"As Familiar As The First Two Titles, To A Fault?"
For some reason, I can’t seem to feel any enthusiasm whatsoever about the rest of this year in gaming. The first six months have been shallow at best, with only three or so titles that have stood out as “must plays”, with the rest being completely mediocre or worse. Unfortunately we’re deep into the summer season – a notoriously dry time for gaming as a whole, further intensifying my dismay over this years releases. Microsoft attempts to remedy this situation every year with their Summer of Arcade event, which is a month long XBLA release event. For the most part, the yearly lineup has been fantastic, with 2010 producing some of the best games yet from the promotion.
This year, an HD remake of two of the most cherished titles from the 32 bit era takes center stage as not only the feature release in the Summer of Arcade, but probably the only title that really interests me at all – Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD (THPSHD). I’ve clamored on about the original version of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and how it remains one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. I enjoyed its sequel as well, but my heart always belonged to the former. With the series returning from its sabbatical in an old school form, how does the package hold up?
With each iteration, newer, game changing additions were added to the gameplay. Some for the better (manuals) and some, not so much (the board peripheral spelled the beginning of the end of the franchise). THPSHD completely revolves around the first two titles, from gameplay, to stages, to music and so on (with incoming DLC revolving around THPS3’s stages and control setups). A handful of stages from each of the first two titles were incorporated, with most everything I can recall being replicated all in the right areas. They are not the gargantuan amounts of real estate as seen in the likes of Tony Hawk’s Underground or Tony Hawk’s Project 8, but with each stage unlocked, more availability and possibilities open up for some sick tricks.
Each stage has a set of goals the players must obtain. Depending on the players familiarity with the mechanics and the size of the stage its self, they range from laughably easy, to maddeningly frustrating. Much of the collection tasks, such as gathering the five letters that form the word SKATE, is reliant mostly upon memorization of the stage themselves. The goals themselves are nothing extravagant, but they are a laundry list of tasks for players to obtain during their career. Each goal gains money that can be used to purchase skill upgrades (still an unfathomable addition to any game), boards and other goodies, both cosmetic and skill wise. On top of that, the players Xbox Live avatar can be a skater, in both single and multiplayer affairs. They do look a bit unusual when skating alongside the rest of the cast, but it gives a more personal feel to the experience.
As the moniker states, THPSHD has gone through a high definition visual adjustment. While surroundings and skaters remain faithful to the games they were originally birthed, they are far more detailed is most every way. Watching Tony Hawk’s hood and draw strings flop about as he barrels downhill is a commendable touch, as well as the grimaces on each skaters face when they bail hard on a failed trick. It may not be a stunning visual construction, but the update at least fits the XBLA quality bill.
Staying with the classic motif, THPSHD retains a familiar set of controls found in the first two installments, which can unveil its share of drawbacks, depending on who you are. The irritation of having the right analog disabled takes some time to get used to, mostly due to the fact that even if I remember that the classics did not utilize a right analog, it feels as if it could have made a bit more difference in scoping out the terrain. When it comes to pulling off each trick, everything is quite reminiscent of the aforementioned titles, which relied upon pressing or holding a direction while pressing another button or two. It’s about experimentation really, and to the novice or someone returning from an extended hiatus, with the myriad of grinds, jumps, manuals and such, it can be a daunting task to get a firm grip on the mechanics.
Sadly THPSHD doesn’t offer any kind of in game tutorials, again harping back to its roots in which players were expected to grind it out (pun intended) and learn it the hard way. There is a “How To Play” section in the menus like most every other XBLA release, however most will either gloss over it and forget the amount of information that is laid out for them (and there’s quite a bit to soak in), or be completely oblivious to its existence. There really isn’t much that could be done in terms of hand holding; it’s quite faithful of what the original titles presented, and for better or worse, it’s a faithful port of what was available. It’s nice that something was made readily available, though trial and error sessions seems to be the best way to go.
Robomodo added in a handful of Xbox Live enabled multiplayer games to the package. Free Skate is an online practice arena lets four players freely skate around, learning the ropes with others around them, while Trick Attack has players attempting to gain the highest points total within two minutes. Graffiti has players pulling off tricks, grinds and so on, all throughout the level, with other players needing to best their score on that grind or trick to capture the spot, with the player who has the most areas tagged by time over as the winner. Finally Big Head Elimination has players attempting to keep their heads from popping (of a balloon if you’re playing as your XBL avatar) but consistently performing tricks. Be the last one with your head intact and you win. The only real drawback to the multiplayer offering is the lack of players online. It can be attributed to the fact that the game is brand new, but luckily the few games I have entered, have been immaculate. Lag free connections led to an enjoyable experience overall. I just hope the post launch day traffic increases steadily, as THPSHD can be a worthwhile way to pass an hour or so, every so often.
Unfortunately, there’s one relatively large setback to the overall game, and it’s not something I ever thought would be a factor in taking the experience down a notch – the music. The sound effects all hit their marks and there’s little to nothing to complain about there. For the most part, the music is the same as well, however someone at Robomodo thought it would be a good idea to play the soundtrack as one continuous loop. As of this writing, there’s no way to shuffle through any of the songs, or even repeat them until you go mad, like I used to do with Goldfinger’s Superman in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. It’s a rather large oversight, as not only did the original releases have the ability to select tracks during each stage, but some may want to associate one song to one track, and are unable to do so this time around. Most of the new tracks match the feel of a Tony Hawk title, though there are one or two that I would love to fast forward past, but just simply cannot.
I can safely say that my time with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD has been, for the most part, an enjoyable experience. As a fan of the franchise (mostly up to Underground) I really appreciate the overall feel being as close to the first two games as it is, and I’ve kinda enjoyed learning the ropes once again. The problem is, a good chunk of the audience will be put off by the lack of an in game tutorial, lack of camera control from the right analog stick and somewhat archaic objectives and controls as a whole. Those unfamiliar with any Tony Hawk game before the outlandish peripheral forced titles may find the game stale, or just lacking a way to help ease them in more so than the eye bleeding list of commands and moves in the “How To Play” portion in the main menu. What Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD nails in its emulation of the aforementioned titles, it fails in incorporating a more cohesive manner in corralling fresh blood. There’s a ton of content, plenty to unlock and is a blast online (when you get into a game), but new entrants to the franchise will feel a bit neglected when they find out that they’re basically being dropped into the middle of an urban jungle and left to fend for themselves.
If you’re willing to go head first into it and grind it all out the hard way, you will find more than enough to keep you coming back for more. Just keep in mind that with this helmet of a recommendation, you’re still going to rattle your brains more often than not.