Review by Smirnoff
"Float like a butterfly, land like a brick"
How much can this game differ from part 3 in the series? Surely, half a page with a short list of the new levels and a five-word summary of how good they are would suffice?
Oh no, I should be lucky. Tony Hawk 4 is about as different from part 3 as you can get without replacing the skateboarders with talking dogs and setting the whole game in space, with the developer presenting us a world-full of innovations that make Tony 4 a totally different experience to last year's skate-down.
Grand Theft Auto 3 - a vaguely successful game from last year which some of you may well have heard about - changed the way games worked, by offering you a variety of missions to undertake as and when you see fit. Tony Hawk 4 now uses this basic structure, presenting you with a fully open level, no time limit and a series of challenges to take on (or ignore) as you desire. The whole level therefore becomes one big practice area, with players taking on challenges when the urge to do something constructive with their time takes hold.
So immediately the feel of the game is totally different - there's no imperative to do anything at all. If you like, Tony 4 may be used as one big playground, with you just grinding about the place messing about and getting into trouble. Alas, the prostitutes of GTA3 have not been replicated, with the cities of Tony 4 populated by skateboarders who I doubt would be interested in a car ride to an out-of-the-way area for sex. Instead, these board-carriers and civilians issue you with challenges. A green arrow above a boarder's head signifies he wants a chat, with the resulting conversation forming a description of your task. A clock then appears and....away you go. Do stuff!
This open-ended structure has given the developers a lot more room to play about with the challenges. Yes, there are still those puzzling buffoons who have 'lost' the letters S, K, A, T and E presumably while on their way to a job interview with the Sesame Street team, but most of the Tony 4 tests are all-new, all-different and all-hard.
Often you're given a simple scoring test, or told to perform a specific trick or two, but with approaching 200 challenges in the game you're never more than a chit-chat away from being asked to do something peculiar and a lot more creatively challenging. Early favorite is the timed race through the College level which has your skater lying on his board, racing feet-first through a series of traffic cones within a strict time limit. There's a timed challenge to help an Alcatraz warder prove he's the fastest cart driver on the island, you race a cop through a city to warn skaters he's coming to get them and there's a race across San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf area against a rival, which demands use of the surrounding cars to get enough speed to win.
The youths into this kind of thing call that Skitchin' - another new-to-Tony 4 feature. The cars you're holding on to don't move particularly fast and often drive out of the game are with little warning, resulting in you being thrown back to a restart point. But it's a nice minor diversion nonetheless.
The levels are now noticeably more realistic. Tony Hawk 4 offers flatter and bigger open areas, with the compact skate parks of previous Hawk installments ditched for believable and - in the case of San Francisco and London - recognizable chunks of real places. Alcatraz may be quite realistic too, but I've never been there to be honest.
Frankly I'm not a huge fan of this nu-realism movement. Realistic places means less excitement for the player, with half-pipes for the most part replaced by flat, tricky to navigate streets and park benches. The game's opening College level just feels messy, like a child has been let loose with the park editor. Benches, rails, walls, steps and mini ramps are everywhere, but none are that easy to link together. Most of the rails are curved and the grindable benches very short, meaning players are required to really work for their points and combos. If you can't handle the flat ground manual tricks, you're stuffed.
There's a lot more variation in the environments, but this also conspires to make it a lot harder to enjoy the skating experience. The levels are now so packed with real-world features it has become a little tricky to see your way around, with the small lumps of scenery blending in with the backgrounds and requiring the player to thoroughly know the level before any decent score combos are forthcoming. Every change has its positive and negative I guess.
It's also by far the most difficult Hawk game yet. The control system remains unchanged save for the addition of a 'level out' spine transfer button [R2] which makes your skater pull out of any trick and point his feet at the ground, essential for pulling tricks between the back-to-back ramps of the Carnival level. But it's harder to score points and much tougher to link combos and chains in these packed new landscapes. You'll certainly need to be a master of the manual to successfully keep a combo going around these complex worlds. Tony Hawk 4 requires a lot more work to play than any Hawk game yet.
For the people who are entirely new to Tony Hawk - if they exist that is - I reckon Tony 4 might be a little too difficult to get into.
Also, the higher level of toughness changes the way you play. Fail a challenge and you're told to press Start and pick the option to replay it again. Fail it again and you do the same, and again, and again, and again, making the Start menu your new best friend. Remember the thrill of collecting the letters, beating two of the high score targets and grinding a couple of the special areas all in one sensational run in Tony Hawk 3? That feeling is gone, with Tony 4 presenting a more stop-and-start, disjointed playing experience, that may well leave newcomers to the Tony Hawk phenomenon confused and frustrated. There's just no imperative to get anything done. Come up against a tough challenge and you can just ignore it and pick an easier one, or just give up on the challenges altogether and just aimlessly skate around for a while.
But wait! That doesn't mean it's bad or anything. For the Tony Hawk fan this is the biggest game yet and one that'll keep you playing for the best part of the year until Tony Hawk 5 comes out somewhere around Autumn 2003. It's just that for the merely averagely skilled, or the total newcomer, Tony Hawk 4 is likely to contain as many difficult chores as it does great moments.
