Before the intervention of a little-known game developer called Neversoft, the words "Tony Hawk" and "video game" were far from synonymous with each other. However, two and a half years and several games later, the Tony Hawk series has done nothing short of completely rejuvenate the extreme sports game genre, broaden the general appeal of video games, provide a template for dozens of other extreme sports games, and bring a greater level of credibility to the sport of skateboarding. The latest game in the series proved that the Tony Hawk formula was still very viable and was widely lauded as one of the best games of 2001--high praise when compared with proven juggernauts such as Metal Gear Solid 2 and Final Fantasy X. Activision recently sent us a three-level build of the Xbox version of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, and we are pleased to say it is prospectively one of the best games of 2002 as well.
The lifestyle appeal of the Tony Hawk series is an undeniable factor in the success of the series, but what has hooked hard-core gamers the world over is the game's impeccable gameplay. Though the game was originally designed for the PlayStation 2, Neversoft has done a fine job of adapting it to the admittedly different Xbox controller. The overall controls are identical, with the big difference being the use of the right shoulder button for both rotating your skater and performing the revert, an indispensable trick used to chain multiple vert tricks together. This change makes it necessary for players to time their reverts more precisely, as a poorly timed press of the shoulder button can turn your skater sideways to the right as he or she is about to hit the bottom of the ramp. The timing on performing tricks also appears to be just slightly different, though not enough to really cripple existing Tony Hawk players--and certainly not enough to have any effect on those new to the series.
While the gameplay has been altered slightly to accommodate the Xbox controller, the modes of play have remain unchanged and are as engaging as they have ever been. The career mode still charges players with skating through a variety of enormous levels, collecting secret tapes and letters to spell the word "skate," completing level-specific goals, and scoring points by doing tricks. There's the untimed free skate mode, which gives players a more relaxed environment to feel out the levels and the specific skills of different skaters. The two-player split-screen mode is also present, as are the different gameplay variants, such as king of the hill, trick attack, and the deathmatch-style Slap! mode. Microsoft's plans to roll out its official online support for the Xbox are still several months away, and as such, Neversoft will not be including the online play found in the PlayStation 2 version in this version. It will, however, feature a system link mode, enabling four-player action over two televisions and two Xboxes. Though the online play in the PS2 version of the game was used sparingly by players, it's unfortunate that this feature will be absent on a console with inherent online capabilities.
Tony Hawk has always looked great on any system, and the Xbox version of THPS3 has the potential to be the most eye-pleasing of all of them. As with any game that's been ported from one console to another, the big differences are in the details. The frame rates we experienced with this build of the game were significantly more solid than those found in the GameCube version and just slightly better than those in the PlayStation 2 game. We did notice some slight hiccups at a few key points within the levels--specifically in the grated half-pipe area in the L.A. level, where the game lays on the steam effect pretty heavily, and at the top of the big ramp in the Foundry level when you're looking out over the entire level. There is also a slight pause at the beginning of each round as the game loads up the music. Aside from these minor gripes, though, the game looks great. The textures are looking slightly cleaner, the colors appear brighter and sharper, and the game is almost entirely free of any aliasing.
Like the other incarnations of THPS3, the Xbox version will feature a well-rounded soundtrack of hip-hop, punk rock, and heavy metal, with counterculture staples such as KRS One, the Ramones, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers sharing space with newer acts such as Redman, CKY, Alien Ant Farm, and many others. THPS3 will also take advantage of the Xbox hardware and let you select your own custom soundtracks from the console's hard drive. This is a feature that developers have by and large neglected to include in many Xbox games, and it's a welcome addition to Tony Hawk. The rest of the game's sounds appear to be unchanged from those in previous versions of THPS3, featuring the same catalog of skating noises, environmental sounds, and yelps of hapless pedestrians.
Aside from the minor graphical and audio perks mentioned above, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 promises a new hidden skater and a brand-new level, both exclusive to the Xbox, making this version all that much more appealing. The almost inconsequential slowdown we experienced in this build has little to no impact on the gameplay, though seeing these slight quirks swept away in the final version of the game would please us greatly. Fans of the genre and Xbox owners alike would do well to keep an eye out for this strong, straightforward port of an outstanding skateboarding game, which is currently scheduled for an early March release.