Version tested: Xbox 360
Why would they call the very prettiest thing to have appeared in games for over five hundred years, "Nail The Trick Mode"? It should be called, "Glistening Dew On A Spring Morning Mode", or "Kari Off Of Mythbusters Mode". Not Nail The Trick. The idiots.
It's just sublime. It's breathtaking. You're riding your skateboard through the huge city, and then at any moment, you click both analogue sticks, and you're in. It's bullet time, it's slo-mo, it's the high-def filming of a kingfisher diving into a pond. It makes you just stare and stare, and then inevitably crash into a railing, bail, and smear your face halfway down the street. But all so beautifully. Glistening Dew Mode, as we'll be calling it, is one of the most rewarding and enthralling devices I've ever seen, and I'm in love with it. And so is everyone else who's walked past while I've been playing.
He was a boy
In case you fell out of love with the Tony Hawk games around about the time they went shit, it's time to come back in now. After Pro Skater 4, things went somewhat downhill... down market. Infected with the Jackass crew, the series woefully lost its way, and despite a valiant effort by last year's American Wasteland to rid itself of the cash-in nonsense, it made more mistakes than it fixed. The future of Tony Hawk games was bleak.
No more. Project 8 is a remarkable balance of what made the original Pro Skater games so compulsive, and what the open, sprawling city of Wasteland should have been. It manages to implement one of its silly stories, but without it ever getting in the way. It's bone-deep visceral skating simulation. It... it... oh, it just gets it so right.
She was a girl
Rather than the painful hand-holding story of last year, and the excruciating Mindy, this time it's a nice simple concept. Tony's in your home town, looking to recruit skaters for his new team, named Project 8. With him are other skater pros, acting as what might be considered 'talent scouts' but are more realistically 'mission givers'. The only way you'll make it is to ascend through the rankings by constantly completing missions and spot tricks, and winning competitions. Along the way you'll pick up new sponsors increasing your recognition, and opening new areas of the city. Simple. As it should be.
And this time, despite the lies of last year, there really are no load points. The entire town, vast as it is, appears uninterrupted. No ridiculous loading tunnels, but outdoor smoothness, from Fun Park to Slums, School to Capital Building. It's an idyllic skater town, every building featuring at least one quarter-pipe-shaped wall, and conveniently ramp-shaped edifices on their roofs. The streets are lined with grindable curbs, railings, fences, wires, trams, and anything else with a flat edge. The grass is peculiarly skateable, and even ponds won't slow your wheels too badly. It's a giant skaters' playground.
Can I make it any more obvious?
After choosing a character type, you then tweak them in a (surprisingly poor) character creator, before plunging them into the game. You begin in your rural cul-de-sac, where sensibly crafted starter missions can be picked up from the locals, each subtly teaching you an essential beginner's trick. There is a separate training area, but it's actually rather hard, the basics much better learned in-game. The training is best saved for when wanting to study a particular move more carefully, requiring some moves that will likely put a new player off.
There's still the trademark daft Tony Hawk tasks to do here, like catching your dad's golf balls as he thwacks them over some vert ramps. Of course, it's simply teaching you to spine transfer (jump from one quarter pipe to another behind it, uncool people). But there's also the spot tricks, where markings on the sidewalk or street furniture will indicate local records in various skills. The pavement might say "Manual", and then further on other graffiti will show the Bronze, Silver and Gold distances you'll have to reach. Manual (ride on two wheels) over the line, and it automatically starts. The town is plastered with such challenges, most unachievable until you've ranked up a bit.
As well as the pros, there are innumerable other folk about town, wanting to give you tasks. For instance, from the start the local school mascot needs you to help him plaster posters around town (wall-ride on certain spots), then earn some money by publicly performing some freestyle tricks for a crowd. A guy with a camcorder offers to film you performing a complex series of flip and grab tricks, cramming as many as you can into the time limit. Some are silly, some very skate-worthy, and all are splendidly entertaining. Then as if that weren't enough, there are some locals whose tasks reveal the old-skool Hawk's Classic Mode. Pleasingly in context, these are the two-minute modes of yore, with the list of challenges, including the favourites: high scores, collecting SKATE and COMBO, and finding the hidden... disc! Yes, at long last the series has noticed that VHS tapes are a tad dated, replacing them with a hidden DVD. Each of these sections is set in a cordoned off region of the city, revealing the cunning design as each zone becomes an improvised skate park.
