In 1999, Activision published the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater game, and unsuspecting gamers were blindsided. Developer Neversoft – which Activision would scoop up just weeks later – had somehow managed to combine the tricky sport of skateboarding with the much more sedate hobby of video games. Not only that, but the game was a hell of a lot of fun, even if you knew nothing about the sport.
A franchise was born.
And then run into the ground. An annual release schedule saw Tony Hawk titles receive more-or-less diminishing returns from a critical standpoint, and Neversoft eventually bailed to work on Guitar Hero (only for Activision to run that franchise into the ground, too). The Tony Hawk video game brand was then curb-stomped mid-face plant by Ride and Shred, which shipped with an actual skateboard peripheral, because sometimes cocaine makes terrible ideas sound really good.
Now, with its Tony Hawk license about to expire, Activision has made one final grab for the wallets of the unwitting. Developed by Robomodo, the eighteenth Tony Hawk game rejects the subtitled naming scheme recent entries have used. Instead, the number 5 makes clear Activision’s intent to associate this game with the core skating experience that sits at the centre of the Tony Hawk phenomenon. A story-based, meta-content-laden Underground or American Wasteland this is not.
And now for some foreshadowing: Robomodo’s previous work includes the likes of the aforementioned Ride and Shred, as well as a bafflingly piss-poor HD remaster of Pro Skater HD.
The structure of THPS5 is a simple affair, even if thanks to a pretty average interface it feels more complex on first inspection. You can play through levels, completing objectives to unlock more levels, or you can create your own. You can’t create your own skater, but you can – by way of a crap interface – customise one of the skaters you have unlocked.
Levelling up (by skating) earns you bonus points, but you’ll need to exit the game to spend them. You also need to exit the game to change levels. It’s not clear if at any point this was intended or simply implemented inexpertly. Regardless, that’s how it is.
By default, the levels you play in when you start a gameplay session are effectively a multiplayer lobby. You can see other players scooting about doing their thing, and you can watch them for tips – a good idea, awkwardly executed, as lag makes them pop around and generally spoils the illusion.
To actually earn some stars, however, you’ll need to complete missions, which necessitates exiting the level into a single player or co-op version of the same level (assuming you know someone that hasn’t returned their copy of the game). Doing this reloads the level and puts you at the start.
After a few seconds, you’ll get a mission popup that explains your objectives, after which the level effectively reloads again, putting you in a new position. Every time, on every load, you’ll see objects and textures popping in like crazy, lending credence to the idea that this was once intended to be a mobile game.
The missions themselves vary, with some – particularly those of the score attack variety – offering a modicum of old-school Tony Hawk charm. However, most seem to focus on level exploration or expertly nailing extremely complicated objectives, and these simply aren’t any fun. Tony Hawk games have always been terrible to explore in search of something, and THPS5, if anything, feels the worst of the lot. I want to be skating and doing insane stunts, not looking around for some stupid torch on top of a hut or whatever.
Not only that, but some of the levels are just stupidly hard, making level progression feel like a chore, as you hunt for some star you can get that doesn’t require you to collect 50 trick-specific collectables inside 60 seconds. That only earns you one star by the way – to get three, you must get all 50 inside 30 seconds, whaaaaaaaaaaaat?)
All of this would be forgivable if the skating was functional. It’s not. Sure, sometimes you’ll get a clean run where everything works as it should. All too often, however, something will go hilariously wrong: the physics will flip out, your combo will end without reason, you’ll miss a ramp and be agonizingly unable to change your orientation in time to land (despite that feature being added to the franchise many versions ago), or you’ll glitch through an object and die without rhyme or reason.
Once, I had a massive combo going and I landed it perfectly, only to score nothing whatsoever for my efforts. A simple kickflip would have earned me a couple of hundred – far more than this epic, level-spanning, high-jumping, board spinning, tail-flipping marathon effort ultimately resulted in.
Even if everything worked perfectly, what’s here is still extremely limited. Many of the advances made by Neversoft over the years are long gone. There aren’t many tricks. You can’t even choose your own super moves. You can’t do anything clever with lip tricks. Manuals and grinds are too easy to hold for extended periods. You don’t lose any speed by doing reverts, and barely slow when doing manuals.
On top of that, one button now does double-duty; not only does it grind, but it also triggers a new “slam” move. Slam is both useless and annoying, as you never want to do it but – thanks to the button mapping – you do. Frequently.
The level editor is decent, but not without its own shortcomings. The introduction is poor, but the functionality is simple enough to deduce without much instruction. You can deploy all manner of objects and then skate on them simply enough, and sharing levels with others is pretty straight forward.
Unfortunately, the editor’s snapping tool is cumbersome in the extreme, making sensible adjacent of placement extremely difficult. The levels created with the tool are also far more likely to cause the actual skating to glitch out than the stock levels, all but negating the meagre value the tool brings to the experience.
Then there’s the look of the thing. It’s woeful to behold, which just makes the texture pop-in and the fact that it sometimes frames out all the more baffling. Just what is giving your PS4 a workout here? It honestly wouldn’t look out of place on a PS2 some of the time, and it oh-so-rarely peaks as high as to resemble a mid-life Xbox 360 game.
So why does Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 exist in this form? Is it related to the fact that Activision is about to lose the Tony Hawk license? Is it a cynical cash-in on the brand? Who knows – I certainly don’t. What I do know, however, is that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 is not worth any asking price. There’s just nothing here worth experiencing.