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 ˝ 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.