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'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5': something new, something borrowed

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"It's like making a new Star Wars movie," says Patrick Dwyer, lead designer on developer Robomodo's upcoming Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5. "The originals are great and then the rest weren't as good." He's referring, of course, to the high bar set by the first four games in the storied extreme sports franchise as compared to the middling releases that followed. The idea, as Dwyer explains it, is to treat anything that released past 2002's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 as if it never existed. And that's including the horrible pair of plastic skateboard peripheral-based games he worked on: Tony Hawk Ride and its follow up, Shred.

The first Tony Hawk's Pro Skater debuted in 1999 on the original PlayStation and was a runaway hit: Nine tightly designed levels each with a handful of goals (e.g., hit a high score; collect the five letters that spell out "S-K-A-T-E"; find a hidden VHS tape). Oh, and each run lasted a grand total of two minutes. The addictive, arcade-like pursuit of getting a perfect run led to massive sales and publisher Activision ordering a raft of sequels. The two releases that followed changed the formula slightly with added tricks to string out combos even further and take scores even higher, but it was the fourth entry that significantly altered the series.

An example of the objectives from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 featured huge levels you could combo all the way across, a timer that only kicked in once you started a mission and end-game challenges designed to test the most hardcore of players. In the years that followed, the franchise went through a handful of name changes and became bloated with features that made no sense, like racing around in tuner cars and the ability to jump off your skateboard to climb onto rooftops. Pro Skater 5, despite its nomenclature, is not a direct sequel to what came before it.

"With the later games, [developers] had to keep adding stuff to justify the yearly release," says Robomodo President Josh Tsui. "We don't have that burden here so that's really freed us up a lot."

A quick tour of Robomodo's Chicago office reveals the latest game's back-to-basics inspiration. A hot pink Mattel hoverboard is propped up against one wall; a copy of Electronic Arts' 2007 physics-based skateboarding sim Skate lies on one desk; while a strategy guide for the Xbox launch title Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x is on another. Tsui's workstation even has an Xbox and a copy of Pro Skater 4 at it, which should help allay fan fears instilled by the lesser, later games. And that's where Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 comes in.

"A lot of the decisions we made about the game were [about] making it more approachable."

-- Patrick Dwyer, Robomodo

The game is pick-up-and-play by design: Balancing while doing a "manual" (a wheelie that lets you continue a combo after landing a jump) or while sliding across a handrail is incredibly easy to do even with a non-upgraded character. Whereas before you'd have to constantly adjust balance so you wouldn't bail (read: crash, breaking your combo and losing any accrued points), that isn't the case here. You don't have to move directly through the "SKATE" letters anymore either; get close enough and you'll sort of suck them in. It's these small tweaks that smooth out rough edges the series has suffered from for years and make the game less frustrating to play from the outset.

"A lot of the decisions we made about the game were [about] making it more approachable for people who don't have 12 - 15 years experience [with the franchise]," Dwyer says. "It was one of those unspoken things that everyone knew had to happen. If you hand an old game like Pro Skater 4 to somebody, they'll bail like 20 times in five minutes."

But don't take this focus on accessibility as Robomodo alienating the hardcore. In fact, it means they can be even more brutal to those folks. Each level has 10 normal challenges (e.g., find the hidden DVD; collect "S-K-A-T-E;" grab the letters spelling "combo" in one combo -- those sorts of things), and completing those opens up pro-level challenges. Just how hard are those? Try pulling off a 150,000-point combo when you can't manual and your starting point is a huge ramp overlooking a particular level. This is where Robomodo's actively taunting dedicated players.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 features a saturated graphical look.

Dwyer says this is something they experimented with a lot. He's watched me go from being rusty and squandering hundreds of thousands of points by crashing, to having my muscle memory kick in, resulting in 200,000-point combos, to me once again struggling to land combos. "Those are bastards," he says with a barely suppressed glee. "There's no better way to explain it than that."

After a few hours of playtime with an admittedly small portion of the game, it appears as if Dwyer and the Pro Skater 5 team at Robomodo may have succeeded in their mission. The gameplay feels fun and balanced, but it also feels familiar -- maybe a little too familiar. The level goals Dwyer demoed were akin to those in previous Pro Skater releases. A few maps are even spiritual successors (replete with similar trick lines) to the best ones from games past including "Bunker," an amalgamation of "Hangar" from Pro Skater 2 and "Warehouse" from the series debut.

"We're aware that people might say something like that," Dwyer says of Pro Skater 5's familiarity, "But really, it's not a deterrent because with 'School 3,' a couple of lines are similar, but all the stuff we've added to it help flesh it out more."

"We kept the direct callbacks to 'School 3' and 'Bunker,'" Tsui says.

"It's almost like we're stepping back in time a bit and shaking stuff up."

-- Josh Tsui, Robomodo

Of course, in the context of the full game, the similarities might not be as glaring. In fact, there were a number of original levels in Pro Skater 5's menu, including a moon-physics-based "Asteroid Belt." It's hard to fault Robomodo for mining the past, though. The team wants new players to experience the franchise's best moments and what better way to do that than by recreating some of the series' most iconic areas?

Pro Skater 5, unlike any of the more recent games in the franchise (including Robomodo's fan-service remaster Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD from 2012) finally feels like a true sequel and a return to form for the series -- not a diversion.

"It's not a natural progression from Ride or Shred," Tsui says. "It's almost like we're stepping back in time a bit and shaking stuff up."

[Image credit: Robomodo/Activision]

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