Tony Hawk: Ride - Activision Preview Event |
Written by Arend Hart
November 17, 2009
The subtitle of Activision’s new Tony Hawk title couldn’t be more fitting - "RIDE". It has been one long and wild ride for the iconic skateboarding series – from the initial release in 1999, to the numerous sequels and offshoot projects (Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX, Wakeboarding Unleashed, Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer), the Tony Hawk series did not simply revolutionize the extreme sports genre, but rather defined it.
Would skateboarding ever have made the mainstream sports television coverage if the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series had never happened? Probably not. The X-Games, MTV’s television shows Jackass and Viva Le Bam, kids toys like Tech Decks and scooters, and so much more – it is safe to say that none of these would be enjoying the popularity they do if it hadn’t been for the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series.
But somewhere along that great ten-year ride, the series lost its hook. Call it oversaturation, call it overuse – but with the release Tony Hawk’s Underground, review scores began dropping, and gamers started to lose interest. The three subsequent releases rated consistently lower, finally hitting relative rock bottom with the release of Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground. It’s not that any of the games had anything inherently wrong with them, they just seemed to be more of the same old, same old. The series was put on hold, and franchise creators Neversoft moved on to the development duties for Guitar Hero.
Activision realized that in order to revive the floundering series, it needed to eschew the incremental evolutionary changes of old, and once again make a revolution. The franchise was handed to the capable hands of Chicago-based development studio Robomodo, who immediately stripped down the original Neversoft code and rebuilt the game from the board up with plenty of input from Mr. Hawk himself.
The result is Tony Hawk: RIDE, which aims to revolutionize action gaming with a unique skateboard controller that combines a series of internal accelerometers and external infrared sensors to map the motion-based input. As longtime fans of the series, we were curious about the changes that were in store, so when Activision offered us the chance to attend the Tony Hawk’s RIDE launch event in New York City, we took them up on the offer.
The day started with an exclusive hands-on session with the folks from Robomodo and Activision and the Xbox 360 versions of the title. What impressed me right off the bat was the level of enthusiasm and excitement that everyone in the room had for the game. Whenever somebody was taking a run – which was pretty much the entire time – all eyes were glued to the monitors. Every good move was accompanied cries of “sweet!” and “yeah!”, and every bail with a common “awwww…”. It immediately became apparent that Tony Hawk: RIDE is a labor of love for the Robomodo folks, and that they loved playing the game every bit as much as we did.
Later that night, Activision hosted an exclusive release party at Shop Studios on 49th Street. There were probably 100 or so guests in attendance – from all ages, but with an overwhelming predominance of kids 10–15 years of age. They had about two-dozen units set up around the perimeter of the room, consisting of a predominance of Wii units, a handful of Xbox 360’s and one or two PS3’s. They explained that this mix was a function of size constraints – as the Wii development units are so much smaller than the Xbox 360’s and the table-sized PS3’s. As there are only minor differences in the core content of the Wii title (which was ported by the folks at Buzz Monkey) and the 360/PS3 versions – the only sacrifice being made was in the department of visuals – which did not make a bit of difference to the kids in attendance.
The same infectious excitement from our earlier session swept over the crowd as the kids swarmed the demo units. In fact, an hour or so in as the music came to a sudden halt and the announcer asked everyone to gather in the center of the space, there was almost an air of disappointment from the eagerly shredding crowd. That disappointment didn’t last long once the announcer directed our attention to the entrance as Tony Hawk came walking into the room. He spoke a few words about the role he played in RIDE’s development – and quickly took to shredding away on screen. And he rocked it!
Just as we had experienced in the exclusive hands-on session with the developers earlier, the crowd had swarmed the central testing unit and gamers, developers, media, and one very important celebrity were all cheering each other on as one by one the attendees tried to top Tony’s killer score. Tony would step in every now and then to give tips, and to point out interesting paths and shortcuts. I casually asked him a few questions regarding the development of the game and there is no doubt in my mind that he is 100% into RIDE.
Let’s start with the controller itself – it is one tough cookie. As a larger guy, I was concerned that I might be a bit too hefty for the plastic – but not a single one of the folks from Robomodo or Activision batted an eye when I voiced my concern. They told me that the during the development of the peripheral, that they had tested the designs with real skaters who put each iteration through a full course of abuse – from the relatively tame in-game motions to full-on flip tricks and ollies. In fact, towards the end of the launch event, Tony was slamming and jamming one of the controller decks with real kickflips and ollies, and although it was thudding pretty hard on the ground, the board was no worse for the wear afterwards.
The board determines movement using internal accelerometers to measure the gamer’s lean – right, left, front, back and pivot. While skating on the ground, left or right leans steer the rider, and front and back leans initiate manuals and/or jumps. Once in the air, each of the different leans and pivots relate to different board tricks – the flip tricks, board tricks, and grinds. Here is where the infrared sensors come into play; four sensors located on each of the primary axes broadcast a field approximately waist height to the gamer. By reaching towards any one or more of these sensors, the game registers grabs and modifiers – so reaching towards the front sensor will initiate a nose grab, the back sensor a tail grab, and so forth.
