Well, Neversoft gave it a try anyway. I can't fault them for trying something new, for getting tired of the same-old same-old and rethinking the way things are done. What I can fault them for, however, is the way the majority of this game turned out.
In the process of reinventing the wheel, they've managed to lose a little bit of the magic that so captivated me during the first three games in the series. What was once a manic dash through each level was now a much slower, laid back series of events. It's not a bad game, per se, but it's not really up to the level I've come to expect from a game bearing Tony Hawk's name. There's a lot to be said for developers who can keep a franchise of this magnitude up to such ridiculous expectations, and with the release of a somewhat underachieving THPS4 I've started to appreciate the minds behind Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong and Final Fantasy. It's hard enough to come up with that first smash hit, but to maintain the associated momentum for such an enormous amount of time really requires something inhuman.
The heart and soul of Tony Hawk IV is now found in its "free skate" career mode. Where previous incarnations would allow skaters to choose between free skate (in which you weren't given the opportunity to complete any goals) or the timed challenge mode, Tony Hawk Four attempts to merge the two into a single beast. Rather than loading a level, glancing at your goals and attempting to complete as much as possible within two minutes, you're dropped immediately into the exploratory free skate mode. You're given as much time as you need to get to know a level, and there's a notable lack of that familiar "do it now or die" clock, hovering ominously above your skater's head at all times. It's only when you initiate a conversation with one of the game's many non-playable characters that you're granted your goals, one piece at a time. Say goodbye to those days of nailing a high score, pro score and sick score all in one run... in THPS4, you've got to hit them each with a completely separate run and launch point.
On one hand, it's nice to float just around a level without going completely out of the way into the old "free skate" mode. It's at first a refreshing change of pace, finding all the hidden cash in a level or hitting those hard-to-find gaps without the worry of a time limit. Programmers have also included the ability to create your own custom restart points by merely pressing a few buttons, an addition that I can't really praise enough. Basically, once you've managed to arrive at a difficult landing, you won't have to worry about getting up there again, as you can set your respawn point and return there with ease.
Some of the goals you'll be asked to accomplish are really bizarre, others extremely difficult. The range between easy and mind-numbingly hard is very well flushed out, with plenty to keep any player busy for days, regardless of skill or experience. Unfortunately, the pros pretty much end right there. Where the series once thrived on its cool, inventive and excitingly fresh goals, the objectives in the newest update often leave a player scratching his or her head. With descriptions that range from vague to vaguer and several ideas that should've been left on the cutting room floor (for lack of a better euphemism,) the life has been sucked out of this once fertile title. Because I'm not 100% fluent in skate-lingo, I often found myself relying on online guides, just to figure out what the game was asking me to do. On the occasions that I did understand what was asked of me, it was often so outrageously stupid that I'd have no motivation at all to see things through to their completion. In Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, goals are no longer a pleasant surprise. They're a chore.
It's also worth noting that, in order to start a conversation with the characters who assign you these goals, the player must press the 'circle' button. I'd have no problem with that, if it weren't already traditionally assigned to performing "grab" tricks when airborne. So, you guessed it, instead of talking to these people as I'd wanted, three out of five times I'll watch my skater jump into the air, attempt an impossible trick and land in an awkward position on the ground. This becomes especially annoying in the game's later stages, where such characters are often hidden in hard-to-reach places and a fall could mean disaster.
Tony Hawk veterans will be pleased to note the magnificent control system has remained intact through yet another game. There isn't a more efficient way to control a virtual skateboard than this. Grinding, ollying, lipping, grabbing, kicking.. it's all performed effortlessly, almost as an afterthought. And, with the seamless integration of several new abilities, the system just keeps growing. Players can now transfer from one side of a lip to the other by pressing the "R2" button, an addition which aids midair maneuvering immeasurably. It's also now possible to continue a combo out of a big grab trick, by quickly switching your footing immediately after landing and then turning that into a manual. It's even possible to "skitch," or grab the rear bumper of a car and hold on to quickly accelerate. There's a reason the controls THPS1 established have been imitated with such regularity by the competition; they're impossible to top.
