Activision panicked. After eight years of what could be considered a monopoly over the extreme sports genre, a newcomer handily dethroned the king of skateboarding. In the first year of sales, Skate outsold Tony Hawk 2:1. Think about that for a moment. It would be as if a developer made a football game that sold doubly as good as Madden in the first year. Even Rock Band, which did better, critically speaking, than Guitar Hero, still trailed in terms of sales. The Tony Hawk games released post-Skate sold so poorly that the publisher was forced to take a year off, figuring out exactly what it needed to do to compete. So, yeah, Activision panicked, and for good reason.
When Tony Hawk: Ride was announced, it was called many things, but few would say that it wasn’t ballsy. Generally speaking, Activision plays everything safe, and for the first time in years it was obvious that they were ready to bring something new to the table. With the exception of DJ Hero, the publisher usually lets others do their dirty work, only introducing new elements after they've been proven by another publisher. This isn’t really a problem, just a precedent, and one that was shattered when Tony Hawk walked on stage with a $120 skateboard peripheral. Was it a good choice? No one knew, but after getting some hands-on (or, rather, feets-on) time with Tony Hawk: Ride, it’s obvious which way things went.
Before even getting into the game let’s start with the obvious: Tony Hawk: Ride comes with a skateboard peripheral. If your living room is already cluttered with guitars, turntables, and other devices meant to expand the digital world into reality, you know what you’re getting into with this. The Ride controller is approximately the same size as a regular skateboard, though likely triple the thickness, and sports cutting-edge technology, allowing for the board to detect precise movements. In theory, it’s taking what worked in EA’s Skate and moving it forward. One of the reasons skate faired so much better than Tony Hawk was due to the controls, which moved nearly everything to the analog stick to allow for extremely accurate, realistic skating. It would make sense that taking that further could, foreseeably, mean that it’s more entertaining, since it’s obvious that the audience wanted realism over the typical over-the-top style Tony Hawk brought forward. In theory.
After syncing and calibrating the board, the game presents the player with the option to make a character, a typical affair in sports games released in the past. Within moments, the campaign starts. Called Road Trip, it takes a step back from the last few Tony Hawk games in terms of presentation. Instead of building a character up from nothing like was the case in Proving Ground and Project 8, the story mode is much more akin to what was found in the earliest Tony Hawk titles: a series of events that unlock more events. The game's six cities are cut into different locations, each of which has several different missions that can be completed to earn points. Generally speaking, it means doing a race mode, a tricks mode, and then a challenge. Later, others are added as well, including more location specific events like the Boom Boom Huck Jam competition, but generally speaking it’s still lacking when compared to any Tony Hawk game released in the past 6 years. No open world, no real story, just a bunch of challenges.
And while it’s disappointing that the game would take such a large step backwards in terms of the singleplayer campaign, it isn’t enough to damn the product if the gamble on the skateboard was a success. Sadly, success isn’t a word I’d use to describe any facet of Tony Hawk: Ride. When the game begins there are three options available: Casual, Confident, and Hardcore, each providing different experiences. Casual gives players the least control, setting the game on-rails and feeling like little more than a minigame. Since half of the gameplay in this mode is knowing when to ollie, it’s hardly entertaining for too long. Sadly, this is actually the best of the modes, since the other two hand over steering controls, which don’t work well at all. Confident, the game's medium difficulty, still lines up tricks and rails, while Hardcore is what it sounds like, completely letting go of anything that might resemble a guiding hand. There's a steep curve from Casual to Confident, and one that might turn off most people who are expecting a somewhat traditional skateboarding experience. It’s absolutely possible to slowly gain control of the board, but it’s too sensitive, even for someone who has experience on skateboards.
Beyond steering, which is done by leaning, most tricks are done by pressing the back of the board up for an ollie, and then either twisting around, tilting, or reaching out a hand for a grab. Twisting and tilting for tricks can be fun, except when the game gets specific, in which case the board’s inaccuracy becomes obvious. When trying to nail a specific trick it can be an exercise in aggravation. Unless set up in the perfect settings, which requires four feet of space in every direction for the sensors, grabs will randomly not register or register when they shouldn’t. Generally, this isn’t too much of an issue since half of the game on the easiest mode (see: the mode you'll likely "enjoy" the game the most on) is just spent ollying from time and twisting to time and hoping to gain points, but when trying to execute tricks in the Challenge Mode, where it actually asks the skater to do what the game wants, it’s a much different story. This is something that expands past grabs into, well, everything.
