The rise and fall of Activision's Tony Hawk franchise was a spectacular and thrilling thing to watch over the series' decade-plus reign as the skateboarding game of record. Competitors came and went, from Grind Session to Aggressive Inline to Skate to that Razor scooter game to... well, you get the idea. Eventually the franchise entered decline, but those fond memories of the first handful of entries remain. Those good feelings are what Activision and developer Robomodo are hoping to capitalize on with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD, a new downloadable game that pulls together a handful of levels from the first two games in the line. It controls the way you want it to. And the levels feel just like they did back in the late 1990s. But the subset of selected levels includes a few stinkers and its new modes and options don't land cleanly. It's different enough to void some of its nostalgic draw, but similar enough to remind you that parts of those early Tony Hawk games might not hold up so well over a decade later.
At the outset, you're given access to the first of seven levels and the extra modes are locked up. For the most part, this is Pro Skater the way Pro Skater always was--there are goals to complete and you embark on as many two-minute runs as you need to complete them all. Completing goals opens up additional levels and gives you cash that you can use to enhance your skater with new tricks and upgraded stats. You'll also unlock additional single-player modes, like Big Head Elimination, where your skater's head blows up like a balloon and you must continually land longer and longer strings of tricks to keep your head from popping.
Those trick strings adhere to the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 level of combo theory, meaning that you can use manuals (skateboard wheelies) to connect your ground tricks together, but the Tony Hawk 3 revert doesn't continue combos. This prevents players from just turning every two-minute run into one long, incredible combo as easily as it got to be in the later Tony Hawk games. But you kind of can't unring the bell on an innovation as earth-shattering (well, earth-shattering for what it did to Tony Hawk games, anyway) as the revert, and I found myself disappointed by the scaled-down combo system.
The level design is accurate to what appeared in the original games, though there are a few new goals in some spots and billboards and other textures have been updated. You won't find boxes for Neversoft's Bruce Willis-themed dual-joystick shooter, Apocalypse, in the mall level, for example. That means that the good levels, like the Warehouse and School II, are still good. And the lame levels, like Downhill Jam and the Mall, are still pretty lame. There's more good than bad on the level select list, but it's pretty easy to come up with a handful of missing levels from the first two games that belong in this collection.
The online leaderboards help focus your trick sessions into competitions with your friends, and once you've completed all the goals in a level, subsequent runs instead show the next-highest score on the leaderboard for you to challenge. It also has online play for up to four players in standard Trick Attack and Graffiti modes. You can also free skate online or start up a Big Head Elimination game over Xbox Live, but really... Trick Attack and Graffiti are probably the modes you're looking for. The performance online seems OK, though other skaters occasionally warp around a little bit. I also had a few games fail to connect, but with a little persistence it isn't too hard to get a game going.
Visually, the game has nicer-looking skaters and textures, but it's a bit strange to see higher-resolution assets draped over level layouts that were originally made for the PlayStation. Also, the game's made with the Unreal Engine, so expect to see that telltale texture fade-in whenever you first load into a level. After that initial load, however, everything looks fine, if a little empty. The soundtrack is a mix of new-to-Tony-Hawk music and a few tracks that appeared in the original games. So no "Police Truck," but you get "Superman" and that Anthrax/Public Enemy team-up. Much like the list of levels, the soundtrack feels awfully short, and after hearing the same batch of songs repeat for the third time, I finally just turned it down. Along with a mix of new and old music, there's also a mix of new and old skaters, including Eric Koston, Rodney Mullen, your Xbox 360 avatar, Riley Hawk, and more.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD is a terrific idea that just doesn't pan out as well as it feels like it should. All the little tweaks and decisions, from level list to the soundtrack to the decisions about which moves to include or exclude eventually start to weigh on the overall experience in a meaningful way. It turns something that should have been a joyous update and revival of a tarnished franchise into something that simply misses the mark. I'm still interested in seeing what happens to the game after some Tony Hawk 3 levels are added as DLC, but then I'm the guy who still owns every single game in the Tony Hawk franchise, right down to the one that came with the weird paint program on the DS. So of course I'd say that.