Tony Hawk's back. This time he's popped his head up on the Xbox, and this new version of the game has been upgraded here and there to give Tony Hawk fans a little more incentive to check it out than the Cube version released in the States last year. Tony's third game makes several departures from its predecessor and also features a collection of new tracks and of course an array of real skaters to choose from including the eponymous Hawkster himself, each equipped with an arsenal of signature moves. The graphics have received their seasonal update, but the touch of sparkle promised Xbox owners is absent. Grass was meant to become more than a mere texture, swaying slightly in the wind as you skated past it, but apparently (despite stealing a few seconds of film on a recent Xbox mag coverdisk) it was cut to keep the frame rate up. Regardless, as with the PS2 and Cube versions, each of the skaters is superbly drawn, modelled and animated, and the tracks are full of neat visual effects and intricately detailed. Virtually every edge can be used to grind with plenty of jumps and half pipes and of course all the usual level goals - collecting S-K-A-T-E, the secret tape and racking up high scores. Themed goals feature prominently too, with skaters racing to take out a handful of pickpockets in the Airport, and squashing pumpkins in Suburbia. Tricks are as easy to perform as ever, and the control system maps surprisingly well to the Xbox controller, although I reckon Controller S with its spaced out diamond will be a better bet. The tutorial (including Tony's cringeworthy voiceover) clears up all the important stuff for beginners, and instructions for performing the big tricks can be accessed in-game and assigned to different button combinations. With each level the high score goals become harder to attain, but thanks to the skill points scattered throughout each level you can upgrade your skater's abilities before it becomes a problem, from ollying and grinding to grabs and catching air, and these attributes make a big difference to the outcome of each two minute run.
Bump n' Grind
Some of the game's levels invite you to show off for three one-minute rounds and have your performance scored according to the panel of skater judges. These levels form stumbling blocks in the single player game, with a minimum bronze medal required to unlock the next level and tough competition. No amount of goals on the previous levels can be employed to help bypass these obstacles, and the challenge sets you up nicely for the trickier levels thereafter. New to the Xbox version of the game is an Oilrig level, which posed a challenge even for my Tony Hawk addicted friends, who - being mostly of the student variety - cannot afford to shell out required cash to buy their own Xbox. That said, THPS3 doesn't really constitute a killer app for Xbox, but then these people often defy logic… Perhaps the most important thing the Xbox can offer Tony Hawk fans is the ability to customize the game's soundtrack. Rip a few of your favourite songs to the Xbox hard disk before you play and you can kick some of the less inspired tunes on Hawk's soundtrack to the curb, replacing them with your own blockbusting beats. If not, you'll find plenty of skatey tunes in rap, punk and a handful of other genres. Artists like Alien Ant Farm and the Red Hot Chili Peppers make their mark, but it's a bit hit and miss. In terms of the quality of the port, THPS3 is unmatched, even on the already port-ridden European Xbox launch line-up. If you've bought an Xbox and are looking for something familiar to get your teeth stuck into, you could do a lot worse. The PlayStation 2 version is no cheaper, and the Cube version (obviously not yet released in Europe) is a level lighter and a mite uglier to boot. Even the vaunted GameCube load times are about the same as those witnessed on the Xbox, and with level data caching to the hard disk you'll find the process of repeating those crucial first few seconds of each level a less arduous and disjointed task. Although much smoother than its counterparts on other consoles, THPS3 Xbox outing does slow occasionally, dropping below the staple 60 fps at the start of levels more often than not. Load times are generally good though, and the interface is reassuringly slick. A fully featured skater and skate park editor seal the package.
Execution is one of the strongest aspects of Neversoft's games, and THPS3 is no exception. Indeed, this is definitely the slickest and more desirable Hawk to date. Long-standing fans of the series may demand more, but for skating virgins there is no finer game, and ultimately, there isn't much about Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 to deride. So we won't bother.