The Tony Hawk series of games has been one of the holy grails of the games industry over the last few years - a new version comes out every year, regular as clockwork and always sells by the bucket load. Nothing particularly unusual there, just look at the myriad of other yearly franchises such as Fifa, etc. The amazing thing about the Tony Hawk series however, is that those clever dudes over at Neversoft somehow manage to improve on the previous release every year and each Christmas the latest release is normally showered with commercial and critical acclaim.
The main reason for this success is that Neversoft have managed with each release is to gradually add new layers of complexity and abilities without ruining the core gameplay mechanic.
I've been an obsessive fan of the series since playing THPS 2 on the PS one and have played through each iteration since then, for the most part pleased with the how the series has been progressing - they started to lose their way a bit with the overly Jackass-inspired Underground and Underground 2, but last years American Wasteland was a return to form.
Although there was a port of THAW as one of the launch titles for the 360, this release is the first real from the ground up next-generation version, so lets see how it fairs.
The first thing which hits you when you start playing THP8 are the graphics. I was only playing in standard definition, but even so the graphics are a marked improvement over the previous versions. THP8 has adopted a new camera angle which is much closer to the player, making your character much larger on the screen.
Whilst this may initially be a bit weird for TH veterans such as myself, it has meant that the developers have been able to go to town on the detail level and the player animation has been greatly improved - legs flex noticeably when taking big landings etc. A similar attention to detail has been shown throughout the game, for instance, the controller also rumbles slightly when taking big landings.
These may seem like small touches, but they really increase the sense of immersion and make the game more involving.
While THAW's big selling point (which was very emphasised in the advertising) was that it offered an end to loading screens, providing instead a giant seamless city.
Whilst this was kind of true, the technical limitations of the supported platforms meant the "real" levels within the map were connected with long thin, drab areas of subway, sewer, car park, oil pipe etc. to free enough memory to allow the real map to be loaded in the background. This was a neat trick, but didn't really live up to the hype.
THP8 has finally delivered on this promise, however - each area blends smoothly into the other, with no obvious filler areas. In fact, the only time you ever see a loading screen once the game has started is if you start a challenge which spans multiple areas and then hit "retry last goal", but even then it only takes a few seconds.
There are three main new features introduced in THP8, the first of which is the new "nail the trick" mode, which is accessed by pressing down both analogue sticks at the same time - this causes a super slow-mo close up, kind of like focus mode, but the camera is zoomed in on the players feet. Once in this mode, each analogue stick controls a foot allowing you to do all those crazy Rodney Mullen style tricks where you flip the board over ½ way and then spin it 360 before flipping it back etc. On first encounter this seems a bit like a gimmick and in some ways it is (I have never found myself using this mode as part of a regular combo, for instance), but it adds a new challenge type and on the whole I found the spot challenges where you had to use this mode very enjoyable (if rather difficult).
The second new feature is "spot challenges" - this new feature integrates many of the challenges from the old games such as manualing a certain distance, grinding a certain distance etc. directly into the game world. Throughout each level, there are a large number of chalk marks on the scenery which represent the start of a particular spot challenge and also marks representing amateur, pro and sick goals. Grinding over a grind start mark starts a grind spot challenge, if you can keep the grind going past the AM goal mark you have the option of landing it to pass the challenge at AM level, or try to keep it going to reach the Pro mark and so on. There are spot challenges for grinding, manualing, wall rides, natas spinning, wall plants, air height, air distance and nail the trick - they have allowed the developer to greatly increase the number of challenges in the game without taking you out of the game world and without having to add lots of story and cut scene elements. These challenges start out relatively straightforward, but the difficulty level soon ramps up and in my opinion they are a great addition to the series.
The AM, Pro, Sick structure has also been integrated into most of the other challenges in the game - there are a few pass/fail goals, but the vast majority have the 3 grades. This has allowed the developer to get rid of the need to choose if you want to play on easy, normal or sick at the start of the game, beginners can concentrate on just achieving AM goals to begin with and then revisit each goal as their skills improve and try to achieve higher grades without having to start the game over at a higher difficulty level.
Continuing with this level of integration - the "Classic mode" from the previous games has been added into the regular game, where it appears in each level as an individual challenge. Once started, the classic mode consists of the usual sub-challenges, including collect SKATE, collect COMBO, high/pro/sick score etc.
Again, it is nice to have this integrated into the main game rather than a separate mode - although I have to say, I think that attaining sick grade on the Classic challenges is nigh-on impossible (you have to complete all of the classic challenges in one run!).
The final new addition is the intelligent bail system - where the player has been imbued with a rag-doll physics model causing them to bail more realistically. Whilst this looks quite nice, it has annoyingly been made into challenges where you have to get over a certain hospital bill and/or break a certain number of bones, usually whilst knocking down oversized bowling pins or negotiating gates.
For online play there is, naturally, full Xbox Live support which has some interesting new modes - including a fun new game called "Walls" in the style of the TRON light-cycle game where each player leaves a solid trail behind them which the other players have to avoid.
For all this praise, there are a few downsides to the game.
The impressive new graphics are perhaps a little over optimistic for the system and the frame rate frequently drops a little lower than I would like (I assume that it is dropping from 60 to 30 fps). It still as smooth as the previous PS2 versions but it is jarring when the game runs so smoothly normally, I would have much preferred a slight drop in number of objects within the world if they could have kept the frame rate constant. This is a real shame, the graphics give a real sense of immersion and when the frame rate drops it really pulls you out of the world. Hopefully this is just teething problems for the new engine and the next release will not suffer from this problem.
Whilst the new bail mode sounds like it should be fun, quite frankly it isn't. The bailing just seems too random, sometimes a little bail will break loads of bones and cost a fortune, sometimes a massive crash will leave you unscathed. The amount of control you have when bailing is also very hit and miss, making negotiating gates overly hard and knocking down pins a really boring job of trial and error - just repeating the same task over and over and over. When you start to bail, you seem to continue with exactly the same speed and trajectory meaning very small variations on your movement prior to starting a bail have a disproportionate effect on the outcome - a slight ollie will send you flying way up into the air, but no ollie at all will see you pretty much stop dead.
The online mode is not without its problems too, it can be a little trying at times - you have no control over what game style you will be put into and it actually can take quite a while to successfully connect to a game. It is also very annoying to wait a minute or so to connect to a game only to be told that the host has started the game without you and be kicked back to the game select screen.
The biggest problem I have found, however, is one of stability. In the time I have been playing the game (well over 20 hrs now, which must tell you how much I like it overall) it has locked up my system a large number of times, requiring me to turn the 360 off and on again. As you might expect, this is quite random, sometimes I have played all day with no problems and sometimes it has locked up several times in an hour. This has led to quite a few frustrating occasions where I have spent ages completing a difficult challenge and then had the machine lock up before I have saved the game. I would therefore recommend that you save immediately after completing any particularly difficult challenges.
Tony Hawk games never fail to impress and this one is no exception. As usual there is nothing really ground breaking in this update, but the series has survived the jump to a real next-gen version and continues to evolve intelligently.