Reviewed: December 3, 2009
Released: November 17, 2009
It is no secret that the Activision’s stalwart Tony Hawk Pro Skater franchise has been in serious trouble over the past few years. The preeminent skateboarding series – once known for its innovation in design – became a reflection of its own cheekiness as the solid and exciting gameplay turned stale and overplayed with each consecutive release. The franchise was in dire need of a jumpstart, and Tony Hawk: Ride is Activision’s attempt at doing just that. By enlisting the help of the newly formed Chicago studio Robomodo (ex-EA Chicago folks), Activision has effectively rebuilt the franchise from the ground up. While the results in the final product are definitely mixed, all in all the final verdict is that the franchise is undoubtedly better for the change.
With the help of Tony Hawk himself, the folks at Robomodo designed and manufactured a full-sized wireless skateboard controller that contains an internal array of accelerometers that measure the board’s motion, as well as a series of infrared eyes to sense hand and body movement about the board. Unlike the flat Wii Fit balance board, the Ride board is beveled on the bottom to allow gamers to simulate ollies, nollies, turns, and rotations during play. By timing these movements with the onscreen obstacles, gamers can quickly chain together trick lines and combos. Even building up speed is performed by kicking alongside the board as a real gamer would.
The board is intended to sit directly on the carpet (sticky-backed felt is included if there is no carpet) and is surprisingly tough – handling my 6’4” 275lbs without any notable cracking or damage. Maneuvering the board is terribly awkward at first – especially if you are not playing in shoes. If there is one recommendation I can make, it is to wear some form of footwear while on the board – rubber soles will grip the textured plastic deck better than socks do and help enhance the trick consistency, and the relative rigidity of the soles make leaning and turning significantly more responsive.
The general idea with the infrared sensors is that as you reach towards each of the four eyes, the board senses a grab move and mimics that on the screen. While new gamers tend to try to reach completely down to the board, he or she only really needs to reach about waist level for a sensor to register. An onscreen indicator shows which infrared sensor is catching a signal, so gamers can adjust their stance as needed in case a shoe or coattail happen to be triggering a sensor unnecessarily.
The overall gameplay is reminiscent of the early snowboarding franchises Coolboarders and 1080°, in that most of the levels are designed as point-to-point corridors within which the Career mode offers three methods of play – Race, Trick, and Vert. Race mode has the gamer getting from start to finish within the time limit. Icons are placed along the way that either add or subtract time from the ever-downward ticking clock. Gamers might go the easy route and lose precious seconds from a red icon, or take a risk by jumping through a narrow opening to get a boost from a green icon.
Trick mode is like Coolboarder’s Slopestyle - eschewing the ticking time clock in favor of a scoreboard, tallying points for tricks and trick-combos. A great number of tricks are available with different combinations of rotations, hand motions, and leans, and each is classified by genre names like “flips” “pushes” and “grabs”. The game offers special points for pulling off specific tricks indicated by onscreen icons – tasking gamers with grinding predefined ledges and jumping predetermined obstacles.
Vert mode plops the gamer in a half-pipe and has them pulling off tricks as the character goes back and forth leaning, rotating, and grabbing portions of the board. Unlike the Race and Trick modes – which require the board to be pointed towards the screen – Vert mode has the board parallel to the screen. Still, the tricks are pulled off similarly, and the change of view is not significant.
There are roughly a half-dozen global locations each of which sports one – if not two – point-to-point courses in which to skate. The levels are not really all that long, most be completed in as little as two minutes start to finish. A bit of variety has been added at certain intersection by branching central pathways into two or three tributaries, but those all eventually meet back up with the main pathway. While the initial levels are conservative and traditional, some of the later levels get downright wacky – which is a nice change of pace.
Undoubtedly Ride is a completely different game from any of the previous titles, and attempting to determine whether or not hardened Pro Skater vets are going to like this new take on the franchise is a crapshoot. Where the previous titles turned gamers off with the increasingly outlandish challenges and trick score requirements – Ride seems like a walk in the park in comparison. Especially on the easiest – or “Casual” – difficulty which puts gamers on a virtual rail controlling board navigation and leaving only the tricks up to the gamer.
