"Level design is meant primarily to provide you with the afore-mentioned objectives, rather than a cool place to skate like fans of the franchise are used to. Save a few cool areas here and there--the rooftops of Alcatraz and the pens at the zoo come to mind--most of this is just open space with a few dull rails to keep you moving."
Critics might say the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series is winding down, that the developers have run out of new ways to push it further and that gamers who buy it are content to sit back and let Neversoft sell them essentially the same package with different wrapping for each new installment. Critics, as Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 proves, are sometimes quite full of it. Yet it seems that in trying to please critics, Neversoft has perhaps produced a game that players will find less enjoyable. Because of those oft-requested differences from its predecessors, rather than in spite of them, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 simply isn't as enjoyable an experience as some might hope for.
Describing just what makes this newest installment different isn't entirely easy. Ultimately, what's at fault is what on paper in fact sounds like the best idea: more freedom for the player.
Each level involves your skater starting out like normal. Except the goals for the area aren't listed. You have to find them yourself. So you begin skating through the level and quickly notice two things: you have no timer, and your score doesn't climb as you progress. Instead, you are free to roam through the large environments, free from time and concerns about score. This all might sound like an improvement, a clever imitation of a similar system that worked so well for a title from the competition, Aggressive Inline. Sadly, what worked mostly well in that title is a strike against quality here. Part of what has made the series so cool is the ability to challenge yourself to improve. Long after a player masters Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, for example (easy though it may be), he can continue challenging himself and friends to improve.
The challenge in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 comes not from within, but from the game. Most every level has 16 challenges, plus various pro challenges you can unlock. This takes the total number of challenges to 190. In essence, these are the goals from the games of old. And like before, you can pick which ones you want to complete in order to eventually unlock another level. To make your choice, you skate through a level and find someone standing around with a green arrow over his or her head. That person will give you an objective and--generally--you have a time limit in which to complete it. Sometimes these objectives are familiar, such as when you must gather a certain number of points in 2 minutes, or when you collect the letters that spell 'skate.' More often, though, they're all-new. There's the collection of 'combo' in a single combo, challenges to get high-scoring combos, and so forth. These new challenges do force you to more complete mastery of the game in order to succeed, but they also hinder the enjoyability. On a more positive note, once you are given an objective, you can repeatedly retry it or abandon it as you will, then immediately warp to challenge areas at any point you wish when you're coming back to clear old things. Neversoft could easily have messed up by forcing you to find all the objectives the old-fashioned way, but they didn't. Good job, fellows!
For the most part, what will keep you working on those objectives is the ability to unlock levels. You'll find 6 in this manner, for each 8 goals. The last two stages must be unlocked with cash. As you complete goals, you get 250 cash. Or you can find wads of money lying about (you collect these instead of the stat points you got before, which are collected when you clear a challenge). Collecting this is important to get all those stages, which cost a hefty $15,000 each to unlock. And there are other benefits, such as movies and cheats and information, things that will make the game last longer. Still, those stages are likely to be your primary goal.
The reason levels are such an attraction is of course that they provide more opportunities for cash. They also can be cool, though in general the stages in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 were better. This time, the locations through which you skate include a carnival, a college campus, a zoo, a shipyard, and various cities. These stages are nice, and there are numerous opportunities to perform tricks, but suddenly it doesn't really seem to matter. The fact that your score hardly matters means you won't likely give much thought to challenging yourself to perform new tricks at all. And if you do, it's only so you can impress that pro for some cash, then move on. A true shame. Level design is meant primarily to provide you with the afore-mentioned objectives, rather than a cool place to skate like fans of the franchise are used to. Save a few cool areas here and there--the rooftops of Alcatraz and the pens at the zoo come to mind--most of this is just open space with a few dull rails to keep you moving.
None of the flaws really seem to be due to a lack of effort. The textures here are new, the music, and the level designs (except the bonus stage borrowed from a different title). You can even sit back and admit that there are some great ways to rack up points. The question you'll end up asking yourself, though, is does it matter? And it doesn't, not really. The hit-or-miss mini games seem the focus now, and most of the old things in the series seem an afterthought.
Besides the difference in stages, there's also a new move. You go flying up a wall, press the 'L' and 'R' buttons together, and your skater will flip over to the other side, where you can revert into your manual and keep going to rack up those points that don't really matter (this basically only comes in handy for those 'combo' letter collection campaigns). You can also stitch, which involves riding behind a vehicle (or animal) like you might in Jet Grind Radio or Aggressive Inline. Neither move really adds anything to the experience.
Music this time around seems as if it can be described in the same way. From a distance, it's easy to look at the soundtrack and some of what it includes--the AC/DC song Dynamite included--and think it will rock. It doesn't, sadly, and neither do the other songs on the disc. By default, they seem to play in more subdued tones. Rumor has it some song editing went on, too. Nothing sounds really bad, but it's more background noise here than it was in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3. The only real improvement is the digitized voices you hear as your goals are listed. Some of the voice acting is quite clever, such as Ollie the Magic Bum, who has trouble standing on his feet and speaks with the appropriate slur.
Ultimately, then, Neversoft has presented us with their latest package and the receiving is bittersweet. There's a new design scheme. It's sweet because it's different, bitter because it takes away a lot of what made the franchise cool. And so it is with the whole game. The new is cool, but then you realize that what we had wasn't so bad in the first place. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 marks a bend in the road. We've gone down it and there's really no going back to what we had before. As such bends go, this one isn't really terrible. The game is still very playable and it will likely keep you busy for nearly as long as its immediate predecessor. How much more or less time you spend with it is really up to personal preference. Whatever you expect, though, don't think this one is more of the same. It is to a certain extent, but not so much as it isn't.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (October 26, 2002)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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