Release Date: November 7, 2006
Even the worst games in the epic Tony Hawk series – which, by my count, are Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 and Tony Hawk's Underground 2 – are still worth 10 or more hours of your time, due to the incredibly solid core gameplay established seven years ago in the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater for PlayStation. It amazes me that the concept never gets old; I have invested literally hundreds of hours into this series, yet I still get amped for it every year, despite the hit-or-miss nature of the last few entries. Give me a dozen new stages, and you have my 50-dollar investment. Just don't screw up the gameplay.
I was completely frightened this past summer when Activision unveiled Tony Hawk's Project 8. It was said to feature entirely new graphics and gameplay engines, including an all-new way to play the game. I felt like a parent being told every detail of a difficult operation being performed on my child. How could they change something that was so close to perfection? Would I ever again feel like a Pro Skater in this American Wasteland? Granted, the hands of developer Neversoft are quite capable, but I couldn't help but be worried.
Thankfully, Tony Hawk's Project 8 is nothing but a positive for the series, which has embraced the next generation of consoles without compromising the tight mechanics that got it this far in the first place. Unlike last year's sloppy port of Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, Project 8 features all-new graphics and presentation, creating an open-world setting that drops much of the dramatics and horseplay that have defined recent entries. You may dispute that statement when racking up a hospital bill as you bail through a series of gates in an amusement part, but trust me – as a whole, Project 8 is much more interested in skateboarding than making you laugh … or roll your eyes.
As you begin the game in your cozy cul-de-sac in suburbia, your created character is the #200 ranked skateboard in the world (or at least on Tony Hawk's radar), and your goal is to improve your situation through a series of goals, many of which are integrated into the environments without much fanfare. These goals constitute one of the biggest upgrades made to Project 8 over its immediate predecessors. True, a large number of the goals must be obtained by riding up to a particular bystander or floating icon, but the more basic ones (long-distance grinding or manualing; best air off of a vert ramp) are indicated only by a floating can of spray paint and a series of painted indicators on the ground or walls.
The recent entries in the series (especially Underground 2) have put so much emphasis on creating a bizarre, hilarious storyline that the gameplay was often buried under a series of clichéd characters and events. Being able to complete many of the goals without watching a cinematic helps refine the focus of the game to what it should have always been: the joy of skating. Riding around and tricking off of ramps and rails is still a Zen-like experience, and the lack of barriers between the levels means the fun never has to end. American Wasteland gave this a shot last year, albeit with simplistic "loading tunnels" between the stages, but Project 8 does it seamlessly. You can do a spine transfer from suburbia to the skate park, then skate for 30 seconds and be on the grounds of the school.
The various areas of Tony Hawk's Project 8 are not as unique or exciting as in previous games, and many vividly recall stages from earlier titles in the series. Not that I'm accusing Neversoft of self-plagiarism, but how many times can you recreate the school setting? Bits and pieces of the school in Project 8 look very similar to parts of the "School II" stage in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, but with better rendering. The factory is like a multi-tiered version of the "Foundry" stage in Pro Skater 3, and other areas seem a bit too familiar, albeit on a less obvious level. The Fun Park offers the only shockingly different setting, bringing a bit of fantasy to the all-too-familiar world of Project 8.
Contrary to my fears, the core gameplay in Project 8 is relatively unchanged from its predecessors, though the linking of tricks feels more rigid than usual. Previously, when making my way up a vert ramp, I could usually start a flip trick prior to taking off, allowing me to launch right into the trick. Such does not seem to be the case in Project 8, though I suppose it is nitpicking to be sour about the elimination of sloppiness. Sadly, my beloved Xbox 360 controller is not the ideal device for the Tony Hawk series. Anyone who has played Lumines Live! can tell you about the inaccuracies of the d-pad, and the analog stick has never been a realistic option for precision skateboarding. The d-pad may be capable, but I fumed over the occasional loss of large combos.
The major addition to the gameplay is the Nail the Trick feature, which can be executed by clicking the two analog sticks while in the air. It comes off as a refined version of the Focus feature, which is still present and still not worth using on a regular basis. Nail the Trick will feel like a gimmick at first, and while it may not be as immediately useful as the revert or spine transfer, it is extremely cool. Yeah, I said it – Nail the Trick is cool. By clicking the sticks, everything slows down, and the analog sticks serve as your feet, allowing you to pull off crazy tricks merely by kicking the board around in mid-air. Botching your trick is a bit too easy, so don't get too adventurous if you are using Nail the Trick to cap off a monster combo. I'm looking forward to seeing if/how the feature is expanded in future games.
