Want to humble a videogame journalist? Ask him if he skates and, if he answers with a modest "a little bit," proceed to make him lose his balance and stumble off of your toy skateboard controller. That was the scene seen again and again at Activision's thumping booth on the E3 show floor, and we took our turn to get humiliated on the company's plastic deck, the feature piece of this October's Tony Hawk Ride. It's fun, it's hard, and it's a surprisingly (and somewhat embarrassingly) good work-out.
If you've missed out on the news about Tony Hawk Ride leading up to now, it's the latest iteration of the storied franchise of the Birdman, radically tweaked to do away with the twitchy button combos and reflex-driven gameplay of its predecessors. That's done through the new controller, a AA-powered wireless plastic board that looks a little like a children's skate deck; shorter and narrower than your average plank. Sitting on the carpet it looks an awful lot like a snowskate, and according to game devs that wintery flavor of the sport was something of an inspiration in the design here.
But of course it's rather more sophisticated than that, featuring accelerometers inside and four infra-red cameras, one for each side. Together these all combine to give a reasonably close approximation of the motions of skateboarding. An ollie is performed by raising the nose of the controller up quickly, kick-flips with a little tilt one way or the other, and grabs by waving your hands in front of one or more of those IR cameras. (Those who haven't been keeping up on their stretches will be glad to know a full grab is not required.) To turn, of course, you just lean back or forth, and a boost of speed is just a kick away.
It's immediately immersive and fun, and not particularly easy -- at least not at first. Turning and ollies are simple enough, but, for example, rotating your board to change from a 50-50 grind on your trucks to a sideways one is tough, as you actually have to twist the board sideways. Kick-flips and grabs aren't particularly difficult (at least not on the easy setting we were told to use), but after spend a few moments on the vert pipe trying to chain things together it quickly becomes a little overwhelming. Tapping a handful of buttons at either end of the pipe to launch off a flurry of grabs is one thing, but it's quite quite another to regain your balance in time to pull off another trick -- ideally a different one.
The pipe is a little tiring, too, as you're constantly shifting your weight and maintaining balance on the thing. Obviously the skill and exertion required here don't compare to rolling on urethane, but if you needed matching levels of those sorts of skills and endurance to play here we'd peg this as the least likely to succeed peripheral at the show. As it is, though, it strikes a good balance between fun and challenge, accessibility and accuracy, and is certainly a lot more interesting than any successive iteration of the Tony Hawks franchise since its inception. Developer Robomodo seem to be betting the farm on it, saying Activision doesn't have much interest in going back to the high-flying, button-friendly gameplay that's been the staple of its predecessor.
Mind you, Ride will work with buttons too, but only in the menus. Get in the game and the only way to play is on the board, which will surely cause some negative reactions from die-hard franchise fans. We, however, tend to think change is good, and look forward to the game's October 13 release date on the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360. That $120 price is a bit of a shame, though.