When playing regularly it can be a little fun, even if it’s not actually that good. When trying to intentionally do something, however, it’s extremely annoying. At its best, when the board registers movements adequately, Ride is only mildly amusing. At worst, which is much more of time, you’ll be cursing under your breath, praying that the skateboard peripheral snaps in half so you’ll have an excuse to stop playing. The skill needed to play Ride is similar to the skill needed to actually ride a skateboard. Not the same skills, mind you, but the time put to not fall over should be similar for each. I've never been someone to say "just go out and learn the skill instead of playing a game," but in this case it's hard not to. If Ride was more entertaining it would be a different story. It's not. Getting high scores can often feel like a mistake, while falling can sometimes seem seem random.
The entire thing just feels… strange. Instead of in-game cutscenes moving forward a story, the game relies on videos sent from skaters to the player’s Sidekick. Actually, before I move on with that it’s likely a good idea to get the product placement out of the way. There’s absolutely room for some product placement in games, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that the industry is above that. That said, few titles have done it as poorly as Ride. Every loading screen is sponsored by Stride gum, the Sidekick couldn’t be more prevalent in the story (to the point where every cutscene is displayed on the screen within a screen), and two achievements are actually advertisements in and of themselves. If done correctly, there’s nothing wrong with some billboards or ads, but they’re handled so poorly that it feels insulting.
As I was saying, the videos are presented on the Sidekick screen, oversaturated, and shot in front of what I think has to have been a poorly-lit green screen. If any points are earned, no matter how wonderful or terrible the event went, the skaters on screen talk about how stunning the performance was, saying things like “Man! That couldn’t have been done better!” and “Woah! You made that look easy!” It feels strange, almost uncomfortable every time, like the developers felt positive affirmation would have helped distract people from the most important thing about Tony Hawk: Ride: it isn’t good. In fact, it’s not good at all.
There’s so much awkwardness with Ride that it feels almost unfair to continue. The skateboard has buttons on it, which can apparently be used to navigate menus. There’s also the ability to not get off the board, which, obviously is preferred. You can ollie to accept, nollie to decline, and tilt to move up and down. Factor that in with the other issues, like the game not really registering those motions perfectly all the time, and you’ll be grabbing a controller in no time. There’s also the fact that it will constantly ask for your name after getting a high score, and there’s no “accept” button on the skateboard, so you actually need to use a controller. The menus, too, have issues, including redundancy, which rub uncomfortably against the long loading times. There are also camera problems, where it will occasionally fail at following the player. Even when on Casual mode, which is on-rails, the camera will sometimes become completely lost, making it impossible to continue until a crash, when it snaps back abruptly with almost a “there you are!” Most of the time these issues don't get in the way, they just feel amateur in a series that has been around too long to make these mistakes.
There's a party mode, if you want to join in with friends to make fun of the product and help justify the purchase (though it's limited to one person playing at a time), and online multiplayer. I'd love to talk about online multiplayer more, but there's an issue. So far, the leaderboards are barren, with only a dozen or so people on it, and finding a game is next to impossible. Trying on several occasions, I was met with completely empty servers, but unless it breaks the controller in half and turns it onto a regular one I can't see it being any more fun.
Activision panicked, all right, and they fired on all cylinders back at Skate, ready to prove that their series had what it takes to get back on top. Sadly, for fans of Tony Hawk, every shot missed its target. Tony Hawk: Ride was a knee-jerk reaction by a publisher who pushed gimmick over gameplay, and the result feels like the most manufactured, soulless gaming experience to ever be released. I have fond memories of the series, loved Tony Hawk’s Project 8, and think that the original was one of the best sports games ever released. Now, there’s nothing left, the series is a shell of its former glory, and it would take a miracle for Tony Hawk to come back after this disaster.