A Casual Reminder That If You Like The Downhill Levels Of Tony Hawk’s, You Are Wrong
Tony Hawk’s is one of my all-time favourite franchises, and while nostalgia has cemented Underground and American Wasteland at the top of my personal ranking, there’s something special about how pure the early Pro Skater games are. With the two minute timer, the clearly defined challenges, and the inability to get off the board, they don’t need any gimmicks to get our attention – they’re all about the board. That’s why I was so happy with last year’s remake, a game that wound up on my top ten list for 2020. That’s despite the downhill levels, which are just the absolute worst.
Regular levels in THPS take place in a set arena. They tend to get progressively bigger and more complex, providing new lines for the more confident players to hit up, and offering different styles of challenging ramps, pipes, and gaps. The high score totals needed to pass each level increases with each stage, but the real way you can measure progress is in how much the game trusts you. You can’t really fail in the Warehouse. You can bail, sure, but it’s a small room with two long banks, a half pipe, and a few lined up quarter pipes with a floor rail and a wall rail. Aside from the mostly empty upper section you start in, you can stand anywhere on the map and see anything. You’re never going to get lost, or wonder where that thing is. You know, that thing where you do the flippy thing. The thing!
The further you progress, the more the game trusts you with bigger levels, full of interconnected breakout areas, rooftops, indoor spaces, and places less obviously built for baby’s first combo. Even somewhere like Marseille or Venice – both actual skate parks rather than street levels – offer a lot more in the way of creativity and exploration, with distinct sections, tougher gaps, and more room to express yourself than in Warehouse, which is essentially a brilliant tutorial.
The downhill levels change all this. In those, you start at the top, and roll down to the end – if you reach the finish before the timer runs out, you start back at the top, which is also an auto bail. There’s still some ramps and rails here, but they go completely against the ideals of the rest of the game. You’re not allowed to explore; the game just loads you in a slingshot and fires you down the slope. See something interesting you want to trick out on? Good luck making it uphill with enough momentum to actually enjoy it; you’re better off racing to the end in the hopes that you can get back there before the timer is up.
They’re meant to be a change of pace from the rest of the levels, but every other arena in the game is magic, or at the very least, an enjoyable attempt at capturing the magic. It’s like being served a gourmet banquet where one of the courses is just a bag of wet sand because the chef wanted to mix things up a bit.
The worst of these is Downhill Jam, the fastest and most linear, rushing you through what could be an interesting set of raised rails and slalom quarter pipes to reach the ultimate goal of… a little flat bit at the bottom of the bank. There’s no incentive to actually follow what the level wants you to do, yet it’s impossible to resist. If you’re familiar with the level, you can make your way up to a raised outer lip, but even up there, there’s nothing much to do except drop back down again.
Mall, the earlier downhill level in the first game, is a bit better, but that’s because it’s more like a stairway than a slope; flat then drop, flat then drop. It’s not great that once you’ve passed an area, getting back to it is either an ordeal or means pushing through, but at least you’re not constantly being pushed past everything fun like in Downhill Jam.
I want to say the franchise learned its lesson. None of the second game’s levels are made in this style, after all. Some parts of Skate Heaven funnel you down to the next section, although it’s nowhere near as extreme as Downhill Jam and getting back up is much easier. But then they went and made a whole game of Downhill Jam (called Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam, funnily enough), based entirely around racing. It’s one of the worst in the series – although despite the mega hits, there’s a lot of low cards – because it doesn’t seem to really understand what makes the best games so great.
With manual revert and the ability to teleport to the start, the remake does substantially improve the Downhill Jam level, but it’s still the worst. And it’s not even close.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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