When a series of games has been around long enough to reach its fourth iteration, you do get the feeling that the developers have struck a gold vein and that they know how to keep it alive. In each sequel the graphics have been improved, sound has been tweaked, plenty of licensed music has been added, and the gameplay has been revamped. The game itself is bigger, faster, and possibly even more addictive than ever.
The basic premise of the game is to choose a skater out of a line-up of fourteen skaters, and ride around in a good number of levels. From the start menu you can choose between a number of modes, like Career Mode, where you choose one skater, finish goals, improve your statistics, and progress to more intricate levels. I’ll go more in-depth later about the new features in career mode, but for now let’s go on to Single Session. This mode lets you choose a skater, a level, and within a certain time limit you try your best to score as high of a score as humanly possible. This mode is nice if you and a friend want to compete for high-scores, with less tension. Free Skate is fairly similar, only you take away the time limit, leaving you with the freedom of skating where you want, with whoever you want, and for as long as your fingers remain usable. In my opinion this mode gets a bit boring, because you won’t have the objectives that you do in career mode, but at least you have a lot of freedom to practice tricks and learn the finer points of the levels.
Next there's a 2-player, where you move from the single player oriented modes to multiplayer. In this mode you play against a friend or foe in split screen and basically duke it out for the biggest score. What's neat here is that you can choose between a lot of “sub-modes”, which basically decide the objective of the match. For instance, a lot of people might just want to compete for scores, but you can also play Slap! where you “deathmatch”. If you thought that was fun, then you’re likely to get a real kick out of network play, where you can compete against people on a local area network or over the Internet using the Gamespy service.
And finally you have two modes where you don’t actually play – you create! The first is Create-A-Skater, which as the name implies lets you customize your own skater. More specifically, you get to choose a number of outfits, backpacks, and a huge load more. One of the fun things is that a lot of really wacky costumes are available, and more are unlockable as you progress in the game. Build Park is an in-game editor where you can place a lot of pre-made objects around a somewhat small area – pretty much to your heart’s content. There is already a number of pre-made levels to look at, but the whole process is actually surprisingly easy and intuitive.
The controls are largely identical to how they've been in earlier THPS titles, so if you only have a keyboard then you’re best off using the num pad. This isn’t much fun compared to a gamepad, and this game itself could be the ONE reason you need to justify the purchase. Plenty of new tricks have been added to the mix, but one of the really cool new moves is Spine Transfer, which you can use to move across two adjoined quarter pipes, or re-establish control of your body when you’d normally fall on the back or whatever. When using Spine Transfer along with manual you can connect a great load of tricks, and that’s probably one of the things veterans will appreciate the most.
Another somewhat less important feature is being able to skitch cars, which basically mean you grab them in the rear, hold on for a while, and hopefully get a nice speed boost. This time you can also grind movable objects in a more realistic way, which in my opinion is about time. Some of the later levels have plenty of moving things, like cranes and such, which are just begging for a grind. And like in the previous games all the levels are practically filled to the brim with things to jump over, things to grind on, ramps to hop, and just so much more. Most of the levels take place in quasi-realistic recreations of real-life locations, like San Francisco, Alcatraz and Chicago, but you also have the huge Kona skate-park, and places like a shipyard, a zoo, and a carnival.
Objectives are handled in a really different, but better way this time around. Earlier you normally got a number of objectives at the beginning, but this time you ride around on the track till you see a person with a marker above his or her head, and when you’re close you just click a button to start a conversation, which basically explains what they want you to do. Obviously this is a more realistic way of getting objectives, and with about sixteen on each of the nine levels you’ll have to play a while to finish it all. The last two levels can only be played if you unlock them through the shop, where you can spend all the cash you collect throughout the game.
The great thing about the gameplay in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 is that it’s easy to learn, and difficult to master. People who are new to the game might find some of the objectives difficult, but it’s fun to see how your skill level improves as you play by learning when the best time is to use the various moves, and of course how you do the 'special’ moves.
Graphically this fourth iteration has had a nice improvement over the third, but calling it a revolution would be exaggerating. The textures look sharper this time and the levels are even more complex and fun, while the skater you choose to play with casts a nice dynamic shadow. The character physics seem to have been improved a bit, but there’s still room for improvement in the animations when you tumble to the ground. With maximum detail on the highest resolution the game looks very nice, but a few of the levels are so detailed that they could lower the framerate even on high-end PCs.
As you may have expected there isn’t a tremendous load of new sound effects and such since a lot of what you hear is basically your skater doing his tricks, although the voice-overs are nice and funny. It’s awesome to hear so many of the world’s most famous skaters that have contributed with voice-overs, and I’d say that’s another of the aspects that really make the Tony Hawk games far above the competition. The playlist has been completely replaced but the same genres are used: rap, hip-hop, rock, and heavy metal. There are plenty of new bands, both famous and lesser known. The selection ranges from oldschool rock like the Sex Pistols, to newer bands like Less Than Jake and Goldfinger. You can also hear NWA, AC/DC, Gang Starr, System of a Down, Run DMC, Public Enemy, The Offspring, De La Soul, and a load more.
Since the first Tony Hawk game was released people have only had one real option when buying skating games, and that’s for a reason. Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 is a huge game, packed with levels, skaters, new tricks, tons of humor, and with gameplay that’ll challenge you to the end: you’re likely to keep playing this one for a long time. The game might seem a bit frustrating to some, especially when you just can’t seem to be able to finish a crucial objective on time, but over time this game gets just more and more fun. Playing with real-life opponents is great too, and now you can compete locally and over the Internet without a slight strain.
Before I end I’d like to repeat, unless you already have one – buy a gamepad, and buy this game.