On the flip side, where the previous titles were often tagged because seasoned vets pretty much came into new sequels with all of the dexterity skills necessary to pull off million-point trick chains (save for whatever new “hook” feature has been added that year) which was the very reason for the aforementioned score requirements – simply pulling off a solid chain of tricks in Ride can be overtly tough especially on the higher difficulty levels.
The single player story mode is a bit on the short side compared to the previous titles, but with the new gameplay mechanics in place, there really is a reason to strive to the highest difficulty levels in an attempt to gain mastery of the board. While this may seems like the Pro Skater series may have jumped the shark a bit, there is no denying that in the right circumstance, Ride is a ton of fun – especially when played in the party mode. There is nothing like seeing a group of kids (or 40 year olds for that matter) circling a TV screen cheering for the one gamer trying to nail a trick line. Whereas the Wii folks have the term “waggle control”, I would like to officially lay claim to the term “wobble control” to describe folks playing Ride.
But that leads me to a fairly touchy subject – the fact that the only in-game control input for Ride is the skateboard peripheral. And while the board can technically be maneuvered by hand, the fact that this device relies so heavily on movement and body control, it effectively isolates a portion of the intended audience – handicapped and special needs gamers. It would be nice if there was an option available for alternate controls, but there is nothing. It’s not that you cannot use a traditional hand piece controller in the game – in fact certain menus require the Xbox controller to navigate screens (and for some annoying reason to constantly key in your initials after each and every run regardless of the outcome), which leads to yet another issue; the Gamertag association.
This same problem exists in Rock Band and Guitar Hero games, but as gamers are forced to double up on peripherals and traditional controllers to navigate efficiently through the menu system, it gets confusing as to which device is being associated with which Gamertag. My initial session Achievement Points were erroneously attributed to my son’s Gamertag, which I realized all too late. Given that I am fairly laid back, and I really did not get worked up over sharing points with my kids – but I can see how this confusion might cause controversy in a college dorm room or in a frat house situation.
Visually, Ride veers away from the ultra-realistic face mapping trend with a new pseudo-3D cel shaded appearance that gives all the characters a graffiti-like flair with think dark outlines lines and excellent shading. The character models are solid, and the transitions between tricks are smooth and fluid. The level designs are a bit stark, but some of the later, more outlandish locations are a real treat for the eyes – and while there are occasional issues with clipping and tearing in the backgrounds, none were serious enough to affect our gameplay.
The sound effects in the game are really nothing to write home about, but the licensed soundtrack is absolutely fantastic. From old-time country greats Kenny Rogers & First Edition to hip hopper KRS One, from old school rockers TSOL two the new school art rock of TV on the Radio, from the cool old soul of Bill Withers to the cool new R&B trip-pop of Santigold – the soundtrack definitely has something for everyone.
Ride features online play, but not in the traditional sense as the gamers do not run simultaneously within the same level – scores are simply compared. Given the $120 cost of entry, the online lobbies are fairly empty at this point, but I am sure that after the holiday season there will be a surge of gamers going at each other online. Still, the online pales in comparison to local group party play, but setting up a party at home is not always easy and challenging an online opponent to a score off definitely helps take the sting off of the short story mode.
All said, Ride is definitely the kick in the pants the series needed – playing the same old Hawk game for the umpteenth iteration would have been the last nail in the coffin. But Ride’s execution is far from perfect and in definite need of polish. True, many of the unresponsive control issues being reported around the gaming circles can be alleviated by simply wearing shoes while playing, but shoes do little for the fact that the game is a on the short side, has an awkward difficulty curve, and does absolutely nothing to embrace special needs gamers.
If Ride is examined on its own merits as a freshman title from an up and coming studio – it is a solid (albeit expensive) first release that just could stand a little more TLC. But when considered as the 10th iteration on a once-great now washed-up series, there are bound to be more cynical eyes looking at the game. Scanning the web, there is no question that a number of Pro Skater veterans are miffed by Ride’s complete overhaul of their series – but then again, those same folks would be similarly unhappy with another rehash of the nine previous releases.
It’s nice to see the series take a new direction – but it definitely could stand a bit more tweaking.