Broken wrists, brain-injuries and knee-bruises. Skating, anyone? Of course, as long as I am watching the events from a safe distance. Definetely if I am holding a controller and experiencing the ups and downs of virtual skateboarding. If I am being honest with you, readers, I learned to skate through Tony Hawk. Unfortunately I can not transform nor adapt my insane skills to the world outside the television-screen. If I had the ability to do so, I would be better than Mr. Hawk himself. Much, much better.
So, Who Tony Hawk really is?
Before I dig deeper into the actual review, I want to share some information about our favourite ramp-hero. Before we proceed, let us thank Tony's brother - for without him, there might not be Tony Hawk videogames out there. He was the one whom gave Tony his first skateboard, and 'thus started a hobby which would eventually lead to the legendariest skating-career ever. Tony climbed the ladders of success quickly, for he was considered the 'best ramp-skater in the world' when he was only sixteen. He has entered approximately 103 pro contests during his life, and won 72 of them. If that doesn't earn one a name-brand in the videogame-industry, then what does? He is a rich skating-guru, end of story.
How does the fourth Hawk-spawn fare?
Tricky question. You know the brand if you haven't dwelled in a cave in Afghanistan, and I would place no doubt upon the fact that you have tested at least one Tony Hawk -game in the past. I am not going to go through the basics as they should be more than familiar to you. Unrivalled, realistic enough skating with a twist of low gravity. That is Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 in a nutshell. But can the game compete on GameCube? Does the tiny controller allow the same freedom in combos as the PS2's Dual Shock pad did? Follow my lead and you shall find out.
THPS4 is the most evolved Hawk-title to date. While the previous installments were based upon short, time-driven runs, the fourth edition gives the player a certain freedom beyond the earlier titles. In the end the given freedom is, however, only a smart disguise for the familiar and basic game-play mechanism. You choose the level, and while the game doesn't instantly throw you out with a quest, it lands you into a rather large environment filled with people - both normal bypassers and skaters alike. Your job is to seek out the task-givers, whom are easily recognizeable due to orange pointers bouncing above their heads, listen to what they have to say and then successfully complete the given duty. Usually the task has a time-limit, just like in previous Hawk-episodes. Do a good combo within 10 seconds, break a high-score in 2 minutes etc. The basics. Don't fall into the swamp of depression, though, for what the previous titles did well, the fourth installment does a little better. If this is your fourth time, the game has nothing revolutionary to offer. If this is your first time, THPS4 is your definite title - whether you dig the sport or not. I have to ask you a question only you can answer: do you own a Playstation 2 along with your GameCube? If the answer is yes, you should seriously consider buying the game to your PS2. If you have to stick with the Cube, I recommend the Dual Shock convert-cables, so that you can enjoy the game with the preferred pad. As I have to give you the goods and bads of the GameCube version, I will splash you with a review of the GC's controller and it's suitability to the given title.
As we are all aware, Nintendo's official pad is just fine. It feels good in the hand and has a cool design. Yet there is one serious, thumb-crippling problem with the controller. The D-Pad. The "my thumb covers the whole thing and I can't push it precisely" D-Pad. Chances are that you have never had to use the D-Pad before, but with Tony Hawk it is a must as it goes against an even worse option - the Control-Stick, which suits the GC titles in general but serves nobody during THPS4 sessions. You might - and let me repeat - might get used to the GC -controller. I had to, but believe me, it was a horrible experience after the easy-going, feel-good play-throughs of the previous titles with the Dual Shock. If you are as unfortunate as I was, here are the controls mapped out to your GC-pad: your skater crouches with the A-button. Crouching is very important as it gives your character extra speed and tighter manouverability. To Ollie, press and release the A-button. Ollie is pretty self-explainatory - for without it, you wouldn't rise from the ground. And that would be just bad. To make your skater perform a Grab Trick, press the X-button once your skater is airborne and accompany the X-button with the Control Stick / D-pad to get different variations from each "direction". To make your skater execute a Flip Trick, the skater has to be in the air. Pressing the B-button in combination with the Control Stick (or D-pad) will perform a different Flip Trick. Grind Tricks must be executed near a rail or grindable object (such as any sharp ledge, bench etc...) by first performing an ollie (with the A-button) and then pressing the Y-button when above or very near the desired rail / object. Test the variations out yourself - you'll have lots of fun that way. Next I should introduce you to the Lip Tricks. If you want to perform one, skate straight up a ramp or quarterpipe and press the Y-Button along with the Control Stick (or D-Pad) at the lip of the ramp. Twiddle the Control Stick (or D-Pad as preferred by me) left and right to keep your lippin' skater in balance. Now we come to the doorstep of perhaps the most important combo-combinator in the game, Manual. To perform a "Manual", press the Control Stick up and down quickly. You can also perform a "Nose Manual" by pressing the D-pad down first and then up. Reverts, introduced in THPS3, can only be executed when the skater is landing back to a ramp. You need to tap the R or L -button when you hit the ramp from above. I have now covered the basic controls. You will learn the rest while you play the game or skim through the manual. Now, like I said, the GameCube pad creates some problems unseen in the PS2 and X-box versions of the game. You can not execute combos as precisely due to the size of the D-pad, nor time your Reverts as perfectly due to the trigger-like L and R -buttons. The Control Stick is even greater pain, unfortunately, as it is hard to judge precise directions with it quickly enough. Yet it all comes down to your own hands. If you have small thumbs, then, by all means, go for it. If the GC-pad feels small alltogether and the D-pad lies untested, stay away. Your thumb won't want the torture.
THPS4 is a visual feast. All the 13 characters are well-modelled and they do remind their real-life counterparts. But what is even better than their outlook, is how well they have been animated. It is just perfect - and has to be seen in action. Screen-shots won't do any justice to the constant 60fps framerate of the game. The board and the skaters behave like they should - even when they lose their balance and fall to their chins. Ouch is the preferred expression here. While some of the backgrounds and textures might appear as bland, one has no time to stop to critisize them - so fast is the game and so fluid is the animation. Bravo, Neversoft, bravo.
Sound department - the concert of the ear-drums
The Tony Hawk brand has included famous bands since day one, and while THPS4 makes no exception, the soundtrack just isn't as wild and memorable as the music-selections of the previous installments. It does it's job, make no mistake, and bright spots include Iron Maiden's "The Number of the Beast", Run-DMC's "My Adidas" and Gang Starr's "Mass Appeal". The sound-world of the game offers grunts and groans of all kind, and also real voice-overs by the pro-skaters. They set the mood, while the background-music can be replaced by just about anything from old rock-albums to even classical if one so prefers. Nice.
Due to the horrible control-scheme and the repeatitive nature of GameCube's THPS4, I am going to lower the overall-score. The recipe is successfull and holds the essence of the Tony Hawk titles - but THPS4 could have offered a more. Perhaps. Maybe. We can always wish. What I left totally unmentioned were the extra-features of the game, and I should probably give you a short conclusion of them. Create-A-Skater is a feature which gives you the ability to create your own personal skater with your name, country, hometown and birth-year. You can set the appearance of the skater to your liking, this including clothing. Nothing earth-shattering, but quite fun nonetheless. The other feature is Create-a-Park -editor where you can build your own park from scratch. Being quite limited, yet free enough, it is a nice little addition although leaves room for improvements. The real Tony Hawk revolutionarized the ramp-world and attempted bold, never-before-seen tricks such as "the 900" - so why don't you, Neversoft, follow his footsteps and go beyond your previous success?