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Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 (Xbox) artwork

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 (Xbox) review

"Tony Hawk is a bit of an odd man. While normal people spend their spare time reading, watching TV or taking healthy walks in the fresh air, our Tone prefers to spend his days travelling around on a skateboard, doing his very best to smash as many of his bones (and if he's lucky, his internal organs) as is possible by performing outlandish and frankly silly moves, all in the name of sport. But despite his dubious line of work, Tony deserves respect - not only from his fellow skaters, but also fro..."

Tony Hawk is a bit of an odd man. While normal people spend their spare time reading, watching TV or taking healthy walks in the fresh air, our Tone prefers to spend his days travelling around on a skateboard, doing his very best to smash as many of his bones (and if he's lucky, his internal organs) as is possible by performing outlandish and frankly silly moves, all in the name of sport. But despite his dubious line of work, Tony deserves respect - not only from his fellow skaters, but also from real people - due to the fact that he is the figurehead for the revival of the extreme sports genre. While that does mean that atrocities such as Dark Summit and BMX XXX are kinda his fault, it also means that we have spent the last few years playing the wonderful Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games.

The previous outing for Tony and crew - the first designed with the new generation of consoles in mind - was in all honesty a little bit of a disappointment. While it still had the trademark mix of mad-as-a-peacock tricks, stunning level design and gameplay that was more addictive than Red Bull and crack-laced Pringles combined, it didn't really take the series any further than the nigh-on faultless Tony 2. Instead, with it's removal of the cash element in favour of simply being able to collect new stat points around the stages, it felt more like a step back for the series. And when Tony 4 was announced within a year of the third game's release, complete with cover-art that looked eerily similar to that of the previous outing, countless gamers must have been more than a little concerned. It seemed that we had us a new Tomb Raider - whereby a once revered franchise would be forever stained by a steady glut of identical sequels. Well, everyone that doubted Neversoft and Activision must now be left feeling like a right plum, because not only does Tony 4 set the series well and truly back on track, but it actually tries something new and innovative as well. Nice one, Tony!

The basic concept of the game hasn't changed - you still skate around the various stages, trying to complete different goals within a set time limit, but whereas the previous games gave you a checklist of different goals, and then left you to pursue them in a single two minute run, this time round things have changed. When you start a stage, you are basically in a free-ride mode. You can explore the stages at your leisure, practising your tricks, and re-familiarising yourself with the controls. When you feel up to a challenge, you can skate up to a number of different characters in the level, and they will then set you a task. At this point the traditional time limit will set it, and your in very familiar territory. But when the timer clocks out, instead of being returned to the menu screen, you simply carry on going about your business in the stage, and the task is added to your options menu for you to attempt again at your leisure. This doesn't sound like much, but it really does change the way the game is played. Gone is the old stop/start regime (although score freaks can still take two minute runs to see how many points they can harvest), and as a result, the game feels much more fluid and involving. It is now all-too-frighteningly possible to find yourself on single runs that can last well over an hour - it's the perfect blend of the practice and exploration provided by the free-ride modes of old, and the challenge and sweet addictive goodness of the challenges of the career mode, and it plays just as good as it sounds.

The challenges are intensely varied, too. You still have the standard score challenges, the 'collect the letters that spell SKATE' challenges, and the competitions that are the mainstays of the franchise, and along for the ride are new 'serious' challenges such as the COMBO test - where, as with SKATE, you must collect the five letters to spell the word, only this time you must do it all in one move (not easy) - but there are also some very amusing and ever so slightly barmy tasks ahead of you. In the first level alone, you get to lie down on your skateboard to wind your way through a slalom course, stop car thieves by hanging on to the back of the car (which is presented from a cool Grand Theft Auto style perspective), and you even get to play tennis using the skateboard as a racket! And, as the levels progress, things just get even more madcap: you tackle a shark in San Francisco, you ride an elephant by grabbing on to it's tail, you even get to go all Jackass by riding a supermarket trolley. This is really superb as, though the hardcore skater community may be left moaning about the lack of realism, the blend of serious and surreal means that everyone should be able to find something enjoyable here. Not only that, but if you get fed up of failing in a particular task over and over again, you can opt to try a different task, safe in the knowledge that it will require completely different skills of you, and as such come as a complete change of pace.

The level design is also vastly improved from previous Tony Hawk titles. The level design has always been a celebrated feature of the series, and here you get the same healthy mix of ramps and half-pipes to perform ker-azy stunts on and rails, pavements and such to 'grind' along, only it's so much bigger. Seriously, each stage is huge in this game - you can spend a good quater of an hour just skating around learning the layout each time you gain access to a new arena. The locations are suitably varied, too. Although the first two levels (a college environment and San Francisco respectively) are fairly indistinguishable from each other, soon you'll be visiting some more out-of-the ordinary locales, such as Alcatraz or the zoo. Again, it may all seem a little silly to the hardcore skaters out there, but the wealth of moves and real-life skaters featured in the game should shut them up.

