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.
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.
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.
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.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 contains just about every real skating trick you'd want to see in a game and, as usual, contains a huge array of insanely exaggerated tricks as well. Most of Tony Hawk 4's new specials take after the ghetto blaster grind that Chad Muska had, or Bam Margera's Jackass move, in that they try to convey a little personality. Now there are special grinds like ferret fight, where a small rodent crawls around your body as you grind. Another has your skater dribbling a basketball. Others include a manual that involves fireworks and grinds with guitars, samplers, an American flag, and even a laser blaster. These new grinds are in direct opposition of the game's level design, which strives for more realism than the series has ever seen in its levels. The design succeeds nicely, and the levels look really great. The Kona skate park, based on a real park based in Florida, looks almost identical to the pictures of the park shown on Kona's Web site. Other areas, such as some of San Francisco's classic skate spots, are also rendered with a nice amount of realism. The game still does have a few more fantastical levels, such as Alcatraz and a carnival level, which comes complete with a good number of intoxicated hicks.
Graphically, Tony Hawk 4 is an improvement over Tony Hawk 3, which was the first version designed with the current generation of consoles in mind. The texture quality really serves to drive the realistic look of the level design home, and the animation--most of it reused from Tony Hawk 3--still looks fantastic. The levels are large, but have a decent draw distance, and the game runs at a solid frame rate throughout the career mode. There are a few ugly bits to the graphics--the pedestrian models that are shown up close whenever you finish a goal look really, really bad, and most of them share the same looping congratulatory animation. Also, the animation used in the minigames is incredibly poor. Thankfully, these moments are very few and far between, and most of the time, the game looks outstanding.
Many of the game's sound effects are identical to the ones used in Tony Hawk 3. A few have been added here and there, and the sounds of skating are still really solid. With the expanded career mode, a whole lot of voice work has been recorded to go with every goal. Since you'll get a lot of your goals from the skaters themselves, each pro skater has been recorded for the game. Skaters also have skater-specific screams when you wreck. Most of the voice work is pretty solid, though there are a few bits in there that probably could have been done a little cleaner if some more time had been taken in the vocal booth.
The soundtracks of the Tony Hawk series have always been an eclectic mix that is as varied as skateboarding style itself. Tony Hawk 4 is no exception, from the AC/DC title track to the inclusion of NWA's classic radio hit, Express Yourself. Most of the soundtrack is pretty good, and there are over 30 tracks featured, but there are a few songs that could have probably stood to be left out. Specifically, four tracks came from two of the game's skaters. They aren't awful, but come across as perhaps a bit too self-indulgent. Still, the stock playlist can be edited on a track-by-track basis, so you can turn off, say, System of a Down or Delinquent Habits if they don't fit your idea of skate-friendly music. Or you can look to the Xbox hard drive for any music you may have ripped.
Unlike the PlayStation 2 version of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, the Xbox version doesn't have any online support. With the Xbox Live launch right around the corner and Xbox Live-enabled games already on shelves, this is a real shame, because online play definitely adds a lot of replay value to the game. In an attempt to make up for this, the Xbox version of the game has system link play, so if you happen to be on a LAN with a lot of other Xbox owners, you can enjoy most of the features found in the PlayStation 2 release. The player limit has been raised from four to eight, which is handy considering that it'd be easy to lose three other players in such large levels. All the modes from Tony Hawk 3 return, including capture the flag, which previously was only in the PC version of Tony Hawk 3. There are some new modes, such as score attack, which ends when a player reaches a certain score, combo mambo, which keeps track of which player has done the largest combo within a certain time limit, and goal attack, which lets you enable any of the career mode goals, giving victory to the player that can complete all the goals first. The game is also set up for team play. You can set up multiple teams in all of the game's online modes, which lets you set up some pretty cool variations. Sure, you can win a combo mambo game by yourself, but what if you're playing against the best combos of three other players? The team options are a nice touch. The game also features decent two-player splitscreen support, for players not able to play system link games.
While fans of the previous games will find the redesigned career mode a little foreign at first, it definitely makes for a longer game with a lot less repetition than you saw in previous installments, which asked you to play the game over and over again with each skater to unlock their secrets. The deeper single-player and improved multiplayer modes makes Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 the most tightly-packed installment in the series to date, and the slightly refined gameplay is still unmatched in the action sports arena. In short, anyone with even a remote interest in either the genre or the real-life sport should purchase this game as soon as possible.