It’s been a hell of a year for revisiting our respective childhoods. With new games from classic series like Metal Gear Solid, Mega Man, and Super Mario, and the Rare Replay, nostalgia is surely in style. With that in mind, Activision set out to deliver the sequel for which we’ve been waiting 13 years and two entire console generations.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 was launched this week in the midst of controversy and a flood of bad press. Between the publisher not handing out review codes until release day and ordering its developers to completely overhaul the game’s visuals in the eleventh hour, the new skating title looked like it was shaping up to wipe out harder than Tony Hawk trying to pull off a late Kickflip McTwist.
Now, I’d be pretty negligent if I didn’t acknowledge THPS5’s flaws, because there are a great many indeed. After downloading the initial update that was nearly twice the size of the game itself, I excitedly booted it up just to be met with a discouraging sight: So much lag. It took nearly a full two minutes and two full system reboots before I could get into the game.
However, one reset later, I was able to get back into the game and start playing. Two things impressed me as I started to skate around the first level. First off, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 makes a great effort to let players experience skateboarding together, dropping you into a level amongst plenty of other players skating around. You can interact with these fellow skaters in a minimalistic way by bumping into them, just for fun. While this has never caused me to bail or fall off my board, it has upset some pretty epic combos on occasion.
This multi-skate feature also allows you to invite other players and join up to complete some of the harder tasks and missions, which I’ll cover soon enough. But one irritating flaw in the multiplayer system is that a large notification shows on the screen every single time a player either enters or leaves a level – friend or not. After about 20 notifications in two minutes, I found myself getting a tad irritated. In spite of this, I still enjoy the multiplayer format. And of course, if skating with others isn’t for you, you can always opt to skate solo in a Private Skate.
The second thing I noticed right away is that the game feels and plays just like its predecessors. No tutorial was necessary in order to get into the game: I immediately knew how to Tailslide, Indy, Boneless, and even pull a 900 when my special bar was full because of my long hours playing THPS1 and 2. This brought a huge smile to face as I realized that care was taken to preserve the legacy of those classic PS1 titles.
Even for those who have never played a Tony Hawk game before, getting a hang of THPS5’s mechanics shouldn’t take more than a few moments. The most basic and important trick is the Ollie, or a small jump. Once in the air, you can flip tricks like a Heelflip, grabs like a Mute, or enter into a grind along nearly any surface in the game. You can also perform a Manual or Nose Manual by quickly tapping up, then down (or the other way around) while riding on the ground. Manuals and grinds provide you with a fantastic tool to chain long strings of tricks together to get incredibly high scores.
One new game mechanic that I was surprised to discover was the Slam feature. Essentially, this allows you to quickly drop down from great heights to land on the ground or in a grind by slamming down on your board. This technique can be used to quickly chain multiple tricks together, especially if you’re running short on time or room to skate. As with all other Tony Hawk titles, you find yourself chaining together massive strings of insane tricks in no time at all.
Another very welcome addition to the game is the inclusion of missions, or tasks. Each mission will ask you to complete a specific task in a short period of time, and progressing through them will allow you to unlock new levels and items. Some missions are simple and straightforward, like obtaining a high score or chaining a huge combo, but some are little more creative, like collecting ice cream cones or quickly pulling off tricks to prevent your head from exploding. Unlike the stringently defined Career Mode from the earlier games, missions can be accessed from a pause menu in Free Skate, or else you can find them scattered throughout each level. The tasks start off easy enough, but by the last few levels they become extremely difficult and complex. These challenges also provide a lot of replay value, especially for those trophy and achievement hunters.
One downside of completing the missions is that you are taken to short loading screen before and after each challenge. The screen doesn’t appear for long; maybe five seconds or so. But the game would run much better and have a greater sense of fluidity if those pesky loading screens could be avoided, especially considering how integral the missions are to the overall gameplay.
It became widely known, just a few short months ago, that co-developers Robomodo and Disruptive Games were scrambling to overhaul the visual style and graphics of THPS5 shortly before release. The change was due mostly to the fact that the graphics just weren’t up to the standard that current-gen gamers expect. And even with the new cel-shaded art style, the visuals are surely one of the greatest shortcomings of Tony Hawk 5. It doesn’t look anywhere near as good as other titles that have been released recently, and considering the game carries the price tag of a triple-A title, this is quite disappointing. However, this just adds fuel to the fire that is the debate of graphics versus gameplay. If gameplay is most important to you, then you’ll likely find yourself satisfied. But if graphics hold a greater weight, then an anticlimax may be in store.
One of my favorite aspects of the game is the ability to customize the look of your skater. You can change their face, clothes, and deck to a set number of choices. There are plenty of hidden items and unlockables for you to discover, and they range from typical and realistic clothing to crazy robot suits and snowman heads. While this may not seem like a big deal to some people, I always felt restricted by the lack of customization when playing the older Tony Hawk games. But THPS5 gives players plenty of different options, and the ability to create a mega-mecha-luchador version of Tony Hawk is pretty damn cool.
Tony Hawk 5 comes pre-loaded with eight solid levels, each featuring a different location and theme. The coolest levels are School III (a great homage to the school sections from the original titles), a remix/mashup of the Warehouse from THPS1, and the Hangar from THPS2. The later courses, while seemingly promising, are extremely busy – packed with useless and confusing trappings – and aren’t nearly as fun as the early levels.
If THPS5’s existing courses fail to excite you, you’ll be pleased to hear that the game puts a heavy emphasis on user-generated content through the Create-a-Park mode. I found it quite enjoyable to download and play other people’s levels and skateparks, but creating my own felt like an absolute chore. The park creation suite is more or less exactly the same as when it debuted in THPS2. It’s clunky and confusing, and I still have yet to create a level that I’m satisfied with.
Even without Create-a-Park mode, THPS5 is still a solid game and I don’t think that it deserves all the negative press that it has received. Is it glitchy? Yes, for certain. I found my skater caught underground with his head sticking out of a halfpipe on more than one occasion. Are the visuals lacking? Definitely. At best, it feels like a last-gen title with occasional lag and choppiness. If the sub-par graphics get under your skin, then just wait until November to pick it up on PS3 or Xbox 360. The visuals should look just fine in relation to those consoles.
Ultimately, since its announcement, Activision has marketed Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 as a return to what made the series great: huge tricks, massive air, and addictive gameplay. There are no fancy gimmicks to bog the game down, and it really feels like the titles that introduced the series. It’s simple and easy to play, but it does a beautiful thing: It lets us revisit some of the most memorable and influential games from the PS1 era and helps us to feel right at home.
A Solid Homage to a Golden Era
Despite its shortcomings, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 is exactly what it promises to be: A worthy sequel to the games we wasted our early lives playing.