Oh how the mighty have fallen. There was a time around the turn of the century where I would have told you that the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise was one of video game's strongest. It was right at the time when Neversoft had perfected the controls, figured out how to design incredible levels and added online multiplayer. But as the years went on and the installments kept coming, the brand started to lose some of its spark. They tried adding story, an open world and other gimmicks to the franchise, but none of this made the series feel fresh and new again. By the time Tony Hawk's Proving Ground came around I was sick of complaining and ready for something completely different. Had I known the difference would be Tony Hawk Ride, I would never have complained about lackluster efforts like Tony Hawk's Proving Ground and American Wasteland.
Seeing the success of the Guitar Hero franchise and Nintendo's WiiFit Balance Board, Activision decided to give the Tony Hawk franchise a brand new plastic peripheral. Instead of using your hands to pull of tricks and impress the pros, Tony Hawk Ride offers you the opportunity to stand on a fake plastic skateboard and mimic tricks similar to that in the game. On paper this sounds awesome, especially for people with fond memories of arcade skateboarding games like Top Skater. But don't be fooled, because Tony Hawk Ride is the biggest disaster of 2009.
But let's not jump directly into the negative just yet. When I opened my copy of Tony Hawk Ride I was surprised at how sturdy the board felt. I'm not exactly the skinniest games journalist on the planet, but I never felt like I was going to break the board with my enormous frame. I was also impressed with the size, which is only a few inches shorter than a standard skateboard. The only real difference is how thick the Tony Hawk Ride board is and the fact that there aren't any wheels.
No matter how impressive the board actually is, what matters is how well it handles. Unfortunately this is where the game completely falls apart. After a quick video showing you how to calibrate the skateboard, Tony Hawk is ready to teach you some tricks. He starts with the basic, including the ollie (a standard jump), which you perform by leaning on the back and bringing the board to a 45 degree angle. To pull off a flip trick you do an ollie plus lean to one side or the other. As the tutorial goes on we learn how to do a number of impressive tricks, all with the use of the fake plastic skateboard.
The problem is that many of the more complicated tricks require a superhuman level of precise maneuvering. The videos that teach you these advance techniques make it look easy, but the game requires you to be exact when attempting a trick. For example, to do a flip trick you are supposed to go into an ollie and then rotate the board 90 degrees to the left or right. This is something I have no problem doing, but getting it to register in the game consistently is a real chore. The game often refuses to recognize my moves, even when I've done exactly what the tutorial taught me to do.
Things go from bad to worse when you start trying to add grabs and inverts to your repertoire. The skateboard has four different sensors, one of the front, back, left and right of the board. The idea is to put your hand down around the sensor when you want to grab the board during a trick. Like everything else in the game, this action only works once or twice out of every ten attempts. It's also extremely awkward to kneel down and wave your hand over the sensor; you might as well be touching your toes while keeping your eyes on the TV screen.
Think things can't get any worse? Wait until you realize that there's a slight lag between what you are doing on the board and what the character is doing in the game. Early on this slight delay isn't a deal breaker, but the more you play the game (and the more advanced the challenges get) this lag really becomes noticeable and detrimental to your enjoyment. The game teaches you that in order to pull off the perfect move you will need to start everything a little early (and have a lot of luck).The game isn't set up like most Tony Hawk games, where you have a large level full of conveniently placed objects for you to grind and trick off of. Instead the game gives you a series of short, mostly linear locations for you to ride through. In this sense the game feels like a gigantic step backwards, offering only a few items to trick on instead of a whole city to master. We start out in Southern California, then make your way to Chicago, New York and so on so forth. These are interesting places; it's a shame that they are so limited in this game's structure.
Unfortunately the cool level designs aren't the only thing to get the boot in this Tony Hawk reboot. You'll quickly discover that the traditional challenges are nowhere to be found, the multiplayer has been scrapped for something new and the sense of exploration has been completely removed. Instead we get something that looks and feels more like a poorly designed Skate rip-off than a real Tony Hawk game. And that's one of my biggest complaints, even if the board worked flawlessly, it still wouldn't look or feel like a Tony Hawk game.
