As you probably already know by now, Tony Hawk: Ride has had one of the worst critical receptions of the year - indeed, it's hard to remember the last time such a high-profile project was given such an all-round kicking. So severe is the game's woeful reputation that I was almost frightened to open the box, lest it should unleash some kind of Biblical plague, or perhaps a rain of malevolent insects. While this happily wasn't the case (I did see a few woodlice scuttling around the office, but we get them all the time), I can't say that I was delighted with what did come out.
Actually, that's not completely true, because the skateboard controller itself seems like a pretty decent bit of kit - on first appearance, at any rate. The deck feels solid and well-made when held in the hand, and when you jump aboard for the first time - most likely mere moments after you've ripped it from its box - the initial signs are promising. Sure, there are no wheels, but the curved underside of the peripheral seems to offer a sensible alternative - requiring the player to maintain balance, but providing enough flexibility to let you twist and jive about quite easily.
Unfortunately, everything starts to fall apart once you actually turn on your console. Tony Hawk: Ride kicks off with what seems to be a fairly thorough calibration process, forcing you to tilt the board in a number of directions and to hold each of these poses for 10 seconds or so. While it's slightly annoying to be put through this kind of thing, most of us know that these tweaking sessions are a necessary evil that enable us to have pin-point accurate gaming. The problem is, Ride doesn't keep up its end of the bargain - in fact, it effectively kicks us in the nadgers and runs away with our collective wallet.
As a game controller, Ride's skateboard has all the precision of a blind snooker player with no arms. The pushing-off mechanism works okay - you simply keep one foot on the deck while running the other past one of the two sensors on the board's flanks - but as soon as you try to change direction, things take a turn for the worse. In theory you should be able to steer by shifting your weight to one side of the peripheral, but in practice it's impossible to do this with any degree of control. The board responds to your input in such a way that you either massively oversteer, cavorting about in what seems to be an impossibly tight arc, or else you barely change direction at all. As a result you tend to end up steering via several sharp jerks, lurching back and forth until Lady Luck smiles and puts you on a course that's close to your intended direction. In short, even simple navigation is a frustrating and stressful endeavour. Given the coordination that skating requires, this flaw would be enough to shoot Ride in the foot from the get-go - but unfortunately it's just the start of the game's problems.
If you can't bear to deal with the headaches of player-controlled movement, you can save yourself a lot of hassle by shifting the difficulty level down to the lowest setting. At this point the game essentially becomes an on-rails skating experience: your virtual unemployed slacker will cruise along a predetermined course, with the player merely choosing a direction at set forks in the road. Playing in this way removes one of the great pleasures of skating video games - namely the notion that your surrounding environment is an open playground - but it does at least allow you to focus entirely on pulling off tricks. And for a short while at least, this can actually be quite fun.
As I mentioned earlier, the Ride peripheral is designed in such a way that it's pretty satisfying to juke and twist your hips about. To perform an ollie or nollie (that's a jump, for all you straight-laced Mum and Dad types) you quickly step on one end of the board to tip it up in the air, and then let it drop; keep the board tilted as you land from a jump, and you'll perform a manual - the move that would be called "a wheelie" if we were in the early '90s and you were riding a BMX. For more complicated "flick" moves, you tilt the board up and then make a sideways swivel movement before bringing the end back down to earth; a similar set of "tilt" tricks involves rolling the board sideways as you lift up. There are also four sensors, placed at the compass points of the deck, that are supposed to let you pull off grab moves while you're airborne, but these are generally as responsive as your Uncle Kenny as he sleeps off yet another bottle of cheap gin. They barely work at all, but even the moves that do work are subject to an irritating lag, taking place a good second or two after you perform the relevant action.