Video gaming, just like the movie business, is frequently fond of looking to the past in order to progress, regularly producing new entertainment based on old franchises – rebooted or recycled – and banking on nostalgia as the salient factor in selling freshly finished titles. This year, Sony's E3 presentation in June generated more press for the confirmations of The Last Guardian, the Final Fantasy VII remake and Shenmue III than it did the reveal of unprecedented, baggage-free projects like Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Tomorrow Children; while Nintendo continues to dangle new Star Fox and Zelda titles in front of Wii U owners, at the same time as moving back release dates, in the hope that they'll hang in there and remain brand loyal.
The last couple of weeks have seen huge games publisher Activision put out two titles squarely aimed at players who've been around a while, each reliant more on affection for previous experiences, on misting-over memories of marathon sessions in front of the telly, than a desire to pop something completely original into their PlayStation (or Xbox, or PC). One of these has been made with a great deal of attention to its source material, positively bleeds fan respect and uses gameplay that served prior releases by its studio incredibly well. The other appears to have been designed by a team that's never played a previous game in its parent series, features more bugs than mealtimes on I'm a Celebrity…, and controls as if the laws of physics are but speculative concepts as readily dashed by the everyman as the suggestion that the Earth's flat.
One of these games is Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5, developed by Chicago's Robomodo studio – past form: Tony Hawk: Ride, the worst Tony Hawk of all time, plus the disappointing HD version of the original Pro Skater. The other is Transformers: Devastation, made by Osaka-based PlatinumGames, responsible for the amazing Bayonetta, Vanquish and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. And you already know which of the two descriptions above matches which release.
Pro Skater 5 is dreadful. I've sat down with it several times since its release with the express intent of finding a positive, single, within its litany of disappointments, and nothing. Not one redeemable feature beyond the unintentional hilarity its glitches can provide: character models ragdolling like no human ever conceived, physically or digitally; crazy collision detection that turns ramps and walls into laughable illusions of solidity; and bizarre bails that have Tony or whoever (several other skaters are selectable) flying towards the skies. And it's so boring, just, so boring. Nary the slightest shred of a quiet triumph amid the terrific tumult of a decade and a half's accumulated reputation being wrecked in minutes. But it didn't have to be this way, at all.
Many reviews of Pro Skater 5 have highlighted that Activision's licensing agreement with Tony Hawk expires this year. That extension was signed just before the 2002 release of Pro Skater 4, which came out to some incredible reviews. Activision's subsequent shift to the Underground franchise didn't immediately lead to diminishing returns, but the company's return to the Pro Skater line says much about its desire to reconnect with fans of those earlier games. Unfortunately, the studio behind Pro Skaters one to four, Neversoft, last touched a skateboarding game with 2007's Tony Hawk's Proving Ground, and was absorbed by Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward in 2014. Which left Robomodo to carry the incredible weight of expectation that comes with any new Tony Hawk release, a burden tripled when it's a return to what made the series great back when consoles were still sold on their "bits".
That weight has crushed them, but I can't help thinking that there was a different approach to take with Pro Skater 5. Robomodo's made a bunch of mobile games, one of which was Skateboard Slam for iOS, a not completely terrible side-scrolling affair that ultimately played easily and was bright and cheery enough to keep players coming back. Had they taken that base model and given it a thick layer of Tony Hawk lacquer, ditched the Pro Skater tag and focused on a bona-fide fun game that could turnover substantial downloads at a moderate premium price on mobile – let's say £2.99 UK, $3.99 stateside – with versions for console webstores and Steam, we might have been looking at an OlliOlli rival.
Last month, Pumped BMX moved from mobile to consoles successfully, and snowboarding endless runner Alto's Adventure hit number one on App Store charts across the world at the start of 2015. Add in OlliOlli's BAFTA win in March and it's clear that there's a growing market for brilliantly intuitive, simply side-on, arcade-feel extreme sports games, and profits to be had. With these games the emphasis is only ever on tricks, on boosting your score, on staying on your board or bike. Pro Skater 5 chucks in mindless missions – knock balls out of an empty swimming pool, yay, or smash through so many drones in under this many seconds, whoop – which require completion to unlock new levels, and an irritating camera to match, the Y axis of which cannot be inverted. Those italics are warranted. This is 2015, and not having that option is criminal.
