Has it really been ten years since Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater came out? It seems like yesterday that I was hanging out at a friend’s house, fully reclined on a semi-broken sofa, indulging in short, intense-bursts of Americophilia to go along with our Jay & Silent Bob obsession and mid-pubescent crush on Jane Lane from Daria.
As we grew, Tony grew, developing extra tricks, skills and modes with every instalment like extra appendages. Soon, you could skitch, revert, manual, wall-plant, and even get off your board in order to pelt a homeless man with tomatoes (Tony Hawk’s Underground, you will not be missed).
By 2007, EA’s Skate franchise had ruffled some feathers, taking Tony Hawk‘s face-button approach, and chucking it out, in favour of mapping control of the skater’s body weight and stance to the dual analogue sticks. It was intuitive and brain-bending, but subtle and immersive.
Back in May, it was revealed that Activision, and new developer Robomodo, had a new trick up their sleeve: a peripheral. A peripheral! The gaming innovation of choice for a generation that has seen grannies playing tennis in the living room, baby boomers practising yoga on a Wii Fit balance board, and whole families uniting over a shared love of The Beatles (causing ‘true fans’ to sulk in a corner, listening to a pristine remaster of You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)). A peripheral, you say? You might as well buy a proper skateboard!
Well, Tony Hawk Ride follows Wii Fit, Wii Sports and Rock Band into the arena of well-made, inclusive games that come with well-made, sturdy peripherals. While not strong enough to inspire a spurt of recreations of the skateboard-as-weapon scene from Larry Clark’s Kids, the Ride board is (almost excusing its £99.99 price tag) a nice, slick object – even if it seems to be awfully good at attracting dust and hair.
Hopping on the board – in either goofy or regular skater stances – reveals that it is well-balanced, and picks up shifts of weight both subtle and strong. You are, effectively, standing on a wheel-less, floor-bound skateboard, and tricks are mapped to movements that mimic real-life flicks and twists.
To get moving, you drag your foot next to the board, as if pumping along the ground; steering – a scary prospect for beginners, which can be mostly removed in the on-rails ‘casual’ mode – is governed by tilting to the side; an ollie jump, a staple move, is achieved by quickly flicking the board with your back foot. While in the air, tilting the board at various angles corresponds to different ‘flip’ board tricks, while reaching a hand out over one of four sensors at the peripheral’s poles will garner a grab trick. When you jump on a rail, your avatar grinds along it, leaving the player to twist and contort, which leads the skater through different permutations of grind tricks – without the hindrance of a balance meter.
It immediately breaks through cynicism, as the set-up is surprisingly responsive and – apart from some ropey sensor issues – intuitive. On casual mode, tricks should be flying in no time. The higher difficulty settings, such as ‘confident’, take away the on-rails training wheels, and unleash a whole new level of complexity.
Think you have a good centre of gravity? Think again. There are no candles, yoga poses or calming music in Tony Hawk Ride – just you, a wall, and a modicum of velocity. Loss of balance seems to be a common side effect of playing the game – although it is a fair trade off for the scuffed knees, shattered testicles and myriad other injuries experienced by Proper Skaters In The Real World.
In order to cope with this drastic shift in the control scheme, Tony Hawk Ride features a stripped back approach to its game modes. Designed to appeal to the quick-fire, hang-out aspects of the series’ appeal, players now choose from four modes – Speed Run, Trick, Challenge and Free Skate – that have corresponding leaderboards for quickest times and highest scores. Likewise, the locales, here including bright, colourful depictions of Central Park and Venice Beach, are more hemmed in, linear, and stuffed with rails, ramps and half-pipes.
This is with a view to play with friends, and take turns in a competitive, yet friendly fashion. Crucially, this means that the Tony Hawk experience has been condensed into 2 minute chunks, as opposed to the more open-world, or area-based approach of the past instalments. It’s a palate-cleansing move on Robomodo’s part, as it does away with the mutated nature of the franchise – but there is still a sense that while this bite-sized design will make Ride an approachable, inclusive title, there will still be a few hardcore fans pining for a more long-form experience.
Those couch potatoes – among whom I count myself – might be left behind with this instalment, if the creaky joints and aching muscles are to be obeyed. However, that is not Ride‘s fault; it is a game that seems to invite casual appreciation, or to require – as mind-blowing, developer-demoed 360 degree spins are to be believed – full on physical dedication.
As the hardcore kids and the peripheral-piqued newbies are having their fun, we’ll most likely be wheezing by the sidelines.
Tony Hawk Ride is released on December 4th.