Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5: The Return Of Old School
Skating is about evolution and adaptation. A trick is built upon and takes new forms. The McTwist becomes the 900. Someone does a 360 flip to a grind, and another skater does the trick down a flight of stairs. It's about community – in spiring others and learning from them. Skateboarding is also a survivor. Its popularity may wane and cities may enact anti-skating ordinances, but it just re-emerges even stronger.
The Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series hasn't been the only game to represent the sport, but the brand has become synonymous with skateboarding video games through its long and eventful career. Skaters have used it for inspiration; transforming the fantastical on TV screens into amazing feats in reality. Now, after 13 years of detours and hibernation, the series is reaffirming its commitment to the gameplay essence that started it all.
This article first appeared in the June issue of Game Informer (#266).
Back In Control
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 isn't a remake or a reboot. It is a full-priced new entry in the series that philosophically pretends Tony Hawk's Underground and the subsequent games never existed. Developer Robomodo (who handled 2012's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD) and Disruptive Games want to pull the series back to a period in its lineage before some fans felt it lost its way; when Jackass-style tomfoolery and a sprawling feature set took over. Pro Skater 5 won't let you get off your board or skitch onto cars, and level objectives aren't story-based. At the same time, this isn't just Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD with new levels. Tweaks to the familiar gameplay, modern online integration, and a full create-a-park playground make THPS 5 both a return to form and a potential step forward for the franchise.
The first Tony Hawk captured gamers' imaginations back in 1999 not because they specifically craved a skateboarding title, but because the gameplay was challenging, flexible, and responsive. THPS 5 does not alter it in any meaningful way, but instead adds a couple of wrinkles that slightly alter how you approach your runs. Tony Hawk says the team never considered using a new control scheme for the game. "No, then it wouldn't be THPS," he says. "If we were really doing a whole new control scheme, then I feel like we'd be doing a disservice to the true fans of the franchise."
The same button still initiates grinds (at this time tricks can't be re-mapped to different buttons), but if you hold it down your skater slams down to initiate the grind. This gives you great control in starting your grind, so instead of floating up and landing in the middle of a rail or even overshooting it, you could start your grind earlier and use the majority of it to complete your moves. It's not a gimme, however, as you've got to master the timing. It doesn't automatically attach you to the rail.
Your special meter, which allows you to pull off some of the crazy, high-scoring tricks (like a darkslide and christ air) still fills up as you perform tricks, but it is initiated by the player hitting the left bumper. This allows you to bank it and use it when the time is right instead of having it kick in automatically when you may be stranded in-between runs.
We played an early build of the game and found the gameplay changes right at home with the familiar trick structure. The grind slam felt natural, like an exclamation point at the end of your control input. Tricks flowed from ramps to rails just like they always have, and already the game feels tighter than Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD, which could feel floaty. Producer Dino Verano admits that Pro Skater HD didn't fully capture the feel of Tony Hawk, saying it was "a little diluted."
The Session That Never Ends
THPS 5 contains nine levels, two of which draw inspiration from previous iconic Tony Hawk levels such as the Warehouse, Hangar, and School. For instance, THPS 5's warehouse level features the famous roll-in from the original Tony Hawk game, but it drops you into a warehouse with different terrain – including surprises such as the helicopter from THPS 2's Hanger level. Similarly, the school in THPS 5 recalls the one from the second title, but its layout is different. Plenty of new runs are included to challenge you even though familiar elements such as the secret gym (which is open from the start) are present.
The all-new locations include one in outer space, so while the game may be going back to its roots, that doesn't mean it's going to be boring. All of the levels include their own secret areas. "Size-wise it's going to be pretty big, but we still want to do kind of like a return to form; hearkening back to the old Pro Skater stuff, so it's not going to feel like an open-world game per se," Verano says. "It's going to be kind of narrowed down, more focused."
Familiar free-skate objectives such as collecting COMBO letters, finding DVDs, hitting high scores, and destroying objects are littered throughout the levels, as well as other missions you initiate with a button press. These include collectathons, races, Big Head challenges (where you must continually perform tricks to keep your head from expanding and exploding in a pop of confetti), and even hitting targets with dodgeballs shot by pressing the square button (on the PS4).