By combining the board motions and the reaching motions, the gamer compiles a real-time onscreen trick mimicking his or her motions. Much like the previous Hawk games, these tricks can be chained using manuals, but as the chain lengthens, the manual balance becomes more difficult to maintain. The gamer can also set off a style mode, where the game goes into a bullet-time style overdrive mode with great visual effects splashing across the screen. The result is a highly enjoyable and rewarding experience – and definitely an exhausting one.
One cool thing that the developers mentioned, is that unlike the previous Hawk games, each character starts with all of the statistical attributes that he (or she) will ever get in the game – no starting with a hobbled newbie, no buying stars or stat points, none of that. The reason, they explained, is that they really wanted it to be the gamer who develops his or her own skills by playing and replaying the game – and based on what we saw from the Robomodo and Activision folks, and from Mr. Hawk himself – practice makes perfect.
The level design takes two forms – basically a point-to-point run, and a half-pipe vert ram for each level. The point-to-point runs follow a corridor pathway that is traversed in one of three ways; completely on-rails, partially on rails, no-rails, all depending on the chosen level of difficulty. The purpose of each level is always to get from start to finish, but each level features a number of branching and hidden pathways to keep the runs fresh. Once the level has been decided the gamer picks the type of run they would like to perform – whether it be a time-based race to the finish, or a trick challenge.
The race mode tasks the gamer with getting to the bottom of each hill in the shortest amount of time. Red and Green balloons are scattered about the levels either add seconds or remove seconds from the ticking timer. The simple rule – hit the green, avoid the red – becomes painfully critical in some of the more demanding levels. In trick mode, the pathway is line with icons that call out one or another trick challenges – maybe requiring a grind on a particular rail, or an ollie through specific areas. The trick score is what’s ultimately important here, so chaining is key.
The game looks fantastic on any of the three systems – but the 360 and PS3 versions are noticeable more detailed and sharp. The art style is very cool –outline all the characters and features with thin black lines, but shaded just so to not look like a cartoon. It’s a hybrid of realistic and cel-shading, and the closest I could relate it to is the cool graffiti characters we saw all around NYC. Combined with the excellent character animations, it really does deliver a surreal-yet-authentic feel to the whole game.
While we really didn’t delve too deeply in the area Create-A-Skater character creation – it was mentioned that the game includes a full-featured editor for gamers to sculpt a character to take through story mode. The developers also wanted to point out the addition of female characters to the editor – something often overlooked in action sports games. The Wii version of the game allows the in-game use of the Nintendo Mii’s – the result is a bit humorous, with the bobble-headed characters sporting human-like legs and feet. The developers mentioned that Microsoft’s introduction of Xbox Live Avatars was too late to have them worked into the Xbox 360 version of the game, but that it is in consideration for later releases.
The levels loosely represent mash ups of real world locations, blending familiar landmarks with fictionalized paths. Each global location features two levels, each of which is fairly impressive in size and scope. We were even shown a couple of the later unlockable levels, and all I can say is that they are well worth the time and effort it takes to open them.
The Tony Hawk games have always been on the cutting edge of licensed music, and RIDE is definitely carrying the torch. The game features a great soundtrack with an amazing range of music – from the requisite alt-rock from bands like Wolfmother, to the old school soul from the likes of Bill Withers. Robomodo said the song selection was deliberate, with each level tested and matched to particular songs that best conveyed the desired mood. Here is the track list for those who really need to know:
Ok, so this preview-review is awfully glowing to this point, right? So what are the downsides of Toney Hawk: RIDE?
First and foremost the price is going to be an issue. As a parent myself, I have a sneaking suspicion that that the current state of the economy is going to make a few parents think twice about dropping the MSRP of $120 for a single game and peripheral. Once a game hits $100, it suddenly becomes a competitor for some very cool multi-purpose gadgets (iPod, Zune) and given the choice, I’m not sure that kids would buy the game over a new iPod.
Considering all of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band releases, and all of the Wii Fit balance boards now collecting dust behind entertainment centers around the nation, some parents might wonder why they need to buy yet another gaming gadget this holiday. They probably would not think twice if they actually saw the unit in action; experiencing the infectious excitement of the title, and witnessing the physical workout their kids would be getting with the board. But without the ability for Activision to release a playable demo (the game must be played with the board), and with the difficulties entailed in setting up a demo space at a Best Buy or GameStop, the game might be unfortunately overlooked.
In discussing the overall value for the $120 entry cost, we talked about future uses for the board, and Activision mentioned that they are already brainstorming possibilities – ranging from the obvious RIDE sequels, to other action sports applications (snowboarding, surfing, etc) and even a handful of nontraditional applications. It sounds like they have plans for the device, which is something they might want to advertise before it is too late.
Regardless of the cost, RIDE is an awesome release that is just the kick in the pants that the series needed. It addresses most – if not all – of the issues that gamers had with the prior releases. The game looks great, plays great, and sounds great, and I only hope that gamers will be able to get past the high cost of entry, because this new Tony Hawk game is one heck of a RIDE.
Tony Hawk: Ride Screens