[18 January 2010]
If this console generation has proven nothing else, it’s proven that gamers and non-gamers are open to new gaming experiences. Wii Sports has becomes the sort of ubiquitous gaming presence reserved for names like Mario, Sonic, Final Fantasy, and Halo—names that mean something outside the limited audience of hardcore gamers—and it’s all because of the control scheme. Primitive graphics, “sports” games that strip all but the most basic mechanics from the experience, a musical score that might as well be Brian Eno on quaaludes . . . it’s a recipe for disaster. But give people a controller that actually makes them feel like they’re doing the actions that they’re seeing on the screen? Instant classic.
That said, the trajectory of the Wii in the time since the unexpected, explosive success of Wii Sports is proof that the formula, involving simple presentation and innovative control, is an elusive one and almost impossible to perfect. Countless attempts at waggle-integration in tasks as mundane as door opening or as potentially thrilling as swordplay have largely felt like hollow attempts at gimmickry—and yet, Wii Sports remains, proof that the formula exists, and that massive success and notoriety await those who crack it.
For its part, the Tony Hawk game franchise has been in serious need of that sort of notoriety for some years now. The first few Tony Hawk games defined video game skating as we knew it for ages, but ever since the Tony Hawk: Underground games added a corporate-style “edge” to the series, it hasn’t been able to re-create the magic of those first few games. The Tony Hawk games since Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 have been serviceable enough, but they’ve been marred by too-easy trick strings, timid attempts at innovation, and an uncomfortable misogynistic streak. Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam was probably the worst of the bunch—an attempt at integrating the Wii’s motion controls into a tricks ‘n racing game that had more in common with EA’s SSX series than anything the Tony Hawk series had done before.
Perhaps the fact that Ride has more in common with Downhill Jam than the rest of the Tony Hawk body of work has something to do with why it’s such a disappointment.
Tony Hawk: Ride tries to emulate the Wii’s success without the handicap of having to run with the Wii’s limited graphical capabilities by putting together a peripheral that allows the player to actually feel like they are skating—or, at least, to feel like they are doing something like skating, similar to the feel of Wii Sports’ limited takes on games like tennis and bowling. The theory here is that the player can achieve success by pantomiming the motions that one would perform in real life in situations reflected on the screen. The reality is that achieving “fun”—and make no mistake, the goal of a Tony Hawk game is “fun”—can be difficult when physical simulation of an act is brought into play.
On every mode that isn’t marked as “casual”—a label that is enough to challenge the manhood of the typical Tony Hawk gamer—Tony Hawk: Ride suffers from an unusual problem: it’s too realistic. Balancing on the board long enough to do a trick is one thing; to actually lean to the left and right to try and steer is another thing altogether. The board is perfectly responsive, and this isn’t really the board’s problem. That the game would be designed to be so unforgiving in the mere act of steering, the most mundane of tasks that can be done on a skateboard, is a bad sign. It takes quite literally hours of practice to get to the point where you’re not skating around in circles, trying desperately to avoid a cement wall or a park bench. The very act of having to steer is its own invitation to play the game on “casual.”
Even when you play on “casual,” though, there’s a learning curve, though this particular learning curve at least allows you to progress through the game and maybe even have some fun along the way. Of course, Downhill Jam-style time trials are a piece of cake when the game is steering for you, and as you make your way through the trick sessions, it becomes painfully obvious what the game is steering you toward to perform your tricks. The half-pipe mode, which you activate by turning the board on its side, is good fun and at least allows for some semblance of full control on casual mode, but even there, pulling off many of the tricks feels as much like luck as it does any sort of skill. Part of this is due to the touchy difference between a “flick” and a “tilt” of the board and part of it is due to the delay between what you’re doing on the board and what is reflected on the screen. There’s a delay of almost a full second there, which doesn’t seem like much until you’re barreling down a street at full speed.
The problem isn’t that the game is “too hard” or “too easy;” rather, the problem is that the learning curve is such that there is simply no balance. This is a game bound to lose its audience because “casual” players could well get bored with the game doing so much for them, while “confident” and “hardcore” players will spend so much time just trying to get the board to the right place on a map as to miss out on the fun of actually doing tricks.
That said, there is little doubt that a select few devotees of the game will find fun in it, and for them, it will not only be a satisfying virtual skill that they have mastered but also admission into a highly exclusive club of people willing to stick with Ride long enough to succeed at it.
Tony Hawk recently accused those in the gaming press of being “ready to discredit it before they even tried it, and if it didn’t play exactly how they imagined it . . . then they passed it off.” We get it—he has to stand behind his product, he has to sell his product, and if people don’t like it, that doesn’t change the fact that his name is on it. Still, nothing he says is going to change the fact that Tony Hawk: Ride is a game that hinges on a peripheral, and if the peripheral doesn’t grab the player immediately, it’s just another piece of plastic in a closet somewhere. It’s hard to figure just what kind of audience Tony Hawk: Ride is going to snare, but one can be assured that that audience will not be a large one.