Friday, 31 August 2007

Tony Hawk's Project Ate My Life!

At least, I could be saying that soon.

When I first got this game, not long after release in November 2006 - and I was immediately, I have to say, put off. I own the previous game in the series, American Wasteland, and have played most of the others, owning several.

I loved American Wasteland - it was, basically, a city - a stylised version of LA - linked together with paths that cleverly hided the loading sections by still allowing you to play, making it seem like no loading was even needed. There were numerous huge, colourful, imaginative levels to play. You could skate, walk, or BMX, with a better storyline - in my opinion, anyway, than Project 8. Basically, you've arrived in town and soon become embroiled in a quest to save a huge, iconic skatepark and it's legendary, mythic owner - the eponymous 'American Wasteland'. There's a larger cast of characters, and even a 'classic' mode that recreates the old, level-based Tony Hawk gameplay of old, where you're given a list of goals to complete with a defined timeframe. The levels for this mode - as well as a new one for American Wasteland - are revived from the other games in the series. There's also a huge number of references to skater, punk and modern culture, as well as a fistful of in-jokes from the previous games in the series.

So, they crammed Los Angeles, as well as other levels, a steller, huge soundtrack (resplendent with modern-day bands covering punk classics, as well as original tunes), all the movies and secret characters, and a stupid, almost-illegal amount of fun onto one DVD.

Then, Project 8 came along and crapped all over everything that the Hawk stood for, at least in my eyes.

It's a much more serious game, and there seems to be a raft of gameplay changes. Perhaps this is down to the development of the title - Neversoft, choosing to concentrate on the next-generation Project 8 titles, handed the creation of the PS2 version over to Shaba - a company with a fine tradition of extreme sports titles. But, it wasn't Neversoft.

Out went the free-roaming, colourful, exciting city, and in came bland mediocrity, accurate portrayals of real life. The free-roaming levels were out: instead, we get a Car Factory that appears to have been slung together based on real plans with the occasional skateable object thrown in when a designer remembered what they were getting paid for, and a down-town area that could teach an overcast sky a thing or two about grey tones.

The game's website proclaims that 'Yeah. It's that real' and promises that you'll be able to 'simulate the feeling of every trick and bail.' But, I can assure you, I didn't much care that the bails felt real when I tried to kickflip onto a rail and crunched to the ground, unable to flip into a grind like I had done in every other game of the series. For the thirty-third time, my controller was nearing being flung across the room in frustration. It's a game that requires the kind of precision that someone employed to count the grains on Venice Beach would envy. Shaba seemed to have concentrated on the realism so much - perhaps worried in the face of realistic Hawk-challenger skate. from EA, coming out next month - that they've forgotten the fun.

And, despite this, it's growing on me.

Some time through my ninety-sixth run through a ridiculously difficult spot-chase in the aforementioned, dire Car Factory level, something clicked. I was getting a little better every time I was having a go, learning and evolving with the game. In that respect, it reminds me of the genius, unequalled Pro Evolution Soccer. It's a game that requires investment. Whereas in American Wasteland you're able to, pretty much, pick up, play and enjoy, Project 8 - so named as to revolve around the plot, where Tony Hawk searches the country (conveniently turning up wherever you are) to search out the best 8 skaters - is a game that becomes more rewarding the more you play it. You're often surprised by being sponsored by a new company, and being greeted with a video of a pro-skateboarder grinding and ollieing through some urban obstacles. It's often accompanied by these world-class athletes bailing, flipping through the air, all their grace deserting with then as if thrown away by their flailing limbs. Watching these videos that reward your achievement, it's easy to see where Shaba found their inspiration.

And, in exchange for this realistic approach to the series, you lose some of the other features from the seminal selection of games. BMX-riding is out - perhaps deservedly so, because it is a skateboarding game, despite how much diverting fun the riding provided - and the free-flowing environment is gone. I don't know why. It's included in the PS3 version, and was managed - with room to spare - on the PS2. Despite my growing fondness for Project 8, this smacks of complacency on the part of Shaba.

Project 8 has been praised as a 'back-to-basics' return to the 'glory days' of The Hawk, and they're right. It's about dedication and skill, rather than fun and extravegant, unbelievable tricks. It's certainly different to American Wasteland, but not in an altogether bad way. It just provides a different challenge. Perservering, plugging away to perfects runs and button combinations, is rewarded, and the satisfactions are more spread out - but much more real, much weightier.

There's also the Nail-The-Trick mode. If anything was needed to showcase Project 8's realistic view of skateboarding, this is it. Upon ollieing, you can hammer both the L3 and R3 buttons - a realistically difficult move to pull off, fittingly, in the middle of a big combo run anyway - and the game zooms right in and slows to a crawl, focusing tight on your board. The left and right sticks control your respective feet, and you can manipulate them independentely to, literally, craft tricks out of thin air. It takes a while to get to grips with this system, as anything will in this game. Want proof? Count how many times you screw it up and are left flounding, forty feet in the air, after screwing up a simple flip. But when it works - after demanding pinpoint accuracy - it's a great system. It's like the 'focus' mode, where you press L3 and everything slows right down, enabling you to make sure you land everything - but it's rammed up to 11 to ensure you get everything done really, really well.

It's a philosophy - getting everything done really, really well, that Shaba could have turned upon themselves during the development of Project 8, sadly. It's a great game - full of challenge and reward, full of satisfaction for those who are willing to invest their time, frustration and laboured profanity in it, and full of cool videos - but it's like a sandwich without butter.

It'll leave you feeling a little bit dry.

As much as I'm determined to complete Project 8 - and I am, I really am, because it's a life-absorbing title - I'm going to have to run through American Wasteland afterwards to moisten myself again. And, as dirty as that sounds, it's true.

I want some butter in my sandwich!

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