the
Future style) and the ability to ‘spine transfer’. The former is self-explanatory
and marginally useful, though the latter can be implemented into combos for
yet greater linking by allowing you to safely transfer from ramp to ramp. It’s
a nice addition, but not nearly as important as the manual or the revert, and
frankly I rarely use it for comboing.
THPS 4 gives us excruciatingly difficult requirements to meet. Honestly,
some of the score requirements and goal requirements will have even a solid
THPS player breaking his thumbs. I’ve played every THPS game for
just about every system and I still had a hard time with some of the advanced
challenges, and flat out cannot pass some of the challenges at all. A 500,000
point combo? Who am I, Luke Skywalker? With enough
methamphetamines I’m sure I can handle this, but I cannot imagine what a
newbie to the series would do, aside from a ripping out a string of expletives
and a handful of hair.
But blame that on outrageous difficulty rather than poor control or graphics.
THPS 4 looks pretty good, with a blazing framerate and very little
pop-up. That’s a nice feat considering the size of the levels. The skaters are
a little stiff in their modeling, but they look comfy on the boards, and their
animations are accurate. It won’t win any awards for it, but the game looks
good where it’s supposed to.
And it sounds good too, with another eclectic soundtrack filled with old school
hip hop, punk and rock. Of course, replaying the same goal for 20 minutes will
likely lead you to shut off the music out of irritation, but it still rocks.
THPS 3 was a multiplayer masterpiece because Neversoft figured out
a way to get it online despite the fact that Sony’s network was still 8 months
off. However, the game options were somewhat sparse. THPS 4 takes advantage
of the PS2 online feature in force this time out with a nice assortment of online
multiplayer game types. I’ve had very little lag and a lot of fun with it, though
the veterans of the series seriously dominate the online servers. There’s also
the ubiquitous offline multiplayer modes like HORSE and Graffiti for those without
a PS2 modem.
Need more gameplay? Then check out the expanded Park Creator, which loads faster than before and is even more intuitive. In a very nice move, Neversoft allows you to edit pre-made parks to your liking, as well as building some from scratch. It’s a very handy designer for those with the time and the interest.
But like the rest of THPS 4, this seems to be pointed directly at the
veterans of the series rather than new gamers, and I have serious doubts that
anyone who hasn’t played the earlier versions will stand much of a chance at
making it through this one. One thing to help would have been a ‘difficulty’
slider, perhaps lowering the score requirements or extending the time limits
for novices. As it stands, only those who are already good at the Tony Hawk
games will find this version to be as fun as it actually is.
Lucky for me, I’m one of those people, and this game is as addictive and fun as ever. It offers a nice assortment of new stuff for the fans and will definitely test your skills. There’s a good reason why this is the end-all-be-all of skating games. Highly recommended, but also highly difficult.