I have never been a perpetuator of conspiracy theory. I doubt anyone is trying to steal my identity. I have no idea who killed Kennedy and I am blissfully unaware of the behavior of magic bullets. No, I don't have any pamphlets for you to read. I am here, however, to tell you one thing: someone out there is absolutely reading my thoughts. The proof is Tony Hawk's Project 8. This game was made just for me. Thank you Neversoft and Activision, and all of your crazy X-Files alien thought-stealing technology.
I have followed the Tony Hawk franchise through every one of its incarnations and to this day I believe THPS 3 to be the best and purest the series has ever been. THP8 is essentially the sequel to THPS 3 that I, and perhaps many of you, have been waiting for. Somehow Neversoft has managed to strip the Tony Hawk formula down to its basics while retaining much of the innovations from the last few games, throw in a few new touches, and create the most enjoyable Tony Hawk game I have played in years.
The overall design of the gaming world in THP8 is a large, seamless environment that the player is free to skate in any fashion he or she wants without a single hiccup or loadscreen. Within this seamless environment are a great many self-contained areas, such as the Suburbs, a School Yard, and others. None of these areas is meant to be particularly realistic, each having its own flavor and personality. Truly, it's as if they were unique levels placed next to each other on a map. If your character was to duck into a phone booth, don blue and red tights, and fly into the sky, what they would see would not be monotonous city sprawl, but more of a Tony Hawk fun park, complete with its own fun park. Gone are the identical streets, pseudo-realistic landmarks, and lame public transit system. These areas are set up for maximum Birdman craziness.
The goal structure has been expanded to enhance the classic feel of the game. True to the series there are hundreds of goals ranging from area specific goals to demos and competitions, all leading to the ultimate prize: a pro sponsorship and a slot on Tony Hawk's final 8. However, while many of the goals are given to you by characters found within the areas, as in the last few games, a great many more are available on the fly. While skating you will see goal tags that indicate a specific trick to accomplish, such as to manual a certain distance over a marked distance. This is a much needed delineation from the overly scripted feel of the last few games, giving the player the opportunity to skate freely while still progressing in rank. Each area also contains its own classic mode with all of the expected goals therein. This is a huge improvement from the segregated classic modes of THUG and American Wasteland, and an exciting way for us longtime fans to cap each area.
As always, there are new moves to master. This time, however, the biggest additions are not to the trick list, but to the control scheme. Making its retrun is the focus mode. By clicking the left stick, players can slow down the action and bring the camera angle closer to the board, allowing more time for precision tricks. This is most helpful to new players, but I will cop to using it from time to time when I am having trouble with a specific trick string. The evolution of this is the Nail the Trick mode, which has been hyped in the trailers and demos for the game. This mode also slows down time, and allows players to invent their own tricks. When in Nail the Trick mode, the control sticks are used to control the character's legs, and the players rotate and spin the board as they choose. This mode is fun, but it works better in the Nail the Trick goals than it does on the fly. Even if you detest it, you need not worry. You are never forced to use it, and really, it's a very small part of the game.
THP8 boasts a new physics system developed from the ground up, and it adds immensely to the enjoyment of the game. Primarily, there is a sort of ragdoll approach to bails that is entertaining as hell. Your skater flails and rolls across the pavement in ways that are hard to describe. And when you take one of those monumental bails the series is famous for, it becomes a comical display of panic and pain that you just have to see. Add to this a new ranking for the highest medical bill and goals like "Avenue Bowling" in which you try to bail into giant bowling pins, and it is just as much an art as the skating portion of the game.
A few small victories: the return of the Training Mode, which gets everyone up to speed without bogging down the Career Mode, a robust online and offline multiplayer mode, and the addition of former skate pro and current TV and Kevin Smith ensemble fave, Jason Lee, as your career guide.
As much as I like the game, it is time to mark its flaws. The graphics are by far the best of the series, but they still seem to have trouble with jerky movement and out of sync speech. If anything, the improvements made in scanning the faces of the real life pros onto their video game counterparts only make the robotic movements and gestures more spooky.
The soundtrack has its highs and lows. Even though it is more diverse than the last few games, it still seems to lack inspiration. It feels like skating to the Top 40.
And while I am happy to see that the wretched driving sequences and the ho-hum BMX elements from previous games are a thing of the past, I am sad to see the parkour tricks get the boot as well. This innovative and entertaining part of American Wasteland fit well into the control scheme and broadened the on-foot elements of the series. It would have fit perfectly into the classic level design and I hope it returns in future titles.
Overall, Tony Hawk's Project 8 scores big with this long-time fan, as I am sure it will with anyone who looks back fondly on the THPS glory days. It manages to strip down the overall game design and focus on the core elements that have made the Tony Hawk series great while at the same time introducing new and innovative control and physics. Even if some gamers find the classic feel of this game to be quaint, there is no denying that it is fun. The franchise was starting to show its age. Turns out all it needed was to get back to its roots.