It's hard to believe that it's only been three years since the release of the first game in the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series. The original 1999 game launched an entire genre, and now several publishers are on the action sports bandwagon in a big way, eating off the table that Tony Hawk built. Activision has turned the success of the series into an entire line of similar products, but of course, the Tony Hawk series has always been the jewel in the crown. The yearly installments in the series have all featured pretty dramatic improvements on all fronts, while retaining some of the core gameplay mechanics that emphasize timing, skill, and creativity. On the surface, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 appears to make only minor changes to the formula, taking the career mode in a new direction and adding some seemingly minor gameplay elements. But as you play the game more and more, the value of the small tweaks and changes becomes pretty obvious, adding up to what's certainly another outstanding installment in the series.
Tony Hawk 4 is another excellent installment in Activision's flagship series.
Like Acclaim's great inline skating game from earlier this year, Aggressive Inline, Tony Hawk 4 does away with the two-minute time limit so commonly associated with the genre. While this takes away the exciting challenge of trying to accomplish all of a level's objectives in one run, the game's larger levels would make such an effort impossible anyway. Instead, goals in Tony Hawk 4 are spread throughout the level in the form of various bystanders with big arrows floating above their heads. Skating up to them and hitting the grab trick button will talk to the person and start the goal, which then starts a timer. Many of the goals are the same sort of things that the series has featured all along. You'll still have to reach certain score plateaus by pulling off long strings of tricks, you'll still have to collect or break various goal-specific items, and you'll still collect the letters that spell skate. New types of objectives include some combo-based goals, which ask you to beat a specific score with one combo. You'll also have to collect letters that spell the word combo--all without landing your combo until the word is complete. The size of each area lets the game pack a lot more goals into each of the game's nine levels, and some goals are only available once other goals have been met. Completing a goal also earns you upgrades for your skater, such as cash, new slots for special tricks, or stat points.
A newly redone career mode and improved online play are some of the highlights.
All this goal completing leads up to unlocking the pro challenges, which become available when you've collected 90 of the game's 190 total goals. Goals can be completed with any of the game's skaters, so you won't have to play through the game multiple times to see all there is to see. But the pro challenges ensure that you'll still play the game with every skater. These challenges are larger in scope than your average goal, and many of them attempt to tie in to a skater's actual career. For example, Tony Hawk's pro challenge has you gapping from one rooftop ramp to another, doing specific tricks as you go. Bam Margera's takes after his popular CKY series of videos, putting the Jackass star in a shopping cart and challenging you to race, hurdle, and slalom your way from the top of Alcatraz down to the bottom. Bob Burnquist, who is one of the two Tony Hawk 4 pro skaters who weren't in last year's game, has a pro challenge that is styled after his event-winning performance at the Op King of Skate competition, which aired on Pay-Per-View earlier this year. In that competition, Bob opened up the top section of a full loop and rode all the way around it. In the game, you'll take this one step further, doing specific tricks while gapping the ever-widening break in the loop. The pro challenges are unique, more difficult than your average goal, and quite a lot of fun. Completing a pro challenge unlocks that skater's ending video and also opens up a new collection of more difficult goals in every level.
Many of the level goals in Tony Hawk 4 will be pretty difficult even for series veterans, so accomplishing them will be really satisfying. The game throws some strict time limits at you in some of the goals, and some of the later combo goals are tough to pull off. In previous games, failing a goal or missing a jump meant that you had to spend time skating around to get back in position. Here, when you fail a goal, you can use the pause menu to jump right back to the start of that goal, instantly. This gives the game a real trial-and-error feel, letting you reattempt the same combo line over and over again until you finally get it, though being able to restart a goal at any point keeps this from getting frustrating. You can also jump to any goal that you have previously tried, which is a handy way to skip around from place to place in a level.
Aside from earning cash when completing goals, cash is also floating around each of the levels, just like it was in Tony Hawk 2. You'll use cash in the skate shop to unlock decks for your skaters and to purchase various items. Cash is used to purchase new parts for created skaters, a set of presentation-oriented cheat modes (such as bloodier wrecks, fiery grinds, and slow-motion specials), four hidden skaters, and two of the game's levels, one of which is the Chicago level from Activision's recent BMX release, Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX 2. Depending on how into Iron Maiden you are, you may or may not be excited by the game's hidden skaters. One of them, however, is a nice spot of fan service for all the people who have been requesting the addition of some more pro skaters. Three of the four hidden skaters up for sale are available immediately. The fourth, however, can only be purchased once you've collected at least $100,000 in cash, essentially forcing you to find every piece of cash and complete every goal, which will take a while.
The game plays even faster than before.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 plays even faster than its predecessors, but the main gameplay change is the addition of spine transfers. This lets you reorient your skater in midair so that you can go up one side of a quarterpipe and down the other. It also works for getting out of pools and halfpipes, getting up onto high ledges, and, much like the bail button in Aggressive Inline, save yourself from wrecking when you accidentally fly off the side of a ramp. But the spine transfer isn't the only thing cooking. The concept of double and triple kick tricks has been expanded to cover grabs as well, with a second press of the grab button giving you tweaked versions of existing grabs, or, in some cases, a completely different move. For example, a double-tapped stalefish becomes a tweaked stalefish. A double-tapped benihana becomes the sacktap. Flatland tricks were introduced as special moves in Tony Hawk 3. Tony 4 still has special manuals, but most of the main tricks--caspers, truckstands, pogos, half cabs, and the like--are available to every skater without even having to fill your special meter.
Flatland tricks, grind transitions, and lip trick transitions are all done differently. They're now done by tapping out moves with the grind, flip, and grab buttons. Flatland tricks were easily abused in multiplayer contests back in Tony Hawk 3 because you could do casper flips almost as quickly as you could hit the button, driving your score up quickly and easily. Casper flips and other similar flatland tricks are still scored the same way, but you now have to wait for the trick animation to completely finish before executing another flip, meaning that it's slightly more difficult to toss in a ton of cheap flatland flips at the end of every combo. This balances the game a bit better, though it's still possible to abuse the system to some extent, once you get good at maintaining your balance. Furthermore, you can execute a quick 180-degree turn, which comes in handy if you accidentally miss an item and need to go back for it. Finally, you can grab onto the backs of vehicles and skitch around the roads.
New moves like the spine transfer become more meaningful as you play.