• There was a ‘leaked’ real-time video demonstration that appeared on the web early this year, of a skater ollieing onto a pavement, proceeding to balance, with incredibly realistic physics, before leaving the edge with a kickflip. Everyone assuming it was something to do with Neversoft, specifically a Tony Hawk Pro Skater title, which was confirmed at E3 with that ‘Built from the Ground Up’ trailer. Sure, the animation wasn’t quite the same and the art direction was far less gritty, but it looked like what was to be titled ‘Project 8’ really was going to be the second coming of skating games.

    Reality has a way of making a mockery of expectation and hype. Activision were pushing this thing as being a complete return to the roots of the series (which arguably peaked at Pro Skater 2) with the nonsense Jackass stunts out of the window and a far more horizontal level design. The story, too, would see a complete overall and we were promised better interaction with NPCs and key characters in the game, and all in a next-generation display of visual power. Surely this would be the greatest game this season, then?

    Well, it would have been, were it not for everything in the above paragraph being ignored. You’re still expected to fly down a ramp and land on a big red target scoring ‘points’ or asked to break 15 bones whilst knocking over skittles, although such missions are rarer than before. You can still leave your board and climb up walls, although, again, this has been toned down. The story mode still revolves around you being a nobody climbing up the ranks (to ultimately be part of Tony Hawk’s elite group of 8 skaters: Project 8) and it’s filled with daft characters and ridiculous cut-scenes, but these are peppered amongst meeting with real skaters and far more realistic demo sequences.

    Tony Hawk's Project 8

    Do you see where this is going? It’s half-way to being perfect, in every sense of the word. It’s like Neversoft couldn’t quite resist bringing Margera back in for one more stunt – if they’d have kept their feet firmly on the griptape Project 8 would have been amazing. But surely the visuals are sublime, right? Well, the screenshots look great – for the most part the textures are sharp, the skaters are well modelled and you can, literally, see the entire game map (more about that below) from the highest parts, but this is traded off with a desperately struggling frame rate. Certain areas rush along at a ‘normal’ Hawk rate of 60 frames per second, others less so at 30. Run into a few pedestrians or catch the 360 when it’s streaming and you’ll see half that again.

    Because Project 8 eventually opens up into an impressively large ‘world’ in which you’re free to skate from one area to another (without nasty loading tunnels) obviously something has to give, and in this case the internal RAM of the 360 isn’t enough to hold the entire game at once. After a lengthy caching period on first boot, the game needs to stream what’s coming up next pretty much constantly, and this, much like it did in Need for Speed Most Wanted, kills the frame rate. It’s impressive to be able to skate for 10 minutes and never meet the same area twice, it really is, but when you compare the single player mode to a ‘fenced-in’ multiplayer match in a single area the difference is incredible. Even over Live, 8 player matches run smooth as butter, although naturally you can offer to open up the whole map on multiplayer too which brings you back down to earth.

    Frame rate aside (and yes, it is worse than the demo) the game often looks gorgeous. The new freeform animation system, whilst never looking as impressive as that first leaked movie, really does shine, especially during between-trick transitions. Neversoft’s new feature this year is the Nail a Trick mode, which slows the game down to sub-Focus speeds and blurs out everything apart from your feet and the board – a really impressive graphical trick – and allows complete control over flip and spin tricks with the two analogs. It’s a neat idea, and is well utilised throughout the Career mode objectives, but the range of tricks is ultimately quite limited – you can’t use your hands for grabs, for example.

    Career mode is really flexible this time around. You’ll still meet characters that give you challenges to complete, and Pros that segment the progress nicely, but there are also more natural objectives marked on the level itself, usually by spray paint. These can include the start of a grind line, or the start of a combo, and nicely, each and every mission has amateur, pro and sick score levels. You’re free to try these as many times as you wish, but obviously obtaining pro and sick will push you up Tony’s rankings (you start at 200) quicker than the amateur ones. In fact, you’ll not reach 2nd on the Project 8 list until you’ve done about 90% of the missions on sick, so get practising!

    Goals are clearly listed on the pause menu, and you can set waypoints to the start of each marker. Sadly, you can’t quick-jump to previously found missions, but constant exploring will only help you in the long run and you’re sure to find shortcuts between the different areas soon enough. Gaps are also listed on the menu, for the completists. Thankfully the menu also allows you to toggle the certain genres on the music playlist, probably the weakest for some years. In game sounds are as they’ve always been, with voice acting reminding you why these skaters don’t work on the radio.

    The aforementioned multiplayer mode is far better implemented than it has been before, and all areas are open from the off-set regardless of your single player progress. Your character is entirely seperate too, and you’re free to use any special trick you’ve purchased during Career. There’s still no Horse mode over Live, sadly, but there’s a new mode that plays out similar to the classic Tron game, leaving light trails behind your skater as you try to box in the opponent, which is actually quite a tactical game when you get a few players used to the maps. I experienced no lag to speak of, and the games I played were generally good-natured and friendly.

    So, another year, another Hawk game. Yes, it’s better than anything post Pro Skater 4, and for the most part Neversoft have left behind the awful THUG and THAW games, but there’s just enough of their presence in Project 8 to remind you that this game could have been even better. There are also no classic levels (although there are Classic goals within the career mode) despite a couple of areas feeling familiar such as School and Factory. Entertaining and certainly challenge, Project 8 is a solid title, but it’s one that can only leave you with a sense of what it should have been, and what hopefully it will be next year if they completely ditch the sillyness.

    Score: 7/10

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