Tony Hawk: Ride
It's easy to approach Tony Hawk: Ride with a touch of cynicism. It wants you to buy yet another plastic peripheral, for a start, which means a steep (100 GBP) initial cost for a series that's seen better days. But I found it hard not to be won over by lead designer Patrick's Dwyer's overwhelming enthusiasm for the game and, to give developer Robomodo their dues, they've reinvigorated a stale licence before: they're mostly formed of the same studio that managed to transform the dull Knockout Kings series into the phenomenal Fight Night franchise.
"Have you skated before?" Patrick asks me. I tell the truth: for a couple of weeks about fifteen years ago before giving up after not being immediately fantastic. I did, however, play a lot of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 back at the turn of the millennium, so I think it's safe to say I have a skewed view of skateboarding - one where it's possible to pull a tricked-out 720 with little effort. To emphasise the difference between then and now, Patrick demonstrates a 360 spin with the new board peripheral, shifting his centre of gravity and pivoting himself around in a single smooth, graceful motion. My pathetic attempt to replicate the trick ended in me falling off.
The board is definitely the star of the show. It's sturdy, attractive and responsive, exhibiting no signs of wear and tear after being rigorously tested underneath my not inconsiderable weight for a couple of hours. And it doesn't lie completely flat on the ground, so it provides an enjoyable kinetic response when you shift your weight around.
There were a few teething problems, however. The inexperienced games journalists, with me leading the pack, tended to simply repeat failed tricks mid-jump, as if hoping the game would somehow rewind five seconds and fix itself, which often contorted poor on-screen Tony Hawk into baffling positions before thumping back to ground head first. As impressive a bit of kit it is, it's clearly not a perfect imitation: the motionless controller obviously lacks the velocity of a real skateboard. But Guitar Hero gets by just fine despite being nothing like playing a proper guitar, and let's not forget that actual skateboarding means going outside, wearing a helmet and probably scraping your knees.
Much like its plastic big brother, Ride's success comes from making the player forget they probably have absolutely no skill at the craft, with the results on the screen always being far more impressive than the comparatively feeble physical inputs. A 50-50 grind down a twisty railing is as simple as performing an ollie - quickly raising and dropping the front of the board - and keeping yourself steady. Other blatantly complicated tricks, like grabbing the board (by moving your hands near one of the four infrared sensors), kicking tricks out and performing 180 degree turns is initially daunting, but feels achievable after a couple off hours with the game. It's a cleverly orchestrated illusion, and there are plenty of instructional videos on the disc to help everyone along.
Ride's stylised graphics learn towards the cartoony. It differentiates itself from the grungy palette of newish-kid-on-the-block Skate with chunky textures, unrealistic scenarios - grinding over giant, hissing pipes that end in a screen-filling eruption of steam when you jump off at the end, for instance - and immolating the player with celebratory fire when they fill their Style meter. The two levels I saw - Robomodo's rendition of New York's Central Park and an LA river, were charming, vibrant and pleasantly sunny - just the kind of thing you want to see from a game being released in miserable December.
I spent most of my time with Speed Run mode on the LA River stage. It's a simple premise of skimming through the course and collecting as many time-deducting collectables as you can. The desirable glowing-green icons are usually positioned in places that require a jump, with heftier deductions (five seconds as opposed to one, for instance) requiring you to make leaps off grinds and generally trickier stuff. Go in a straight, un-fancy line and you'll be bumping into red-coloured collectables that add time to the clock; the game's way of telling the player they're doing it all wrong.
Speed Run feels like a natural mode for beginners to ease themselves into understanding the terrifying-looking peripheral. The focus is firmly placed on haste, which means basic tricks are enough to turn in a good score. It's compelling, partially because of the novelty of the board but also because of the variety of the course. There are also enough potential routes to keep score-hunters occupied for hours, pragmatically deconstructing each area to calculate the smoothest, speediest route.
I play on Casual difficulty, because I'm rubbish, and on this setting the game fixes you to predefined paths, occasionally popping arrows up on the screen when the sections fork; the player leans in a direction to adjust their direction. I eventually turn in a score of just over a minute, which just so happens to put me a cool twenty-five seconds ahead at the top of our high score table. Which was nice.
There was little time to be cocky. Trying the same course on Confident difficulty, the next setting up, was an entirely different, and soul-destroying, experience. Here the auto-steering is disabled, although the game assists you in landing on grinds, which gives the hardware more than enough opportunity to show off it's two accelerometers. I sadly lacked the required balance to steer, and my time was mostly spent hitting Tony Hawk's digital head into walls.
And in the unlikely event that Confident sounds too easy there's also the Hardcore difficulty, where the game provides absolutely no assistance. I'd wager most people would find it impossible, though. I was too afraid to even give it a go.
Back on casual difficulty, the next mode I play on, Trick, is a bit more challenging. Unsurprisingly, it's all about pulling big stunts, chaining them together and racking up big scores. This was hard when the only thing I felt comfortable performing was a kickflip: I barely managed to break a measly 3000 on my first try. Levels are peppered with various Kodak moments, which pause the action to take a score-boosting snapshot with captions such as "Worm in the apple" when skating through an apple in a playground and "Spin the Bottle" when jumping off the end of a giant bottle statue. Patrick was keen to stress that practice really made perfect, and I can agree: on my last go of the session I pulled off a chain of tricks that pulled in more than forty thousand points, feeling as accomplished as anyone who spends his afternoons on plastic skateboards possibly can.
Ride had many more modes, courses and options on show, although I unfortunately didn't get much time to experience them in great detail. Glossing over them I saw a competitive half-pipe mode, trick challenges where the game demands you perform certain moves at the right time and a party-focused hotseat mode where you try and rack up a high-score in brief 30-second-odd sessions. I also had a quick dabble of the freestyle mode, which gives you the option to do whatever you want.
It was definitely a lot of fun. But potential buyers beware: you'll want to relocate your valuables, shift the coffee table and make sure the floor is spotless, because you're going to wobble about. Spinning the board causes it to inevitably move across the carpet during play, and it's all too easy to occasionally lose your balance and stumble off in any direction. That's part of the experience.
Paring back the franchise and adding in the expensive peripheral is clearly a risky move on the part of Robomodo, but the sleeker, casual-orientated and party-friendly Tony Hawk definitely feels like a step in the right direction. Without more time with the game it's hard to tell how well it will fare over an extended period of time, and there's some lingering worries about how well a motion-based activity can be turned into a stationary exercise, but I came away from my hands-on session feeling optimistic, intrigued and eager to have another crack at besting my previous high score.
Tony Hawk: Ride is out December 4th. Our time was spent with Robomodo's PS3/360 version, but there is also a Wii version being handled by Buzz Monkey Studios.