Tony Hawk: Ride (Wii)
I've never fallen off a game before. I've played a lot of Hang-On and that little horsey ride that used to be outside K-Mart, both while not entirely in my right mind, but I always stayed on. I can even stay on a full-size Dance Dance Revolution dance pad. Got the moves down.
I've fallen off Tony Hawk: Ride 100 times already. This version of the never-ending skateboarding franchise comes packed with a life-size fake skateboard to use as a controller, but it might as well be a bucking bronco. And if I were talking about the game in a real conversation right now, the word I'd put in a sentence before the title would rhyme with 'bucking', too. Bucking Tony Hawk.
The marketing folks at EA must be thrilled to death right now, because Activision has essentially unleashed a massive reverse-psychology marketing campaign for EA's Skate franchise. After hitting a real peak a few years ago, the Tony Hawk games have been in a bit of a decline while EA's Skate has become the go-to for a fantastic skateboarding simulation on consoles.
Any question about Ride's appeal, I suppose, has to be rooted in what you want from a skateboarding game. What's the point, ultimately? The simulation? Even with the lifelike controller, Ride isn't a patch on Skate. The tricks? Those are here, but as I'll get to in a moment, they're far too unpredictable to be satisfying. The idea of being put right in the action? There Tony Hawk: Ride might have delivered, but even in the short run this one falls very far from the mark.
From my perspective, the two enticing aspects of the Tony Hawk games were exploration and complex tricking. The first impulse was always "Can I get waaaaay up to that ledge?" The second was always to figure out the craziest run possible, then practice it endlessly until I could pull it off, with all the trial-and-error and discovery of new tricks and techniques that entailed.
Neither of those impulses are remotely satisfied in Ride. The controls are the heart of the issue in both cases.
The one thing I can say for the controller deck is that it feels right. The size is good, and while standing on the board and rocking left to right, it feels almost like there are real trucks and wheels underneath. In general it feels a lot more like a real skateboard than I ever would have guessed. Parallels to Guitar Hero are meant to be obvious, I think, but there's a big difference between the two. While I quickly grew accustomed to the Guitar Hero controller as I would any other game interface, with Ride I never found a comfort zone. While playing, the demands of various tricks would kill my balance and it would be Restart City.
On the easy difficulty level, called "Casual," the game is essentially skating on rails. The game handles steering, with the exception of a few places where you can tilt the board to choose one of a few divergent paths. Otherwise, you've just got to handle tricking. That eliminates some of the frustration of using the controller, and is actually a relatively pleasant way to play. The more serious difficulties ("Confident" and "Hardcore") do away with the rails so you can use the board to steer as well as do tricks.
The basics seem simple: Shift your balance to tilt the board slightly for a directional tweak, or tilt all the way right or left for a hard turn. Flip the nose of the board up hard to ollie, or slightly to perform a manual (that nose-up move that usually links tricks in Tony Hawk games). But the board's interaction with the game is janky, and it won't always register your movements properly, and sometimes not at all. You're meant to be able to sweep one foot alongside the board to kick forward, for example. Sometimes this worked for me, sometimes it didn't.
When it comes time to waggle and/or tilt the board while in the air to perform more complicated tricks, all bets are off. Sure, you can easily perform some random move. But to do the same thing every time? Failure. There goes the thrill of creating a long, intricate trick run and practicing until perfect. Because of the board's unstable console connection, just navigating a run on the ground is hard enough. Add air and rails and all bets are off.
Oddly, there isn't even much to explore. The campaign mode features a number of fairly small environments that could be interpreted as a tacit admission that the high-flying exploration of previous games isn't going to work this time. I played the game on the Nintendo Wii, where it didn't look bad, per se, but where the world was quite drab. It looks like the sort of place that skating was meant to escape from, not ride toward. And again, control issues made exploration tedious; resetting over and over again to reach high points just isn't fun.
The customization options that have graced some past Tony Hawk episodes are seriously scaled back, too. As a starting point, there are characters like "Hipster Jerk," wearing a full beard, aviator shades, pink shorts and no shirt. Or what about the one that looks a lot like film critic Elvis Mitchell? That's kinda neat. Characters and customization have only occasionally been the series' strong suit -- but when the rest of the presentation is as thin as it is in Ride, I look for consolation everywhere. Even with Hipster Jerk.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Nintendo Wii game provided by the publisher.