When PS2 Online stumbled into view at the beginning of June, we weren't all that enamoured by its launch line-up, which comprised a multi-platform racing game (since surpassed on Xbox), a third person Counter-Strike rip-off and an unwieldy Carmageddon clone. A fortnight on and we haven't stopped tinkering with our £25 network adapters, USB cables snaking over discarded Doritos packets and through puddles of Coke towards our keyboards, but we're still far from overwhelmed. In hope of changing that, this week we rolled off the sofa and pulled Tony Hawk out of the nearest pizza box. Maybe he knows something.
In terms of setup, getting online with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 was as easy as choosing Network Play from the main menu, selecting a skater, choosing our usual PS2 Online configuration stored on the memory card and getting on with it. An Internet Options menu allows you to login/create a GameSpy profile (you may already have one for FilePlanet or similar), then set about downloading custom skate parks (or uploading your own) and playing THPS4 online.
Obviously we were more interested in playing than creating (let's face it, if we were creative then we wouldn't be games journalists), so we immediately hit Play Online, which brings up a list of lobbies. When we tried it, there were 17 lobbies, and the distribution leans heavily towards the USA, which has six east and six west coast offerings, and a few others. Somewhat insultingly, Europe only gets one. Then again this does seem to be for a reason, because there really aren't too many people playing THPS4 online - the best times seem to be late in the evening or during the early hours when all the yanks get home from school and work.
Once we did find some games (on one of the American servers), it became obvious that Trick Attack and Graffiti were "where it's at", so to speak; Trick Attack being the pursuit of the highest score within a (usually two minute) time limit, and Graffiti a sort of 'capture and hold', where players have to perform a trick to 'tag' an object, and claim their opponents' territory by performing higher scoring tricks on their turf. And a word of advice here: the people who are still playing THPS4 are good, and generally can and do perform all those tricks from the demo videos. In sequence. Without stopping. If you're lucky, you'll find a server full of mediocre-to-decent players, but don't be surprised to find scores in excess of a million flying past you. At least there's very little lag to worry about.
In hope of levelling the playing field, we immediately set about hosting all the other different game types, from Slap and King of the Hill (which saw a bit of play on other servers too) to online-only modes Goal Attack and Capture The Flag. Every game starts out in Free Skate mode, where everyone can trick to the heart's content and hurl abuse v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y at one another using the on-screen keyboard, and from whence the host gets to pick the game types, switch maps and boot troublemakers. Etcetera.
First of all, we tried out Score Challenge and Combo Mambo, which pick a winner based on who gets to the target score quickest and who can perform the biggest combo during a time limit respectively. However we lost interest again when we started losing. That said, we did learn a few impressive rail grind routes on some of our favourite levels that we would have sworn were impossible, simply by watching other players in "Observer" mode. Neat trick, that.
Next up was Slap! mode, which is a game of, well, slapping other players at high speed. The idea is to fill your special meter and then race at people, slapping them. Doing so earns points and the player with the most slaps then wins. We didn't really enjoy that one though, because it placed less of an emphasis on clever skate work and more on simply ambushing people with a quick button press.
Capture The Hawk
Moving on then, and we came to the two modes dubbed "online only" in the manual: Goal Attack and CTF. Goal Attack is actually quite clever, and tests your abilities from the single player game; the idea being to complete "Goals" from Career mode in succession before the time runs out. Where Goal Attack fell down for us though was in the host's ability to pick the goals to be completed. Even with a couple of similarly skilled players, not knowing which objectives are in play can mean plenty of lost time circling the wrong area of the map looking for something that isn't there. Ironically for an online only mode, it might work better if the players were in the same room...
As for Capture The Flag, we were pleasantly surprised! It's similar to an FPS version of the same, of course, with two teams each trying to grab the other's flag and transport it safely - and unslapped - back to their respective base. Cue plenty of ninja-fast grinding and clever route-taking, but much to our annoyance, it was almost impossible to get a good game going. Why? The vastness of the arenas means a goodly number of people are a pre-requisite, and not enough people joined our server. Still, assuming you can find the players, this one should keep you going for a while - like a peculiar mixture of light bikes and Quake III...
Finally, then, we come to Horse. Or H-O-R-S-E. In fact, any word you like. Like the basketball game of the same name (er, we think), Horse is about pulling a better trick than the last guy. Anybody who fails gets a letter, and anybody who completes the word Horse has to take a ride. Think of this as Tony Hawk's Rocket Arena - with three or four people it's an absolute laugh, assuming you can do more than kickflips, ollies and indies. We spent more time on this than any other mode, save Trick Attack, which we kept playing on the off chance we might beat somebody. In the end we did, and there was much rejoicing.
We're not really sure whether we'd pay £40 - sorry, £65 - just to play Tony Hawk's various online modes, but when coupled with the expansive single player game, this is probably the best extreme sports title you can lay your hands on right now. It's not going to sell network adapters either (arguably there isn't much that deserves to do so just yet), but if you've been sitting there wondering if you can be arsed to jump on the PS2 Online bandwagon and stop downloading porn with that broadband connection for ten minutes, then maybe this will convince you. If you also have Midnight Club II then that's an even better excuse.