Many kind things have been said about Neversoft's popular skateboarding series. Its trick system, and the controls in general, are both intuitive and deep, and the graphics are among the best looking on every platform it has graced. Not to detract from the quality or importance of these facets of the game, but Tony Hawk simply would not be Tony Hawk were it not for the games' inventive level design. With courses honoring real-world locales and replicas of actual skateparks, as well as entirely fictional levels where the designers just let their imaginations run wild, the levels in Tony Hawk have maintained a good balance of innovation and playability.
And far be it from Neversoft to leave good enough alone. The trick system and the graphics both got minor tune-ups between the first and second Tony Hawks, but neither received the massive overhaul that the level design did. The skateparks were made larger, and a stronger focus was put on level exploration. The more linear downhill levels, like the New York mall and the Arizona desert, were scrapped entirely. Literally dozens of new objectives were added, such as cash bonuses used to upgrade skater stats, and special jump gaps were placed throughout the levels. More level-specific goals were added as well, giving each of the levels a greater sense of individual character--were it not for the magic bums of Venice Beach, the level simply wouldn't be as memorable.
Nowadays, the PlayStation and the Dreamcast are nearing antique status, and the Tony Hawk series is making that inevitable jump to the PlayStation 2. Activision recently sent us a four-level build of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, and from what we've seen, it would appear that Tony Hawk is getting ready to change things yet again.
Seeming to live and die by the mantra, "If it doesn't work, throw it out," Neversoft has made changes to the basic level goals yet again. The hidden tapes, S-K-A-T-E letters, and standard high-score goals make a return, but the skater cash introduced in Tony Hawk 2 is gone, replaced with five spinning Tony Hawk 3 logos scattered throughout each level. Grabbing a logo will net you a single experience point, which can be used toward improving your skater's abilities. Since there is no longer skater cash with which to buy new decks, a new skateboard is hidden in each level as well.
One of the most prominent changes to the level design in Tony Hawk 3 is the inclusion of nonplayer characters. In each level, you'll encounter a variety of random pedestrians, other skaters, as well as some surprises, and a good deal of the new level goals hinged on somehow interacting with certain characters. For example, in each level you'll be charged with performing a specific trick in a specific area, for the purpose of a skate magazine photo shoot. As you attempt to perform the trick, a photographer will be by your side, making comments about the lighting, snapping off photos when you take a stab at the trick, and giving you less-than-helpful critiques when you bail. These new features aside, the level designers at Neversoft have obviously been honing their craft. The parks have gotten bigger, and the grind lines have gotten longer, making it possible to traverse entire levels in a single grind. To give you an idea of what to expect from the actual levels in Tony Hawk 3, we've broken down the four levels available in this build.
We visited our neighbors to the south in Tony Hawk 2, and now Tony Hawk takes it to the Great White North. The Canada level is big and is broken up into three fairly distinct areas. You start off the level in the parking lot area, which is populated by a few ramps, a handful of quarter pipes, and a lot of really long rails. Next to the parking lot is skatepark area, which is composed mostly of drained-out swimming pools and serves as home to Canadian skater kids, who you'll see perched atop half-pipe ledges. One of the level goals charges you with impressing the skaters, which you can do by busting out big tricks or long grinds in front of them. Other level-specific goals include stopping a bully from throwing snowballs at a defenseless kid and getting "Chuck Unstuck"; that is, helping some poor sap that decided to stick his tongue to a frozen telephone pole. Hop over the frozen river behind the skate park and the parking lot, and you'll find yourself in the woods, where there are plenty of leaning trees to grind, a big tree stump conducive to some fat air, and a long wooden dock that ends in a half pipe.
Welcome to the dark, shattered underbelly of the American Dream--or at least, Neversoft's vision of it. Centered at the end of a cul-de-sac where an ice-cream truck runs a loop, peddling its chilly wares, the level is skirted by a variety of houses. There's the big haunted house where a spooky top-hatted man named simply the Thin Man lives. The front door to the haunted mansion has been boarded up, and one of your level goals is to help the Thin Man get inside his creepy abode. Next door to the haunted house is a dirt-paved trailer park, where you'll find plenty of half pipes, as well as your photographer friend. To the side of the trailer park, you'll find a pair of truly suburban tract homes.
In the backyard of one of these houses is a drained swimming pool and a pair of suburbanites who seem to be having trouble getting their barbeque lit, while the other has had its backyard replaced with a miniature skate park. There is an unfinished tract home next to it, and its bare wood frame provides plenty of grinding opportunities. But beware of the construction workers building the house, as they don't take kindly to your antics, and will knock you off your board without a second thought.
This would seem like such obvious turf for the Hawkman, you'd wonder why we haven't seen it before. But once you see it in action on the PlayStation 2, you'll be glad Neversoft waited, as this is a level that simply could not have been so fully realized on the PlayStation or the Dreamcast. The most prominent feature in LA is the much-publicized destructible freeway, which crumbles after you trigger an earthquake by grinding four special rails, dramatically changing the terrain and opening up previously inaccessible parts of the level. Cars drive around town, and unlike the merciless cabs from the New York level in Tony Hawk 2, these will actually stop if you get in their way. There is also a white van that is perpetually being chased around the level by a pair of black and whites. This makes it unwise to skate down the middle of the street, as the van and the police cruisers drive fast and recklessly, fishtail around corners, and aren't terribly concerned with the health of a skate punk like you. One of your level goals here is to stop the car chase, which you do in a rather creative way. Other level highlights include an art deco park in the center of town, a '70's-style carwash, and one conveniently placed fire engine.
The Tokyo competition level is the most visually unique of the four levels available in this build and represents a pretty severe aesthetic departure for the Tony Hawk series. Eschewing the wooden half pipes and drained-out swimming pools you've come to expect, Tokyo is a multitiered skatepark cast in gunmetal blue steel, laced with veins of glowing neon. A bullet train whips past the park intermittently, adding to the level's already prominent quasi-futuristic feel.
Though you won't see any pedestrians walking around the level, there is a skybox at one end of the level filled with Japanese skateboarding judges, who will ooh and ahh when you pull off an especially impressive trick. Alternatively, the judges will coldly ridicule and laugh at you when you bail.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Neversoft has promised at least two more levels, one of which will take place at a skate-park in beautiful Rio de Janeiro. If the levels we've seen so far are any indication, fans of the Tony Hawk series will be tickled pink come November.