Breathing new life into an old franchise is never an easy task for a developer. Breathing new life into a franchise long considered dead and buried is an even harder task for a developer. Attempting to breathe new life into an old, beloved franchise that has been largely ignored for the better part of the decade – a franchise that has hit rock bottom by packaging a ridiculous plastic skateboard peripheral with its latest game – is surely the hardest task that any developer could hope to accomplish. The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series is one that carries a huge amount of love and nostalgia for gamers, due largely to its sharp controls, kick-ass soundtrack, customisation options, and ability to poke fun at itself. However, with the release of Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland in 2005, public affection for the series began slipping dramatically – the most recent title, Tony Hawk: Shred, managed to sell a measly 3,000 copies in its first week of sales in the United States.
Apparently realising the error of their ways, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD (herein referred to as THPS:HD) is a serious attempt to bring back the simplistic joy of the first couple of games. This hopeful entry has the same career mode as was featured in the earlier games, and features direct remakes of seven maps from the first two games. After choosing a pro skater (the lack of Chad Muska pissed me right off), you guide him (or her) through the seven maps, racking up points, chaining tricks, collecting SKATE, finding hidden DVDs (not tapes this time around), and completing other challenges that reek pleasantly of skating nostalgia. As the primary aim of THPS:HD was to recreate the pure joy from the original series, however, it’s important that we discuss exactly what’s been done right in picking the franchise up from the dirt, and what’s been done horribly, horribly wrong.
I’m sure you’d all agree with me that the soundtrack is an extremely important of any Tony Hawk game. The nostalgia of the Pro Skater games is largely driven by the pure punk awesomeness that makes up the soundtracks. There’s nothing quite like dropping into a level and seeing your character step on their board as Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” rears its loud, ugly head, causing you to involuntarily begin headbanging. In HD, the soundtrack is made up of half songs from THPS 1 and 2, and half of songs new to the franchise. The first half are fantastic – the Public Enemy and the Goldfinger incites that same feeling of badassery that fans of the series will be so familiar with. The latter half of the song selection, however, is completely indie rock and alternative hip hop; or, in other words, songs with no business on a Tony Hawk game. If you’re trying to build a game based around nostalgia and a return to roots, you need to make sure that the soundtrack stays constant. The lack of punk or heavy hip hop – the sounds that fans, including myself, instantly associate with the Pro Skater line – underlines a lack of attention to features that aren’t directly related to gameplay.
That said, the gameplay is an extremely well crafted reproduction of the seamless skating action from the Pro Skater games. Everything is responsive and smooth, combos are perfectly difficult to string together, muscle memory will take over your fingers as you skate around, and rail/manual/lip balance is still fiendishly hard to master. Instead of picking up skill point tokens as you do in THPS3, you collect cash tokens throughout the level, and earn it by completing goals. You then use this cash to purchase new tricks and extra skill points. If I have one major complaint about gameplay – and I do – it’s that reverts, the all-powerful method of chaining aerial tricks into your combos via manuals, are missing. I’m aware that the revert was only introduced in the third instalment of the franchise, which will be supported via upcoming DLC, however it’s a feature that would have greatly improved the maps from the first two games, leaving me simply stunned that it wasn’t included. Even when it comes via DLC, it will only be usable in the included maps, not the ones already present. This is what happens when a classic is remade and the team behind it is too scared to alter things that would, in actuality, improve the overall game. At any rate, reverts could have been an optional feature, and their use noted on the leaderboard scores.
Online play is implemented, as you’d expect. The classic gamemodes are there – graffiti, in which you compete at “tagging” objects on the map by including them in a high-scoring combo, Score Attack, in which you simply strive for the highest score at the end of a set time limit, the much loved Free Skate mode, and an all new mode, Big Head. In Big Head, your head slowly grows bigger while you’re not scoring points. You have to chain combos and score points in order to ensure that your head size is kept to a minimum. Fail to do so, and your head explodes. As you can imagine, this leads to some very hectic times as your head reaches 98% size and you have to land that last combo.
What you wouldn’t expect is the lack of split-screen multiplayer. For a game that is trying so hard to recreate your experiences with the game a decade ago, the absence of such an important feature is a huge oversight. My best memories of Pro Skater consist of Free Skating with a friend on the weekend, constantly knocking each other off our skateboards. We were sitting next to each other on the couch, not at our respective houses, playing online. I tried online play – it was fun, but nothing compared to having an round of split-screen.
Another glaring omission is any sort of customisation options. The first thing I’d do upon obtaining a new Tony Hawk game was create my skater. I was absolutely dumbfounded when I realised that that wasn’t going to happen here – I looked through every menu for a selection that I might have missed, in search of an option to create a skater. And if you’re one of those people who spent hours on the park creator, forget about it. But why? Can you imagine the potential? Honestly, picture it – the best skate parks created by the most creative gamers being shared via the internet, playable by all. Leaderboards, challenges by way of custom gaps, the possibilities are endless. If there’s one thing that should have been included in THPS:HD, it was custom parks and the ability to share them. I’m still struggling to come to terms with the fact that it’s not there.
Nevertheless, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD is still a lot of fun. I had a blast skating around the polished, recreated maps, even if a large amount of my time was spent wistfully thinking about what could have been. There’s still nothing quite like making the perfect landing to a huge combo, making you feel like the true master of the skateboard. That is until you notice that the global leaderboard on Warehouse is topped by a score of 17 million, and you only got 200,000. The sense of exploration so crucial to the series is still present, with secrets and hidden goodies around every corner. It’s just such a shame that, while somewhat enjoyable, THPS:HD missed its chance to be the landmark title in a classic series.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD by Activision. The platform it was reviewed on was the PS3.