Back in the days of the Sega Dreamcast and Playstation 2, Tony Hawk games were revered. Metacritic ranks all of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater games in the 90+. I spent so many hours playing Pro Skater 3 the weekend it came out. I played so much that even in real life my mind was always searching for lines and ways to get big combos. I was queuing in a bank the Monday after release and all I was thinking about was how I could grind that rope, flip onto that counter and planning a route for the best combo. After Pro Skater 4, we got Tony Hawk’s Underground, Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 and Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. These games tried to introduce story elements and were also influenced by the TV show Jackass. The games then took a slightly straighter path with Tony Hawk’s Project 8 and Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground. These were the last games that were developed by Neversoft.
With Neversoft moving away to continue the Guitar Hero franchise and subsequently Call of Duty, the reins for the franchise were passed to Robomodo. They decided to innovate the franchise by creating a skateboard peripheral. You no longer played with a controller, you used the board. To say this move was a disaster would probably do a disservice to the Hindenburg. The games they created, Tony Hawk Ride and Tony Hawk: Shred, were panned by critics and derided by fans of the series. With the exception of Pro Skater HD, a remaster of Pro Skater 1, 2 & 3, the series has been dormant for 5 years.
This brings us to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5. Though the franchise is still in the hands of Robomodo, the game once again uses a controller and similarly to the other Pro Skater games, the only way you can get off your board is by falling off. Like the fairly decent Pro Skater HD, Robomodo are again using Unreal Engine 3 to power the game. In fact, Robomodo seem to have all the help they could ask for: as well as the universally solid Unreal engine, they use the Wwise sound engine, Bink video and Scaleform Autodesk middleware. With all these helpful tools at their disposal, surely all Robomodo had to do is put together some reasonably solid levels and the game will be good.
The first level you come across is ‘The Berrics’. This level is based on a real skate-park in Los Angeles. It’s fairly small, fairly basic, but what is there is well designed, the kind of thing you would expect from something based on a real location. Next up is ‘Bonfire Beach’; this is a new level to the series. Although there have been beach levels in the series before (e.g. Venice Beach), this isn’t based on them or any other previous levels. This level is fairly solid if a bit small. Next up is ‘School III’ and as you can probably tell from the name this is another variation of the previous School levels. The design is very similar, but smaller to the previous incarnations. Unfortunately, this seems to be a mantra for quite a few of these levels.
The next level is ‘Mega Parks’. While this is a new level, it does incorporate elements from levels in previous games. It’s quite a compact level and despite having a ‘secret area’, it does still feel depressingly small. Up next is Rooftops, the only level in the game that felt genuinely new to me. Unfortunately it is frustratingly put together and doesn’t have the flow of lines that a Tony Hawk level should have. It also features a power-up that allows you to double-jump, though it never tells you this, I discovered it by accident. After ‘Rooftops’ comes ‘The Bunker’, a variation on Warehouse. When I say a variation on Warehouse, what I actually mean is that it pretty much IS Warehouse, with the outside area swapped for a new corridor area. Next up is ‘Asteroid Belt’, another new level and with an interesting twist. The gravity has been reduced meaning that you spend a lot more time in the air. It’s an interesting idea but it just makes playing on the level feel slowed down. It is one of the larger levels in the game though. The final level is ‘Mountain’, and is quite reminiscent of ‘Downhill Jam’ with elements of ‘Mall’ with a snowy paint job. The level is quite long and thin with a continuing elevation change. This also features a unique powerup that isn’t mentioned but makes you move a lot faster when performing a manual.
These eight levels constitute the lowest number of levels in any of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games (excluding the budget priced Pro Skater HD). This would be excusable if the levels were large, but they all feel quite compact. The install size of the game is only 4.6 GB; this would fit onto a single layer DVD! To give you an idea of how small that is, the last game I installed was Forza Motorsport 6, which had an install size of over 44GB!
The install size isn’t the only thing that makes you think that this game has a foot firmly planted in the last generation of consoles. The graphics, while not terrible, are of the same level that you could see in an Xbox 360 game. About a month before the release of the game, a new set of screenshots for the game were released and people noticed that the visuals had taken on a more cartoony/cel-shaded style. In an interview with Gamespot, the Robomodo CEO Josh Tui, said “We’ve always been confident in the look we were going for, but it took a while to ensure we could maintain the frame rate with this style,” and that “It was essential that the game run at 60fps at 1080p, even with 20 people skating online in the same session”. While I commend the approach of sacrificing some visual fidelity for a smoother frame rate, the problem is that the frame rate is not smooth. There have been several occasions when playing the game where the frame rate had dropped into single digits.
As Josh Tui said, the game is designed to be always online. While you can choose to play offline/private mode, the default setting is online. The way it works is that when you enter a level, you share it with other random players who are playing the same level. It is at this point, you can either just skate around or you can collect S-K-A-T-E, C-O-M-B-O, the hidden DVD and VHS. When you want to do one of the missions you either choose to play single player or cooperative. These missions are things like high score challenges, combo challenges, grind or manual challenges, collection challenges, ring routes and others. Overall the levels do load up pretty quickly, impressive considering it’s basically loading a multiplayer session, and you can begin skating. This is not the end of the story though; while you can start skating, not all of the textures will have loaded. You will continue to notice textures popping up for the next 20-30 seconds (the longest pop-ups I timed were 32 seconds).
Gameplay is fairly standard Tony Hawk fare, with one noticeable addition. By pressing ‘Y’ you can do a slam move. This means that you can shorten the length of time you are in the air and often land safely when you might not have done otherwise. The problem with this is that pressing ‘Y’ also makes you perform a grind. I found myself on numerous occasions pressing ‘Y’ to grind and finding myself slamming to the floor instead. This gameplay addition could have been brilliant but by mapping it to this button, it means not only does it not work as accurately as it should, but it means that your grinds are often messed up.
The slam function is not the only thing that will mess up your grinds though. The occasional loss of connection to the servers will halt your progress as well. There are certain levels that are also prone to randomly stopping you mid-grind; Asteroid Belt is the main offender here. I’ve also had issues where I get stuck while going up a quarter pipe, falling through the map, and numerous occasions of weird physics where I either fly miles through the air or others where I have barely been able to jump 1cm off the ground. There are also some audio glitches; even the Activision logo animation at the beginning isn’t immune to this. The audio just drops out completely at points for no apparent reason.
Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5 is as big a missed opportunity as I’ve seen in gaming. All Robomodo had to do was give us some traditional gameplay with some cool new maps and they’d have had a hit and some happy fans. The new gameplay addition doesn’t work and the new game idea (always online) is nice but really doesn’t add much. With a great game engine, sound engine, middleware and other things done for the developer, I just can’t understand how such a big game could be done so shoddily. Robomodo are now 0-3 when it comes to Tony Hawk games. I have a bad feeling this game could be the end of the franchise, but I really hope that’s not the case. Activision, please give this franchise to a talented developer and all the fans of the previous games will thank you. However, if I see that you are developing another one with Robomodo, there may well be some rather choice words expressed!