Want to know what's new about Tony Hawk's Project 8, the latest game in Activision and Neversoft's long-running skate series? OK, fine. Just about everything. That's not to say that the same basic ideas that founded the series are history, but many of the core systems and routines that have powered the game for years have been rebuilt from the ground up in order to better take advantage of modern console hardware. Representatives from Activision and Neversoft recently dropped by the GameSpot offices with an early version of the game running on an Xbox 360, and so far, the differences appear to be really interesting.
The premise of the game moves it away from the more rigid, story-driven path of the last few Tony Hawk games and, in a way, returns it to the open-ended, thick-with-goals feel of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4. In the game, Tony Hawk is looking to put together a roster of the top eight amateur skaters in the world. Hence, Project 8. You play as a rank-200 nobody who has to claw his or her way up to the top eight.
The first step is to create a skater. The creation system is undergoing some changes this year and will have you select a "style" for your skater before you start putting on pants and shirts. Some of the styles will include punk and hip-hop, and there will also be styles that allow for female and kid skaters. You'll start out in a relatively small section of the world, but as you complete tasks, more sections open up. This is sort of similar to how Tony Hawk's American Wasteland attempted to deliver a seamless version of Los Angeles, but Project 8 will do it without resorting to small tunnels that connect the areas and mask the load times. It sounds like there will be around 12 different areas that will open up as you progress through the game.
Just about anything you do has an impact on your overall rank. There are plenty of goals scattered throughout the world, and as you'd expect, they cover a wide variety of skate tricks, point goals, and so on. If you encounter a photographer, you can take on a photo goal, in which you perform a specific task while in range of the photographer. There are also film goals, whereby a guy with a camera will skate ahead of you, and you must follow while executing specific tricks. There will be some puzzling goals that'll force you to move objects around to create a skate line. You'll move objects using something similar to the park creator found in previous installments in the game, rather than having to skate up to things and push them around. Chalk challenge goals are skate lines that you have to combo on to succeed. The game keeps track of how messed up you get when you bail, too, setting up a bail challenge goal whereby you pass the goal by breaking a set number of bones and racking up a significant hospital bill in the process.
Classic mode is a concept that has appeared in the past couple of Tony Hawk games, and it's designed to take things back to the old days, when you had a two-minute run timer and a slew of goals to complete. Classic mode returns in Project 8, but in an entirely different way. Now, you'll skate up to a pedestrian, trigger the classic mode goal, and all of a sudden, nine or 10 goals will be rattled off. A segment of the world will be walled off with cool-looking force fields, and you're essentially playing a new-style take on the old Tony Hawk goal system. What's more, if you want to truly master these classic mode goals, you'll have to accomplish every single task in one two-minute run.
While all of these goals are fine and good, it's the "nail the trick" goal type that'll really blow your mind. In the one we saw, Rodney Mullen showed up and asked us to perform a specific trick. But here's the difference. The nail the trick mode uses an entirely different control system. When you get in the air, things slow down a bit and the camera swivels around to show a clean view of the board and your skater's feet. Each analog stick controls a foot, from the sounds of things, and pushing in different directions causes the board to flip and spin in different directions, essentially letting you pull off your own tricks. The cleaner your direction taps are, the faster the board will spin, rewarding players for clean, methodical actions instead of just letting you jerk the sticks around and hope for the best.
In addition to using the new slow-motion, foot-control mode for nail the trick goals, you can drop in to this mode at any time by pushing in on both analog sticks. Since it sounds like this will be a key new feature for the series, it sounds like you'll want to use the analog stick at all times for control, which will sound immediately counterintuitive to anyone who's been playing Tony Hawk games for a long time. But this year, Neversoft is putting in work on the analog control to make sure that it responds with the same level of precision that fans of the series are used to.
Catering to existing fans while simultaneously trying to rope in new ones has proven to be a bit difficult for the Tony Hawk series as of late. Project 8 hopes to address this by removing the separate difficulty settings as a choice made at the very beginning of the game, and instead giving almost every goal in the game three distinct difficulty levels. So the basic player should be able to complete a goal's amateur requirements, while more advanced players will be able to step things up and keep going, completing goals on pro and sick. In goals like the film goal, the difference manifests itself in the number of tricks you have to complete before time runs out. Score goals ratchet up, and chalk challenges get downright ridiculous. If you only complete goals at the amateur level, you'll make it into the top eight, but pro and sick completion levels will take you all the way to the top. In addition to this, the game will have online leaderboards for its various challenges, letting you compare your scores and times directly with other online players.
In addition to completing goals, you'll also want to unlock stuff. Unlocks are managed with a currency system called stokens. If you skate near pedestrians and skate well, they'll get stoked and give up some stokens as a reward. But if you slam into them, they might get angry, chase you down, knock you over, and steal some stokens. You'll be able to buy new tricks, among other things, including access to the game's raw motion-capture data, letting you watch a computer representation of how the pro skaters do their tricks.
Visually, Tony Hawk's Project 8 certainly looks a lot better than previous Tony Hawk games. As the first game in the series being built with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in mind, the developers are rebuilding the entire animation system, which should allow for more realistic-looking balancing acts on grinds, better-looking twisting animations when you go to pull off spins, and so on. The environments we saw looked pretty crisp, though keep in mind that this was an early, unfinished version of the game, so it still needs some particle effects and some frame rate optimization. We were shown the Xbox 360 version of the game, but Tony Hawk's Project 8 is also being developed on the PlayStation 3.
All in all, Tony Hawk's Project 8 is using the same "mix the old with the new" mentality that's driven the series all along. The difference is that there appears to be a lot more "new" in there than we're used to seeing, and the development team hasn't even really started talking about its plans for the online side of the game yet. It'll be very interesting to see how the final product comes together when it's released later this year.