Which is the fault of the new challenges, mainly. Some are genuinely clever and entertaining, many are very short and simple. Some are straightforward scoring and letter-collecting tasks and quite a few of them aren't even that much fun. But in its favor at least you're not just doing the same get-the-tape, score-the-points goals in every level as in previous Hawk games since the beginning of Tony-time (1999).
Thankfully they've made the game super user friendly to cope with this new challenge structure. There's no loading between challenges, that friendly little Start menu lets you instantly flash back to the beginning and have another go should you mess up, plus there's a list of every goal for you to keep track of what you've been up to. Given the frustrating difficulty of some of the tasks, this gleaming presentation is an absolute God-send.
'Total Goals: 24/190' reads my Game Progress screen, showing just how little I managed to unlock in my first five hours of play. Yes, I feel shame. The game also rates and records how many gaps you've jumped and how many of the pro-tasks you've done, challenging the obsessive-minded player to stop washing their hands for long enough to truly complete everything Tony 4 has to offer. You'll have to keep track of how many joypads you've smashed against the wall in frustration yourself. Me and my mates are up to three as I jot this down.
The challenges you complete, your stats and the character-building points you earn playing through the levels, happily stay earned and are duplicated for every character, meaning should you fancy switching skaters mid-career it's no longer necessary to unlock everything again with each of the game's characters. That's a nice touch. You're now also allowed to select an action replay at any time during a run, should you grind or crash in a particularly impressive manner. The Start menu also lets you select your own restart point, which is dead handy for those moments when you become temporarily crazed about performing a certain trick on a certain obstacle. Now you can restart just at the right place every time. Handy, that.
As ever, completing challenges earns you points, which are needed to unlock the next level. But it's possible to cheat and buy your way out of a slump. Cash is dotted about the levels for you to collect, with a money meter in the top-right corner showing the contents of your virtual wallet. So quit the game and go spend some cash in Tony 4's shop, which lets you buy secret stuff. It's a much better way of unlocking stuff than Tony 3's complete-it-50-times-with-each-skater system.
The default big new levels of Tony Hawk 4 manage what I thought was impossible - they look even better than before. There are no sneaky camera angles or foggy distances for the game to hide behind, and nor does it need them, because everything about the way it looks is just about perfect. Some of the other skaters look a bit simple and detail-free, but the levels themselves, the buildings and the sheer amount of detail, look great. Even the water and sky effects that ring a couple of the worlds look better.
The multi-player games show little change. And no, that's not a bad thing, as Mr Hawk never fails to provide a superb experience for sociable gamers. The usual modes are in here - Trick Attack, Horse, Slap!, Graffiti and King of the Hill, all of which confound technology by looking simply stunning and smooth when running in split-screen for two. New this time is Combo Mambo, a challenge to score the highest combo score within the time limit, and Score Attack - first player to hit a preset score target, like, wins, dude.
There's still no four-player split-screen, mind, unless you fancy delving into the confusing world of USB network adaptors, ethernets and modems.
Network gaming - the best but least talked about feature of Tony Hawk 3 - is back again, which should please the few lucky people that bothered with it before. It's the same drill - buy a USB modem thing, plug it in, play on a private, Activision-backed network against others. Only now you're able to play with a total of eight skaters against last year's four. The internet never ceases to amaze.
And now for the most enjoyable part of the reviewing process - writing about the music! As ever it's an eclectic collection of cool tunes from Top of the Pop's past and present, taking you on a journey into sound designed to both entertain and educate. Anarchy in the UK by The Sex Pistols is the standout track this time, closely followed by Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast and Bad Fun by Goth pensioners The Cult.
New music is taken care of by pop-rockers The Offspring and System of a Down, who, I completely don't understand, are quite popular with the kids of today. There's also classic hip hop from the angry chaps of yesteryear NWA and Public Enemy, still the best in its genre if you ask me. Some De la Soul, Gang Starr and a bit of Rocket from the Crypt for the lady.
There's also tracks by Lootpack, Flogging Mollie and City Stars, who I've never heard of. Hey, I could pretend, but there's no point lying to you.
Overall there's some good stuff to listen to, but it's such a mixed bunch that surely no one will like it all and won't resort to switching a few off in the music select screen. And besides, nothing can touch the majesty of Motorhead's The Ace of Spades which was used in part 3.
So, there are a lot of things to like. Tony Hawk 4 is a polished, playable and good-looking game. The levels look brilliant, the game is bigger then Tony 3 and the challenges are a mile more varied than those you've faced before. So why no ten then? Because I just prefer Tony 3's smaller, more enjoyable levels to Tony 4's bigger, tougher, more realistic environments and challenges - it's that simple.
But if you're a Hawk fan - and be honest, there are quite a few of them - you'll love the extra difficulty and new challenges which make Tony 4 essential.
It's Tony Hawk for grown ups. And it's good.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 11/30/02, Updated 11/30/02
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