Against my better judgement, I finally caved and bought Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 over the Easter Weekend. It is not a good game.
I paid 9 quid for it on the Xbox store, and whilst 9 quid may seem like a bargain for a relatively new skateboarding game, there are so many things wrong with the game that I quickly regretted it.
Something doesn’t feel right. The controls are fundamentally the same, but there’s something noticeably clunky and unresponsive about the controls in THPS5. There are also noticeable omissions from the moveset, such as bomb drops (allowing you to magnetically drop down into a bank or quarter) and freestyle manual tricks. They’ve added a “slam” function which brings you back to the ground quicker, but this actually feels like it was something to fix some of the bad level design rather than a useful addition – binding it to the grind button is a bad choice, as it often slams you down too early if you’re setting up for a grind mid-combo. Special tricks operate differently as well, and appear to be simplified, with you activating “special mode” which makes every trick a special variant.
The levels are bad. With the exception of The Berrics, which is the first level, and probably the game’s only good level, none of the levels really feel grounded in skateboarding or bring anything authentic to the table. School 3, and The Bunker, are weird rehashes of old THPS levels with the good stuff from those levels replaced or removed to make way for weird new stuff (e.g. School 3 is School 2 but without the Carlsbad gap or Gonz rail, Bunker is Warehouse with a bunch of attack helicopter stuff and no half pipe under the secret room). These levels are worse off because of the changes they made to the classic version, and the new levels are just poorly laid out and don’t work as THPS levels or believeable skateparks. Even when old THPS games had fantastical weird levels, they were grounded in skateboarding (e.g. The Bullring from THPS2 is based on Tony Hawk’s part from The End, where he does the loop), but levels like “Asteroid Belt” or “Wild West” are just weird, and even when they attempt to make a skatepark in the “Mega Park” level, the layout of the park seems really poor. It just comes off that the developers don’t understand skateboarding and doubled down on these weird odd levels than recreating actual good skateparks like THPS did with Marseille, or Philly, or Skate Street Ventura.
The game lacks authenticity. Related to my last point, there’s just a real weird vibe here that screams of non-skateboarders trying to describe skateboarding. I’m not saying a game about skateboarding has to be 100% developed by skateboarders, but at the very least THPS and Skate have previously shown a lot of respect for skateboarding (THPS was regarded as the best depiction of skateboarding by many when it was first released). The pro skaters in the game are actually a decent selection, showing old and new faces, and a good variety of street and transition skaters, but there are weird guest characters like Lil Wayne and Tyler The Creator. Whilst these guys skate and are interesting additions, it comes across like some guy who didn’t skate saw a Youtube video of Weezy skating and decided to push ahead with having him in the game, rather than bouncing off the actual skaters to find special guests who made sense. It’s also super weird that The Berrics is in the game, but Steve Berra and Eric Koston (who was actually in THPS in the past) are not playable characters?
They also put a bunch of useless powerups in the game, that more often than not seem like a work-around for bad level design – the rooftops level has a double jump powerup because without it you’d get trapped and fall off the level, and the asteroid belt level has an anti-gravity powerup that completely ruins your combos.
The objectives in the game are also incredibly weird, and whilst some are straight up THPS style things like collect “SKATE” or get a high score, there’s some really frustrating and bad stuff like “knock a bunch of objects with unpredictable physics in, or out, of a bowl” or “collect these things whilst you have a large combo”. A lot of these have you fighting the clunky controls to try and do them, and again they lack authenticity and don’t feel like you’re being asked to do something grounded in skateboarding – Even THUG2 had you do stuff that was inspired by Jackass, a TV show with deep roots in skateboarding, and in the age of Thrasher’s King Of The Road being a TV show in the vain of Jackass which almost seems inspired by the story of THUG2, it’s proof that Neversoft still understood skateboarding even after they’d jumped the shark.
THPS5, on the other hand, feels like Robomodo had one meeting with Tony Hawk, got a few ideas, and then forgot to get any more ideas or run anything else past him, and then just went wild using old THPS games as a guide for what they should do. If you try and emulate something that was good, rather than understand why it was good, you end up not really sure what it is you’re making and get something like THPS5.
It’s a bad user experience. I get distracted by the game not being true to skateboarding, or not being a good sequel to any old THPS game, but I should also re-enforce that even from a standard of a game released in 2015, seen objectively as a video game, it’s a bad user experience;
- Menus are either bare bones and empty, or confusing and information heavy. The character selection options alone just don’t make much sense at all and you have to drill down a lot of menus just to customise a skater. The general flow of completing a mission confusingly binds the A button to “retry”, instead of having that be the button to return you to freeskate – this slows down the core gameplay loop and has you accidentally restarting missions you have completed.
- Loading into anything, or restarting missions, takes far too long. It’s bizarre that the loading times are as long as they are. When you mess up a mission and want to restart instantly, the restart is ever so slightly too long that it becomes frustrating.
- I get an impression that the game doesn’t really know what it wants to be; on one hand it’s a retro throwback to old THPS, but then on the other hand you have these current gen features like online co-op gameplay and group chat. The modern features are half baked and that in turns detracts from the retro throwback stuff, making it seem outdated. I feel like they just stuffed in features that didn’t need to be there out of fear that they’d get shit from players if some modern gameplay features were missing.
- The game is really buggy, and not just in a fun “oh that character has ragdolled in a silly way” buggy. I’ve encountered loads of infinite loads after finishing missions (where the game becomes stuck in an unresponsive loading state). The game constantly disconnects from the lobby you’re in kicking you back to the main menu (an example of the new modern features not working properly and detracting from the “core” of the game). I also reliably reproduced a hard crash on The Bunker level, where the game completely freezes up and shuts down if you grind the helicopter’s rotors several times within a 2 minutes run (something about the helicopter’s animation or audio must cause a memory leak that bricks the game if you do it too much).
I wanted to like this game – I wanted to look past the bad reviews, and the negative press, and just play the game and enjoy it. I felt duty bound to like it because it’s a THPS game. I started skateboarding because of THPS2, and I feel genuinely sad, as a skateboarder, and as a game developer, that THPS5 turned out the way it did. I have an insight into how hard game developers work on these things; and I feel for anyone who put their time and effort into this game to make it good.
At the end of the day, every game developer wants to make a good game, and especially in this day and age, with a drought in good skateboarding games, something like THPS5 should’ve been a fantastic idea. I’m not sure what exactly went wrong, but the game we got is unfortunately not true to the legacy of the past THPS games. Now that Hawk’s contract is up with Activision, we’ll likely never get a true return to form for this series. For now, I’ll plug my PS1 in and play THPS2, and re-live the nostalgia of discovering skateboarding through video games.
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