Only two more mission types - bear with me. There are the Pro Challenges, where the pros give you significantly harder tasks to complete. These do wonders for your ranking, as well as unlocking video footage of the best skaters in the world. And finally, there are the competitions. First you must qualify in the short starter round, and then it's time to wow the judges with your sick skillz. Rather than the idiotic system of previous games, this time you need only score over a certain amount from the judges, rather than compete against the random AI.
He was a punk
Hopefully this emphasises quite how vast Project 8 is. There are hundreds of missions, uninterrupted by loading, and all instantaneously restartable (if you ever played Trackmania, you'll know how gratifying it is to be able to immediately start over after failing a tough task, and Project 8 nails this too).
The cast of pros is nice and fresh. Lots of the most impressive new talent stand alongside masters like Hawk and Rodney Mullen. The incredible Ryan Scheckler and Daewon Song appear, along with wunderkind Nyjah Huston, underlining the embracing of the next generation in every imaginable sense. Each spent time motion-capturing themselves for their specific moves (unlockable video footage of this is also to be found), adding to the authenticity. There's Bam Margera of course, but this time looking like the odd boy out, offering his stunt-focused brand of challenges as a refreshing alternative, rather than their domineering frustration in Underground 2. And oddly, Jason Lee is a major character, involved in acquiring you sponsorship, and alerting you to new competitions appearing around the town.
And she did ballet
So there you have it: Tony Hawk Project 8 is the best the series has ever been. And that's without Nail The Trick/Glistening Dew mode.
At any point while in the air, clicking those analogue sticks slows down time, and zooms in on the skateboard and your feet. At this point, each analogue stick represents one of your feet. Flick down with the left stick, and your left foot will push the board down. Catch the lip with the right stick as it rotates and you'll kick it in a circle. It's incredibly tricky at first, the timing needing to be perfect, and the bailing failure frequent. But then, it clicks. It makes sense. And then it's sheer, crazed bliss. Get enough air and you can pull off the most astonishing moves, and not because you pressed X, but because you moved your foot at the exact right moment to be that awesome. It puts you completely in control, removing the automated cheatery of all action gaming. As you see yourself descending, fast approaching the half-pipe's wooden surface, make sure the board has rotated until it's grip tape up, pointing forward, and let go. And you land it, and you feel like a god.
Now factor in how gob-smackingly beautiful it is. The whole game looks really lovely (but for the character faces - the curse of the Xbox has struck the skating crew, and especially poor old Hawk who looks like an anaemic zombie). The world textures are as detailed and pretty as can be. Except no, it can be that bit prettier, in Nail The Dew Mode. Zoomed in, the world behind is Vaseline-bleary, sight focused on the explicit detail of your board, flakes of wood splintering from the edge, the sponsor logo on the wheels spinning, the grip tape tangible, all shining majestically in the light. It's skateboard porn.
What more can I say?
The Live aspect is less overwhelming, offering mini-games, rather than my mad desire for Test Drive Unlimited on skateboards. Perhaps that's for the next iteration - are you listening, Neversoft? More entertaining is the sharing of records across the world, where each in-game challenge is recorded, meaning you can attempt to beat the best grind distance of not only the designers' whim, but also some weird kid in Texas.
A fool would see this as more of the same Tony Hawk skating. It's the perfection of Tony Hawk skating. It's ridiculously big, completely lovely looking, and perfect arcade gaming. It's ideal for filling a quick half hour, which then mysteriously lasts until quarter to four in the morning when you've got loads of work to do the next day, but you had to wall-plant that table from the school buses because it would open up the Slums, which would then give you access to the incredible factory, see? Quarter to four in the morning - it's been so long since a game did that to me.
Oh, and the authenticity argument: No, of course it's not. But yet, while exaggerated and impossible, it's all executed properly. Every wobble, every turn, all motion-captured. The ragdoll on the bails is barking mad, even allowing you to augment its lunacy by extending the skeleton-destroying impacts, but that just makes the boring bit - falling off your skateboard - more fun. So hurrah! And as a final test, I got my friend Jo who runs a charity youth skate park to check it out (www.one-eighty.org.uk plug plug). She said, "You can't ollie a vert at that speed!" or something, but then wouldn't give me the controller back for the rest of the evening. Which is about as strong a recommendation as I'm able to offer.
9 / 10