Each of the game's six cities is broken up into multiple locations with different game modes to beat. The game modes are always the same, so don't expect a lot of surprises in Tony Hawk Ride. Chicago, for example, offers two different areas (Lower Wacker Drive and Lopp Plaza), each with a Speed mode, Trick mode and Challenge mode. Earn enough points in these modes and you'll be able to move on to a half-pipe challenge, where you actually have to change the way the board is facing and learn a whole new set of moves. Once you've completed that you can move on to the final challenge, which will give you a set of rules and a score to beat. Do all this and you're off to the next city, where you'll end up doing it all over again.
But let's not gloss over the various game modes found in each location. The Speed mode is definitely my favorite, as it involves you speeding through the narrow levels trying to beat somebody else's best time. You manipulate time by collecting green icons that subtract time from the clock, and avoiding the red icons that add time to the clock. There's also the Trick mode, which has you going through the same level pulling off tricks and grinding on anything that gets in your way. At the end of the run your score will be judged against the computer's scores and you will be awarded points.
These two modes are easily the most enjoyable parts of Tony Hawk Ride. It's possible for you to completely mess up in one of these modes and still have a reasonably good time playing the game. Sadly that is not the case for the Challenge mode. In this mode you are given a series of moves to pull off, once you've accepted the challenge the game puts you on the right track and it's your job to do what it asked within the time frame. For example, the game will ask you to ollie over the wall then grind that wall and do a flip trick back onto the ground. At first these challenges are short and easy, but before long these tasks will be lengthy and full of tricks the game "forgot" to teach you. Worse yet, if you miss a trick at the beginning, you'll still have to ride through the rest of the level before it allows you to start over.
The Challenge mode is frustrating beyond belief, to the point where the game ceased to be enjoyable at all. It's in this mode where I realized that the board just doesn't act as advertised. I was running the same challenge two dozen times, simply because the game didn't want to register the trick I was doing on the fake plastic board. No matter what I tried or how many times I watched the tutorial video, the board was simply not consistent enough for this type of mode. And because so much of the game relies on these challenges, it won't take long before most people throw their hands in their air and go back to playing Skate.I hate to keep comparing this Tony Hawk game to EA's Skate franchise, but that's exactly what it is. All of these modes feel like they were stolen directly from the Skate franchise. The only real difference between Tony Hawk Ride and Skate is the fact that Electronic Arts had the good sense to add some fun filler content and gave you a full city to explore. Here you're limited to small, narrow areas and repeating challenges.
I stood on my fake plastic skateboard in complete disbelief. It's not just that the board is hard to control and often unresponsive, but also the fact that none of the game modes are worth playing for extended amounts of time. Sure, I enjoyed the Trick and Speed modes, but I also found myself able to beat the scores and times on the first try, giving me little to no reason to go back and try them again. The game just isn't that much fun. Even if the controls were perfect and the board worked properly, I still wouldn't be having any fun. Too much of the original Tony Hawk gameplay has been removed in order to make this inadequate Skate clone. This game wouldn't be fun with a standard Xbox 360 control and it's certainly not good with an unresponsive skateboard peripheral.
It's worth mentioning that the game comes with three different difficulty settings, each altering the game to better give you the experience you want. Early on most people will play on Casual mode, a mode that doesn't require you to do any actual steering. As lame as it sounds, the game is at its best when you are only responsible for the tricks. Once you bump it up to the other two difficulties you'll have to not only deal with pulling off tricks, but also lining everything up properly. This would be fine if the controls worked properly, but when you're dealing with Activision's skateboard all bets are off.
On top of the boring single-player mode, you can also go head to head with friends in the multiplayer modes. Gone are the days of seeing a bunch of people skating around in a wide open area, the multiplayer mode here requires you to take turns using the board. These modes are an absolute disaster, especially for anybody who grew up playing the Tony Hawk series against friends and strangers online.
What I didn't know going into Tony Hawk Ride was how dependent it was on the Xbox 360 control. You will need the game pad for pretty much every menu screen and even for navigating from one area to the next. Worse yet, every time you earn a new high score or complete a challenge, the game will force you to grab the control and enter your name. Every single time. I'm spending half the game grabbing the control, which simply makes me yearn for a time when I can just play it with the actual pad.
Tony Hawk Ride is an absolute nightmare. It's the type of game that could very easily kill the Tony Hawk franchise. Even if developers Robomodo do manage to make a better sequel, I fear that too much of what made Tony Hawk games fun has been removed. As far as I'm concerned this is a noble effort, but at $120 you might as well go buy a real skateboard and learn how to pull off real moves. The graphics will be better and at least the board will be responsive. I'm sorry, but this is one Ride I want to get off of.