Activision recently signed a deal with Tony Hawk which means it has exclusive rights to make games based on the skating legend until the year 2015. That's a lot of skating games. That does give Neversoft plenty of time to come up with some new ideas, and that's just as well, because unless they do, THPS games numbered 5 to 17 are going to very shallow indeed. Judging by the progress made from 3 to 4, the developer has almost run out of ideas.
Same dog, old tricks
Tony Hawk 4 is no stellar leap beyond previous outings. That much is clear from the start. Hop into the first level, a 'College' level featuring lots of big, old buildings, car parks, ball parks, tennis courts and surrounding streets, and you could be forgiven for wondering where the last year's dev time went. In terms of graphics, gameplay and sound, THPS4 makes only incidental changes.
Graphics? Animation has been fine-tuned slightly on the skaters, but everything else still has that unmistakable Tony Hawk look to it. In-game NPCs smirk from behind low detail faces, their square arms clapping together whenever you impress them, cars (though you can now skitch and grind them) are still chunky and both NPCs and vehicles all move awkwardly. Level and in particular building textures are quite drab, and other than that there isn't much to say, although there are less glitches and clipping issues than previously, and it's as bright and eerily unreal as always. Ho hum.
Sound? Well the soundtrack is unremarkable - there are plenty of tunes drawn from many genres and many groups, both old and new. The youth of today will welcome Offspring and System of a Down's inclusion, whereas we've been nodding our heads to Sex Pistols and Iron Maiden. You'll find plenty more, but none of them fits the action quite as well as Ace of Spades did in THPS3, and you'll probably turn off many of the game's 35 tracks before you've even heard them.
All of which leaves the argument about how it plays.
This could take a while...
Neversoft has had to make some serious changes to the two-minute formula of old in order to keep up with the shameless mimicry of games like Aggressive Inline, and the most obvious change is the absence of a timer. THPS is famous for asking you to complete a series of tasks in a number of two-minute sessions. This was quite demanding, and made it rather difficult for newcomers to concentrate on mastering the ins and outs of a complicated control system, but on the whole everyone got the hang of it. But in the absence of a timer, all the urgency is gone. You're left to your own devices - you can stalk around amassing huge combos or simply grappling with the controls, depending on your skill level, but unless you wander up to an NPC with a marker over his or her head, you won't have any challenges to complete.
Neversoft highlights the non-linearity of this approach. It's quite right, it's nice to be able to pick and choose tasks, to give up on exceedingly difficult ones and to avoid high score goals until you can grind and manual around a whole level spontaneously. However, it does remove the 'zone' aspect - in previous games, you would often find yourself having a really good day, completing two, three or even four challenges in quick succession in one run, and it led to huge high scores on the leaderboard and plenty of back-patting. That's all gone now - it's one challenge at a time, and no kudos for toppling several in a row.
The challenges themselves are mostly unchanged - you'll still quest to find the S-K-A-T-E letters, and you'll need to tot up some immense combo scores to earn skater points to open new levels - but there are some nice new additions. A few that stand out in my mind are the checkpoint race (where your skater lies down on the board and races through cones in a time limit), the new C-O-M-B-O task (collect all five letters in one trick), the transfer-between-floats-in-a-procession one and the grind-and-knock-30-tourists-in-the-sea task on Alcatraz Island. There's enough diversity to keep you interested, and, of course, completing tasks often gives you skater points, a certain number of which are needed to open up new levels. There are also some mini-games (tennis, for example), but so far these have stood out for us as punishingly lame.
The good news is that the revamped Park Creator is more powerful than ever, and unlike a lot of 'level designer' tools thrown into console games at the last minute, pretty easy to use and very effective. You'll never match the sort of thing you see from Alcatraz, or THPS3's cruise ship, but there are lots of things you could do (like a zoo!) and it makes a nice change not to simply ignore this feature on the basis that it's crap.
One thing Neversoft has done between 3 and 4 is opt for a more realistic approach. Anybody who read our thoughts on Mat Hoffman's 2 will know that we don't think this is the way to go with skating games (you can hardly claim they're realistic in many other ways, can you?), and we haven't changed our minds since then. It doesn't help that THPS4's levels are now so huge and sprawling that the intimacy of old arenas (like THPS3's warehouse) is completely removed, and we'd argue that the layout of many is far from conducive to trick-building. There are many grinding opportunities, but it's almost as though there's too much to take in - the Alcatraz level is a perfect example. In one area, there are so many sharp edges that grinding around and maintaining momentum is actually more difficult - you can't ride the same route over and over because you can't easily predict where you're going, and before long you've caught your knees on a step and Tony's head is on the concrete.
The difficulty level is higher for many reasons, too, of which the level design is only one. The opening level, the College circuit, is often tough even for veterans, and we've thrown so much time at Tony Hawk that you would think we're dating. It's much trickier to keep a long combo going, and many of the tasks demand advanced tricks, skilful use of manuals, and using the wall ride to hop up onto elevated grinds. New tasks like having to complete certain tricks in a half pipe in time with a bunch of arrogant kids are devilish to begin with, and the one on the first level with the hobo and the pink elephants... We can't even finish that one yet, because the time runs out and we get stuck behind a grate - are we missing something obvious?
But we love it really
It's difficult to be overly nasty to THPS4 though because it is still one of the very best skating games out there. Once you've become proficient in wielding the initially cumbersome controls, and picked your preference of analogue or D pad, things become a lot easier and a lot more fun - tasks seem challenging but not too so, and you can always just go and do something else, such is the beauty of the new open-plan level design. There are also some useful changes to the control system, although nothing as important as reverts were to THPS3 - you can now right yourself in mid-air, much as you can do in Aggressive Inline, by holding R2 (very useful), and you can use this to do insane spine transfers (which is absolutely necessary on the Carnival level, for instance).
Many of THPS' famous bonuses now lie within the confines (if the word is still applicable) of these levels - collecting cash is now an important aspect, because gone is the 'complete the game 10 times with each character to unlock a new suit' reward system. You collect cash, then you buy new toys (gorilla suits, new characters, even new levels) from the shop section. It may sound churlish to demand so little after asking so much in previous games, but it actually makes a lot of sense in a 'lowering the entry bar' kind of way. Or it would do, if the game wasn't generally much harder.
Adding to the general sense of fun though is the option to play online (via ethernet/modem on PS2, but not on Xbox Live or via System Link!) on Activision's servers, now with up to eight players. Of course there's still a split-screen two-player mode, with the same old tasks (King of the Hill, Slap!, etc) and this remains great fun, but going online with THPS is something the privileged few really stand to enjoy.
Grind or Grin?
Is there anything left to say? Definitely. We're guessing that newcomers are now wondering whether this is the game to rob them of their skating virginity, and those of you with as much vested interest as we have will be wondering whether this is going to do anything new for them. To the newcomers, we'd say no, don't go for THPS4, go for THPS3, which is happily available on budget for less than 20 pounds. Easier, tighter, brighter. Go now. The rest of you? It all comes down to one thing - are you bored of THPS3? Do you moan about it to your friends? Would you say you're now bitter, cynical and jaded when it comes to skating games? If you are, then THPS4 is unlikely to reawaken your passion for the series, but if you honestly do fancy more of the same in brand new arenas with a lot more actual content than previous editions, this is definitely worth your money.
A tough one to score then, but still unquestionably excellent.