Another big change from the previous Tony Hawk games is the increased emphasis on bails. You can bail off of your skateboard by hitting both shoulder buttons and both triggers simultaneously (or by botching a trick – probably thanks to the loose d-pad), and when you bail, the game will tell you if you have broken any bones and what kind of theoretical hospital bill you could anticipate from such a debacle. This newfound focus on bailing is particularly peculiar following the similar usage in 2K Sports' Amped 3, the excellent snowboarding title that launched with the Xbox 360 last year. While bailing can be enjoyable to watch, the physics are all sorts of messed up. One time, a botched grind on a downtown street median sent me flying roughly 75 feet into the air, causing me to land hundreds of feet away. I'm pretty sure gravity would take issue with this situation. Most of the bail issues are not as severe, but I encountered several similar mishaps.
Tony Hawk's Project 8 represents a series repositioning itself for a new era, and such a change can be clearly noted in its roster of skaters. Series mainstays like Bob Burnquist, Bam Margera, and Rodney Mullen are present, but many of the newcomers are not yet old enough to vote, let alone drive a car. Teenagers Ryan Sheckler and Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins are included, and – get this – 11-year-old professional skater Nyjah Huston marks the youngest-ever skater included in the series. He is not even old enough to play this Teen-rated game (so says the ESRB)! Still, the most interesting addition has to be Jason Lee, former professional skater and current star of NBC's "My Name is Earl." While his in-game character model seems a bit off, he provides amusing commentary for your adventure up the ranks and even stars in a fake in-game commercial.
Project 8 features an entirely new graphics engine, aiming more for gritty realism than disproportional caricatures. However, I use the term "gritty realism" very loosely in this context, as you would never confuse anything in this game for its real-life counterpart. Still, the environments are much more detailed than in previous titles, sporting a worn-down look to places like the skate park and the slums. The additional detail given to the character models and skateboards is most clearly seen while in Nail the Trick mode, where the wheels can be seen spinning, and the board looks better than ever. While Project 8 handily tops its numerous predecessors, it is not a Gears of War-type stunner, which makes the framerate issues even more baffling. The choppiness may not kill the experience, but it seems entirely unnecessary for a game of this sort.
The soundtracks in recent Tony Hawk games have struggled to find an identity, instead opting to pile on track after track of oft-mediocre modern punk, emo, and hip-hop. Project 8 may not have a particularly memorable soundtrack, but it presents a varied choice of solid tracks from many genres and generations. Nine Inch Nails, Gym Class Heroes, and Plus 44 are matched up with The Cure, Kool and the Gang, and Joy Division for an interesting, eccentric collection of tracks. With over 50 songs included, you are bound to find something to like. The voice-overs in the game are well done, and the sound effects are as memorable and potentially jarring as ever. If you have a surround sound system hooked up, take a moment to stand still in the skate park area; the sound of other skaters pulling off tricks in the distance makes for a really neat addition.
Continuing the theme set by the title, the credits will roll once you make your way into the top eight – which took me roughly eight hours, but may take newcomers a bit longer. After that, you can continue to finish up skipped goals or try to improve your previous records in an attempt to go further up the ranks. Landing in the top four will bring you glory and Achievement points, but will also require a significant time commitment, as will maxing out your abilities.
As in American Wasteland, online play is a lot of fun, and is a great way to keep the experience alive long after you tire of the single-player game. The lack of any significant new game types dulls the experience just a bit, but Trick Attack and Combo Mambo never really get old. It would be great to see some kind of online co-op play integrated into the career mode of the next game, or some type of team challenge.
Tony Hawk's Project 8 marks the best entry in the series in five years, when Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 found the creative and cultural balance that made it the high point for the entire series. This new direction may not be firing on all cylinders just yet, but with some refinements, it could be the start of a new era for the franchise, which has seen its share of ups and downs over the last few years. It is amazing to me that something I enjoyed as a 15-year-old can still captivate me as I prepare to graduate from college. Here's to another seven-plus years of skateboarding bliss.