2008 was a strange year for the Tony Hawk series when you consider that it was the first time in a decade that Activision didn't put out a new console installment in the long-running skateboarding franchise. Fans of the series who were used to the idea of yearly updates were left with little more to do than speculate about what the future had in store after the sudden hiatus. After all of that waiting, the answer is upon us in the form of a complete series overhaul dubbed Tony Hawk Ride.
Tony Hawk Ride will usher in a collection of sweeping changes, beginning with the folks making it. The development team has switched from series creators Neversoft--now firmly at the helm of the Guitar Hero series--to the relatively new Chicago-based studio Robomodo. However, more striking is the change to the way that you control the game. Tony Hawk Ride has been built around a full-sized skateboard peripheral that will use bodily movements to determine everything from a simple ollie to elaborate midair grabs.
It would be hard to describe the peripheral as flashy. It most closely resembles a skateboard deck (the wooden part of the board you stand on) with no wheels attached. You'll find traditional controller buttons on the side to make navigating the menus a bit easier, but for the most part, it's a fairly inauspicious piece of hardware.
However, you can't say the same for what's built inside of the board. Inside is a pair of accelerometers that can register sudden movements, from a sharp tilt required to do an ollie to more-protracted moves, such as full 360-degree rotations. Such things as kick flips and 360 flips will use various combinations of these movements, though a number of scaling difficulty levels will let you play the game without having to use all of the motions that the board is capable of registering. (As an example, the lowest setting will turn levels into on-rails sequences in which you don't need to worry about tilting the board to steer.)
Of course, grabs are an equally big part of your move repertoire. To solve the riddle of how to give you the ability to pull off grabs without reaching your hand all the way down to the board and potentially pinching your fingers, four infrared sensors have been put on each side of the board. These sensors can tell when you're holding your hands in front of the board's various sides and will respond by showing your onscreen skater doing any number of grabs, such as an indie, method, or what have you.
Given that we didn't get a chance to play the game for ourselves yet, it's hard to say how well the setup works. We noticed a delay between what the Robomodo staffer playing the game did and what appeared onscreen, though that may have been a product of the audiovisual setup during the presentation in which the game was unveiled. What we can say is that we managed to play around with the board without actually playing the game, and the hardware seemed nice and sturdy for its intended purpose. The big questions to consider down the road will be how accurately it mimics your movements, whether the payoff of what happens onscreen is worth the physical exertion, and if the added cost is worth the leap up from the standard-priced competition (that is, EA's Skate franchise).
Although the hardware is easily the star of the show, we can't forget that Tony Hawk Ride is a brand-new piece of software, complete with its own changes to the signature Tony Hawk formula. The open-city setting used in the last few Tony Hawk games is now gone and replaced by more deliberate, isolated levels. We were shown a pair of these: a downhill sequence in the LA River and a simple halfpipe event. The downhill sequence harks back to the Phoenix and Shopping Mall levels from the first Tony Hawk Pro Skater, in which you follow a relatively linear path through a downhill course with a steadily dropping elevation. The halfpipe event was much simpler; it was really just a points-earning competition set on a single ramp as you'd see in a major contest.
These levels seemed chosen to show off the different types of skateboard disciplines the control scheme will support. The LA River was all about nimble movements, huge grinds, and big gaps--a fairly exaggerated take on the street-skating discipline. However, the halfpipe event showed off some of the smooth rotations and protracted grabs that are typical of a vert skater. On vert, as you pull off more moves, you fill a style meter that eventually triggers a series of special visual effects around your character, such as vividly colored silhouette echoes and streamers. This feature didn't seem to have any apparent effect on the skater's moves, but it did make him look like the star of his own dance-music video.
In the end, we were left with one major question on our minds: How well does this new skateboard controller harmonize with the game? It's an important question made that much more critical when you consider that Tony Hawk Ride won't support a standard controller. We're eager to answer that question for ourselves, and thankfully, we should be able to do that at E3 when we go hands-on with the game. Stay tuned for more coverage.