Preview

Tony Hawk: RIDE

Stevie finds his balance

Lack a sense of balance? Scared by wheeled leisure products? Think a vert ramp is a German speed bump? Think skateboarding is the exclusive domain of attitude-addled teenagers with unfathomably baggy pants and oversized sneakers? Think again, because skateboarding could be about to change forever - at least in the videogame world.

More pointedly, third-party publishing giant Activision/Blizzard is hoping Tony Hawk RIDE, the latest iteration of its hugely popular entertainment franchise, is able to shatter demographic boundaries and deliver truly interactive videogame skateboarding that appeals to hardcore fans and those who would never spare the genre a second thought.

Those hopes lie firmly with Activision's new control deck peripheral, which is essentially a contoured skateboard without wheels that's equipped with built-in accelerometers and motion sensors designed to interpret the player's movements and transfer them into on-screen tricks and stunts. And there you have it, at least according to Activision, which is pushing RIDE as instant skateboarding fun without ever having to suffer the pains and scrapes of actually hopping onto an actual deck.

The deck controller itself, the subject of much chatter in the gaming community, is a surprisingly sturdy product that feels reassuringly hefty without actually being heavy and can shoulder the burden of a player up to 300lbs in weight. Able to deliver some 30 hours of game time based on the juice provided by four AAA batteries (inserted underneath), the board's left side also has the prerequisite button array you'd expect to find on first-party controllers - although it's worth noting they are not used at any point during gameplay.

My first slice of demo time with RIDE came at this week's GamesCom trade fair in Cologne and saw Activision Santa Monica production coordinator Graham Hagmaier, who described RIDE as a "re-launch of the franchise," before ably explaining and demonstrating the board's basics and stepping clear for the enjoyment and exploration of a little one-on-one time.

And enjoying it certainly is. Once initial self-conscious wobbles of uncertainty have subsided and the deck's slightly tactile surface gently grips the soles of your feet, the input of weight shifts, angled board lifts, and even arms gestures, successfully coax a smile from the player while they revel in the corresponding skateboard moves on screen.

Sadly, while the deck promises much, it's presently difficult to really assess its capabilities - not least because the 'feet-on' demo in Activision's booth focused on manipulating the board to perform various tricks while moving on a path of strictly guided movement in A-to-B mode. The final game will, of course, include full directional control, advanced difficulty settings and extensive tutorial mini games, but it remains to be seen whether the coupling between board controller and gameplay fractures under the resulting strain.

From a presentation perspective, the Xbox 360 version put through its paces looked surprisingly rough around the edges considering the power available to Microsoft's platform and the game's approaching release. Granted, RIDE will likely live or die by the strength of its gameplay interaction, but ravenous graphics whores may have good reason to be concerned upon learning that a 40-inch HD display failed to give the game's somewhat grainy visuals a glossy injection. Environmental movement through the downhill demo was convincing enough, but the on-screen skater seemed to occasionally leap sideways onto certain interactive surfaces and obstacles, while character animation (Paul Rodriguez) was jerky and lacked weight during (frequent) wipeouts.

Other contributing aspects in RIDE include the biggest Create-A-Skater tool ever assembled in a Tony Hawk game and an unlockable wealth of playable skateboarding icons, including Hawk himself of course.

Offered gameplay modes, beyond the international Road Trip campaign, include the demoed A-to-B challenges, which require players to collect and/or dodge specific coloured orbs while racking up points with as many tricks as possible. There's also access to more free flowing trick execution in individual Skate Park and Vert Ramp modes.

RIDE's cross-demographic appeal is further aided by an in-game soundtrack containing 50 licensed songs from diverse artists such as Motown legends The Commodores, quirky rock oddity Iggy Pop, rapper KRS1 and trendy band of the moment The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

There's no online love for the Nintendo Wii in terms of multiplayer value, as only the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions will come with Net capabilities and access to future downloadable content such as special Create-A-Player items, add-ons, and new Map Pack levels. However, all three versions will offer Party Mode, which allows up to eight players to take turns on a single RIDE board.

Set to arrive on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii, Tony Hawk RIDE will be released in November of this year for the North America, United Kingdom and German territories. No final price points have been confirmed by Activision/Blizzard at this time, although current rumour suggests the board and game bundle will cost approximately 130USD.

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