The Scrooge McDuck types out there will also be pleased to hear that the cash element of Tony 2 returns this time round. While stat increases (where you can choose to bolster your character's abilities in a particular section, such as speed or balance), new levels and new challenges are opened up mostly by simply completing the missions set out by the inhabitants of the various arenas, there are still dollar bills floating in hard to reach places. These can then be used to buy different extras, such as movies involving various skate goons hurting themselves in very funny ways, out-takes and the like, extra skaters, extra boards, and two extra levels. Couple all of this with the wide range of things to do as it is, and it's conceivable that you'll still be tinkering about with this game when the next one arrives (which, let's face it, will be just in time for this Christmas).

And if, for any reason, you are not satisfied with the game that Activision and Neversoft have presented too you, then there's the create-a-skater and level designer options available. These sorts of features are often a tacked on extra, signalling that the designers realise that the game is a little too short, but can't be arsed to build more levels, choosing instead to get you to do it for them (the cheeky beggars!). Not so here. Every bit as much effort and care has gone into this aspect of the game as has with the rest of the package. The detail that you can go into with these modes is really quite respectable, and while you can't always get things exactly how you want them to be, you can normally get them really quite close to your dream. This feature is just as captivating as the rest of the title, and adds weeks of gaming to an already rather time-consuming experience.

The multiplayer is a joy, too. There are even more multi-player options this time around, and so in addition to old favourites such as the graffiti mode (in which players 'claim' pieces of the scenery by performing tricks on them) we are now treated to games such as 'Combo Mambo', in which players must (you guessed it) try to make the biggest combo of tricks. Well duh! There are even two modes that are only accessible via system linked play (although the fact that the cost involved in this compared to XBox live means that maybe half a dozen players may actually get around to trying it out). As always, though, it's the 'Horse' mode that remains the favourite - whereby you choose a particular word, and then proceed to try and perform a better trick than your opponent. If your opponent scores less, then he gets one letter from the word. When the word is completed, he or she is told in no uncertain terms that they are a 'horse' (or whatever word you choose to use, and let's face it, it'll be something rude and insulting). Even though this is now the fourth game in the series, I still maintain that there is nothing funnier than watching your console hurl abuse at you.

Controlling your skateboarder is extremely easy, once you get the hang of it. At first it can all seem a little daunting: moves consist of simultaneously pressing or double tapping buttons, holding down in various directions on the analogue stick or D-pad, and in some cases even having to fret about balance meters, but after a few plays spent floundering all over the stages like a kipper in a frying pan, you'll start to pick it up, and once you start to feel confident with the controls you'll be surprised by just how fluid they really are (especially if you've played any other entry in the series - the controls are essentially the same as when the original game launched back on the humble PSX). And of course, there are a few new moves to get used to, too - the most notable being the spine transfer, which allows you to jump from one quater-pipe to another, and the skitchin' ability, which lets you grab onto the back of moving vehicles to take a quick ride (just like in the Mega Drive game of the same name).

Graphically the game is stunning. There is an incredible draw distance that allows you vertigo-inducing views of the whole level stretched out beneath you, provided you reach a high enough vantage point, and the level of detail is at times quite astounding - right down to the skateboards being scuffed up. However, it has to be said that the graphics aren't exactly a great overhaul from the previous game. They are better, no doubt about it, and seem to have a more washed out look to them as opposed to the at-times quite vibrant look of it's immediate predecessor that makes them seem more realistic, but the presentation of the game hasn't moved on in such great leaps as the gameplay. Still, this can be seen to be a testament to the quality of graphics seen in Tony 3 more than anything.

The music in the game is the usual blend of rap, rock and punk that has been with the series from the start. However, if you don't like the songs on offer (and I admittedly only liked a few of them) then you can use the custom soundtrack feature to play songs from your own CD collection via the XBox hard-drive. While it would be easy to dismiss this as simply a gimmick, it truly does enrich the gameplay experience - it is far more enjoyable to play to songs you like, naturally, but it also makes you feel more involved - you can find yourself using a character that you designed, playing a level you designed, listening to tunes you chose.... you truly feel like you are a part of the game, making it even more compelling than ever.

Ultimately, Tony 4 falls just short of the second game in terms of being king of the extreme sports hill, but it is a very close call. It'll last you months, and even if you do unlock everything, you'll still come back for a couple of hours every now and then, or for a major multiplayer session when the pubs have thrown you out. The only niggle is that, while this time the developers have innovated and made the game truly feel like a sequel, rather than a rehash, you just know that by this time next year the next game in the franchise will be out, probably with more moves, bigger levels and such, so you may start to question whether you should just wait for that one (especially if you already own a Tony Hawk game). Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 is a fantastic game, and if you do buy it, then you're almost guaranteed a good time, but the fact is, there will be another one along in no time. It's your call.

tomclark's avatar
Community review by tomclark (February 03, 2004)

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