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What if Robomodo had said to Activision: "Sorry, moneybags, but we're just not cut out for making a 'proper' Pro Skater game. We figured that much was clear with the HD remake, and it's best that we're all honest with ourselves. So how about we deliver an awesome Tony Hawk-branded game, before you lose the license, that builds on the strengths we possess, that retains the spirit of the originals but presents it in an appealingly old-school aesthetic, running left to right, keeping the game quick and the stunts sick? Yeah? Cool, we'll do that, and you'll make a mint because the kids will love it."
Such a venture could not have yielded results any worse than the grim reality of Pro Skater 5, an ugly and ungainly waste of just about everybody's time, and a truly tragic end to a business relationship that had previously produced certifiable classics. Believe me, I've tried really hard to not arrive at this conclusion, not least of all because VICE is running a competition to win this very game (and some other awesome stuff). But, there you go: the truth will out.
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'Transformers: Devastation', launch trailer
Transformers: Devastation on the other hand is both a satisfying yet simplified model of Platinum's celebrated melee combat mechanics as seen in Bayonetta and its sequel, right down to the "witch time" last-second dodging that opens your opponent up for slow-motion attacks, and a gleefully nudging and winking trip down Transformers memory lane. Its knowingly schlocky storyline is straight out of season one of the mid-1980s cartoon series – the Decepticon leader Megatron wants to "cyberform" Earth because the Transformers' home planet of Cybertron is properly fucked, but Optimus Prime and the heroic Autobots aren't about to stand for that nonsense, so set about kicking his metal arse, and those of his lackies, into deep space – and there's a number of nods to both 1986's The Transformers: The Movie and standalone episodes. For example, the first level is named City of Steel, while one of the collectibles you'll find across the game's seven stages proper is a bouncing ball of crackling energy known as a Kremzeek. I smiled, and I'm sure thousands of others who grew up with these robots (and planes, and trucks, and cassette decks, and dinosaurs) will do the same.
Devastation's story is set before the movie's, so the five playable Autobots are entirely drawn from the Earth-stranded party that arrived from Cybertron four million years ago. There's Prime, of course, plus Wheeljack and his Dinobot creation Grimlock, supported by the warrior Sideswipe and scout Bumblebee. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, with character stats and weapons upgradable as the game unfolds, albeit through some not entirely clear menus that do little to help you understand load-out options until you've actually done it a few times. The (unplayable) Decepticon forces feature famous faces – Megatron's the final boss, obviously, and you'll smash fists and axes and teeth into Starscream, Soundwave, Devastator, Blitzwing and, my favourite (and one of the hardest fights, too), Shockwave. The whole thing looks like a cartoon come to life, the voices are by either the original actors or decent doubles, and the music is perfectly in tune with the movie's hyperactive guitar shredding. No Stan Bush, mind.
There's repetition in Devastation's gameplay – grunt-level Cons are restricted to just a few forms, and you fight them a lot, plus the environments aren't bursting with variety whether you're on Earth or Cybertron – and the whole thing can be finished in under five hours, easily. But from the perspective of an out-and-proud fan of first-generation Transformers: what a five hours. Anyone who's loved Platinum's stylish brawlers of the past will get a kick out of Devastation too, because it really does play like a slightly dialled-down Bayonetta, its lessening of intensity made up for by sumptuous single-button transformations, pleasingly crunchy combos and a good few instances of Megatron's maniacal cackling. It's fun, all the way through, and illustrates how nostalgia can comprise the core of a new game without compromising all other features. And be prepared for more, because the way it ends is pure sequel bait.
If Devastation had sucked, which it certainly doesn't, greying Transformers fans like me would have half-sighed at the predictability of it all and got back to bemoaning the meddling ways of Michael Bay. But then, it's a game that had little to prove, evidently a project of love, with only modest expectations to live up to – expectations that it's smashed. In contrast, Pro Skater 5 had to match the performance of games made by another company two console generations ago, and return today's gamers to their nascent PlayStation experiences. It had to be both a time capsule and a modern masterpiece, and there's simply no way that Robomodo was ever going to pull that off. Perhaps no studio could, not even Neversoft. Pro Skater 5, like Shenmue III and the FFVII remake might be too, was doomed as soon as its existence was confirmed. It won't be like it was; it can't be like it was; so whatever it is, it'll be shit. And so it's sadly proved.
Transformers: Devastation and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 were tested on PlayStation 4. Both games are out now, and if you'd like to take Tony for a spin yourself, just to be sure, you can enter our competition to win an Xbox One, a copy of the game and a signed Birdhouse deck, scribbled on by Mr Hawk himself. Just click here.
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