Less than a year has passed since Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 first arrived on the PlayStation 2 and won GameSpot's elusive perfect-10 score, and already we're being presented with the beginnings of another entry in Neversoft's incredibly excellent skateboarding series. Activision recently sent us a three-level demo build of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, and it's given us a good feel of what to expect from the upcoming game.
Past Tony Hawk games have featured some pretty outlandish level designs, sometimes resembling a regular skate park more closely than the locations they're masquerading as. The three levels featured in the build of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 we've been playing suggest that Neversoft is aiming for a style of level design that has a more solid grounding in reality. There's the university level, which is closely modeled after the campus of and outlying areas around the University of California at Berkeley. The San Francisco level features some of the most well-loved skate spots in the city, including the Embarcadero area, the ledges at Third and Army, and Pier 39. The Alcatraz level covers the infamous prison turned tourist destination all the way from the ferry docks to the roof of the main jailhouse. All three of these new levels are easily the largest we've seen in a Tony Hawk game so far, and their size, in tandem with their more-realistic design, lends them a sprawling feel and makes them seem as though they're not quite as dense with skate-park-style objects as the levels featured in other Tony Hawk games.
With each new entry in the series, the gameplay mechanics in the Tony Hawk games have been incrementally refined and expanded upon, and Tony Hawk 4 has its fair share of new tricks. The most highly touted new mechanic in Tony Hawk 4 is the spine transfer, which serves two key purposes. Firstly, when two half-pipes are set up back-to-back, a press of both trigger buttons while you're in the air will let you go up the side of one of the half-pipes and down the corresponding side of the other, which nets you an extra transition combo bonus. This trick can also be used to save yourself from a bail if you misalign a vert trick and are in danger of hitting the pavement instead of the ramp. While it's not as revolutionary as the manual or revert tricks were, the spine transfer is simply another good addition to the huge arsenal of moves available in the game. Taking a page from Acclaim's Aggressive Inline, you'll also be able to hitch a ride, or "skitch," by grabbing onto the backs of the cars, trucks, and other vehicles that you'll encounter. This can be easily done simply by getting within a few feet of the back of a vehicle and pressing up on the D pad. Once you have ahold of the bumper, a vertical balance meter much like the grind balance meter appears, and if you fall too far to one side or the other, you'll simply let go. But, if you press down on the D pad while the balance meter is still centered, you'll be sent rocketing forward at tremendous speeds, making it possible to catch bigger air than has ever been possible in a Tony Hawk game before.
The multiple grind, lip trick, and manual system introduced in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 has undergone some fundamental changes. No longer do you have to press a direction on the D pad in combination with the triangle button. Instead, once you've executed a grind, lip trick, or manual, pressing any combination of the B, X, and Y buttons will transition you into a new trick. This new system feels more dynamic, allowing for much faster transitions between different tricks. Many facets of the core trick system have also been expanded. While the double and triple flip tricks in Tony Hawk 3 could only be performed with certain tricks, this limitation has been lifted in Tony Hawk 4. Interestingly, while the level design in the game is moving further toward the realistic, the new special tricks are leaning toward the more fantastical, and we've seen moves involving dribbling a basketball, spray-painting graffiti, playing a guitar, and having a fight with a ferret.
Wide Open Spaces
Probably the single most fundamental change that's been made to the series for Tony Hawk 4 is the layout of the game's career mode. No longer will you be limited to two-minute runs on a course. Instead, you'll enter a level with an infinite amount of time to skate around, explore the level, or just goof off. When you're ready to start tackling goals, you'll have to approach certain people on the street--designated by the big blue arrow over their heads--at which point they'll lay out a challenge for you and the clock will start ticking. Many of the challenges have been seen before, such as high-score challenges, pulling off specific tricks using specific objects, collecting items, and participating in competitions. One of the challenges new to Tony Hawk 4 is the C-O-M-B-O challenge, a kissing cousin to the S-K-A-T-E objective that charges you with the task of collecting the letters to spell "combo" while maintaining a single combo trick. Successfully completing challenges will award you with stat points that can be used to increase your skaters abilities, new special trick slots, and cold hard cash, which can be used to buy new skateboards and gear. The new layout changes the pacing of the game significantly, as you can only try one challenge at a time. It's certainly different, but the net effect of this change still remains to be seen.
A peculiar gameplay addition found in Tony Hawk 4 are the new in-level minigames. In the university level, you can approach one of the players on the tennis courts and challenge him or her to a match, and in the Alcatraz level, you can go to the exercise yard and swing at baseballs thrown by a ghostly pitcher. The gameplay in these minigames is pretty simplistic, requiring you to simply use the A button to swing your skateboard as though it were a tennis racket or baseball bat, and the ball physics seem highly questionable. Depending on how these minigames shape up in the final version of the game, they could either be a quirky little aside, or an ugly blemish on the game.
Neversoft established itself as an early adopter of online console gaming when Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 hit the PlayStation 2 with full online support. Tony Hawk 4 on the PlayStation 2 will continue this trend, but unfortunately, there are no signs from this preview build that the Xbox version will support the Xbox Live service. It will, however, include a system link feature, much like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 on the Xbox, along with the capture the flag mode that will be in the PlayStation 2 version.
Though it's not as significant a jump in visual quality as we saw from Tony Hawk 2 to Tony Hawk 3, the graphics in Tony Hawk 4 have been visibly enhanced. The skater models have been touched up a bit to look even more like their real-world counterparts, and they've been equipped with a host of new bail animations that are specific to certain situations. There are also new idle animations--if left standing still for a few seconds, Tony Hawk will rub the back of his head and check out the scrapes on his elbows. As mentioned earlier, the levels we've seen are much larger, and they now feature more-complex geometry and some incredibly sharp new textures. Many of the textures carried over from Tony Hawk 3, such as the different clothes and gear you can equip your skater with, have been cleaned up and are now on par with the textures that are new to Tony Hawk 4. The GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox versions of Tony Hawk 4 that we've been playing all basically look identical, though the Xbox version is definitely looking like the sharpest version out of the bunch, featuring slightly clearer textures than the GameCube version and avoiding the aliasing found in the PlayStation 2 version.
Since the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater first appeared on the PlayStation, the series has consistently maintained high standards for sound design, featuring crisp environmental sounds and amazing licensed soundtracks. From what we've heard so far, it would appear that Tony Hawk 4 will uphold this tradition. Much of the same skate sounds from the last Tony Hawk appear to be intact here, along with a handful of new bail sounds. All the people you'll encounter in the game, from other skateboarders to random pedestrians on the street, have their own unique voices, with the pro skaters featured in the game providing their own voice work. It's rather apparent that these skaters are not professional voice actors, as their delivery of their lines can sometimes be kind of stifled, but this inclusion adds a certain air of authenticity to the game nevertheless.
While Activision is still working out many of the contracts for the game's soundtrack, the current build features no less than 35 brand-new licensed songs, thoroughly covering several different genres of music and virtually guaranteeing that everyone will find something to their liking. There are tracks from AC/DC and Iron Maiden for the metal heads, tracks from Gang Starr, De La Soul, NWA, Public Enemy, and Run DMC for the hip-hop crowd, and tracks from Agent Orange, Goldfinger, Less Than Jake, and the Sex Pistols for the punk rock kids, and that's just to name a few. Barring any serious problem Activision might have obtaining licensing rights, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 will have the biggest and most well-rounded soundtrack of any skateboarding game to date.
The Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games have always represented the very best of what the skateboarding genre has to offer, and from what we've seen so far, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 looks like it will uphold this trend. Be sure to stay tuned for our continuing coverage of this very promising action sports title.