The music for this collection is one of the greatest in the series. Featuring cuts from GoldFinger, Biz Markie, Avail, AC/DC, The Cult, Run DMC, The Bouncing Souls, Flogging Molly, Less Than Jake and more, all in crystal clear cd-quality, this is perhaps the finest, most high profile collection of tunes ever thrown together for one console release. They even continued the old school trend established with the Ramones in THPS3, with "Anarchy in the UK" by the Sex Pistols and "Bloodstains" by Agent Orange. A couple of the hardcore rap tracks really aren't my cup of tea, but thanks some expert coding in the options screen, I'm given the opportunity to remove any track I desire from the active rotation. I don't think words can describe the amount of agony that option has saved me. In addition, each skater came in and recorded their own dialogue for the game. When Elissa Steamer falls, that's Elissa herself shrieking in the background. If you run into one of the pro skaters in the middle of a level, you'll be treated to a short conversation with the skater him/herself. With that said, nobody will ever confuse these guys for voice actors. Their dialogue comes off as very, very canned and unmotivated. It feels like they're asking if you can beat their high score, just so you'll leave them alone. And, to their credit, maybe that's what it'd be like in the real world.
The series has most certainly improved visually since the last game. Everything from the special trick meter to the selectable wardrobe has been given the old once over with a fine toothed comb, leaving a finished product that's polished beyond reality. This game looks great. It's not photorealistic by any stretch of the imagination (some characters appear to have been born with their middle, ring and pinky fingers fused together), but the graphics are more than sufficient given the limits of current technology.
Ever since the third game of their run proved it was possible, gamers had been chomping at the bit to get Tony Hawk 4 onto the internet for competitive online play. While still in production, the title was reported as basing a majority of its emphasis on the online play portion. And, surprise surprise, they came through with flying colors. The servers provide ample room for thousands of players. The majority of the old, familiar multiplayer games are still there, plus the addition of several new ones. On a broadband modem, lag is almost an afterthought. While it's not the online-friendly kind of game that Unreal Tournament or NBA 2k3 is, Tony Hawk still holds his own as a multiplayer entity in design. In function, unfortunately... well, let's just say a few rotten apples ruined the bunch. I picked up my copy of Tony Hawk 4 a few weeks after its release, plugged in and went immediately to the online option. It took me about fifteen minutes to run into my first opponent using a GameShark or other unspecified hack to beat the system. Put simply, the spirit of online competition has been rendered almost null and void. Because cheating online is possible, it's difficult to weed out the good players from the cheats, and casts a dark veil over any player who stands head and shoulders above his competition. If you're no good, there's no fun in playing online, as even the "newbie" rooms are filled with players using the 'perfect balance' or 'perfect manual' hack. If you're honestly good, there's no fun in playing online, as you'll be constantly accused of being a cheat. It's a stupid way to watch the community swirl around the toilet bowl, but it's happening all the same.
One interesting addition to the single player game is actually, in effect, more of a removal. Rather than building up each skater individually, completing the same goals over and over again to max out stat points, Tony Hawk 4 introduced a universal method for accumulating extra abilities. Now, rather than playing through the game nineteen times to reach 100% completion, you need only play it once and complete each skater's individual "pro challenge." While many have seen this as a pro, I've personally deemed it a rather major con. Without the added challenge of completing these goals multiple times, I've watched the replay value go through the floor. Instead of a fifty or sixty hour game, it's become a five or six hour run.
Possibly the most notable (and, interestingly enough, the most overlooked) new feature in the series is the addition of a unique "pro challenge" for each non-hidden character. After you've completed a majority of the game's goals, the opportunity is presented to finish off your character's run by attempting something really noteworthy. What especially makes this section stand out, in my opinion, is the fact that these wildly imaginative challenges all relate directly to the real skater behind the pixelated representation. For instance, Bam Margera's pro challenge involves reliving a few moments from his work on the MTV program "Jackass." Bob Backlund retries his death-defying jump over a gap, upside down in the center of a loop. Eric Koston asks you to grind a ridiculous distance. It's a really cool idea, and helps each skater to emerge as an individual, complete with unique strengths and weaknesses. Even cooler, once you've actually completed the challenge, you unlock a video extra of your skater actually landing the trick you just performed. All in all, it's a great way to wrap up the game.
What it all boils down to is this; when I reached 100% completion in Tony Hawk 4, I put the game in its case and filed it away into my library of games. Chances are, I won't touch it again for years. I'd much rather throw in any of the first three games, despite the improvements made in many areas of THPS4, just because the goals are so unfulfilling. Add to that a needlessly overhauled goal system, subpar voice acting and a bizarre, pseudo-comedic feel, and you've got a disappointment. Neversoft tried to give us something revolutionary, and in so doing left their classic formula partially behind. As a stand alone title it's good fun, but in the end it's undeserving of the legendary name which adorns its case.
Overall Score: 7.1