Some of the levels charge up your skateboard with a level-specific power-up when completed. For instance, one level we played had a series of electrified wires atop the roofs of successive buildings. Grinding all of them charged up our board, making it a little faster. Another power-up gives you more ramming power – useful when you want to complete a mission such as clearing a pool full of inflatable objects or hitting a soccer ball through a goal.
Verano says that each level should have one or two power-ups, and the intention is for most of them to be level-specific, so they aren't all the same. Moreover, power-ups can stack, which should create interesting possibilities.
You earn experience points whether you do the free-skate objectives or missions, and these unlock future levels as well as give you points that you can use to boost your stats (like your ollie height, speed, etc.).
Tricks unlock through rewards called Style Cards. These trick sets are based on the 10 real-life skaters in the game, as well as some the development team is creating themselves. Licensed apparel and boards are also earned, and can be mixed and matched via slots for your head/face, shirt, and bottom. Thus, the face of Officer Dick or some other character from the game or Activision franchise can be used with a normal skater T-shirt or even the body of something more outrageous.
While most of THPS 5 is about refining and distilling the essence of the first four titles in the series, the online functionality is entirely modern. Matchmade skaters populate your levels, creating a free-for-all vibe like a good session should. You can turn this feature off, but it will be defaulted to on when you start the game. If you keep it on, all the players in the instance are free to go after all the objectives in the level. Although the COMBO letters, for example, won't disappear when one skater collects them, you can physically run into another player that's going after the same letter as you are. While this sounds annoying, it replicates the real-world skating vibe, where everyone skates the same ramps and curbs.
Because you can blend online and offline, all the objectives and missions in the game can be completed cooperatively. Multiplayer modes are also included, and the goals of some objectives, like collection missions, extend to accommodate multiple players. You can bring in your own pre-made parties and talk amongst yourselves via party chat or skate with strangers. Robomodo is still debating whether to include a public chat system, although at a minimum you can throw out challenges to all comers in the instance. Exact player numbers (including how many skaters populate levels) are still being worked out, as well as whether the game has local multiplayer [Since this article's original publication, Activision has confirmed 20-player multiplayer sessions - Ed.].
You can share more than your progress with fellow skaters, as the community can play your create-a-park masterpieces – with more than 250 objects to use. Free-skate objectives and multiplayer modes can be added to your park, and any XP, Style Cards, etc. earned in these creations can be applied on your character.
Park creation is similar to the rotate-and-place tools of previous games in the series, with templates of varying sizes based on the game's levels. The tutorial extends to suggesting what parts to place where (including the new ability to suspend objects in mid-air) in order to create killer lines.
The Legacy Of Tony Hawk
Pro Skater 5's online connectivity and unified structure wasn't possible back in the series' heyday, but they're fitting features for a representation of a sport where community can be a vital influence. Countless real-life skaters have drawn inspiration from the games themselves through the years. "If you look at the stuff people are doing on the street now – just look at anything they're doing where they're grinding ledges or rails where they are flipping their board into it, and then flipping out of it – that kind of stuff just didn't happen before our game [was released]," Hawk says. "If it did happen, it was very rare."
Among the series' rotating roster of skaters, ranging from series' vets like Andrew Reynolds and Nyjah Huston to newcomers like Leticia Bufoni, Ishod Wair, and David Gonzalez, Tony Hawk is a constant and more than just the brand name on the box. Hawk has always given his gameplay feedback during development, describing his involvement as "nerdy specific" regarding the controls and button mapping.
"Everything has to get the Tony stamp of approval," Verano says. "He has to like it. It has to make sense of him. He will quickly put his foot down if he doesn't like something."
Right now, Hawk is solely focused on the game in front of him. If this title reignites the franchise, how do Hawk, Robomodo, and Activision prevent it from becoming what it once became – a series stretched thin with yearly releases and features that didn't make sense? Hawk believes that the game – like skating itself – will adapt and survive successfully. "I believe we'll do other iterations of it, but for now there are going to be so many options, downloadable content, and updates, I feel like we're building on something that's bigger than just, 'Ok, next year it's 6. Next year it's 7.'"