Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Tony Hawk's Project 8 (PS3)

After the release of Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland in 2005, a new game known as Tony Hawk’s Project 8 came out the following year, however it would also be the first one released on the then-new PlayStation 3, as a launch title for the system. Around this time, the Pro Skater series also took more of a shift towards realism, seemingly as a way to take advantage of the next generation of hardware. While the effort put into the title was certainly ambitious, I found it rather disappointing, both on its own merits and especially in comparison to previous games in the series.

The story involves Tony Hawk setting up a new team called Project 8, which consists of the top eight skaters in the area. The player character, who in this game remains voiceless, is trying to join their team, which entails moving up the ranks (starting from #200) and acquiring sponsors. There are a number of ways to increase your rank, most often by completing challenges given to you by NPCs and pros. Other Challenges are seamlessly worked into the environment, including Spot Challenges based around various abilities and Owned Challenges that involve skating across a designated line. There are three different completion levels for each Challenge (AM, PRO, SICK), though you only need to get AM to increase your rank.

Spot Challenges are worked into the environment.

Building off of the No Loading concept introduced in American Wasteland, Project 8 features a truly seamless open world, with no loading tunnels necessary to mask the loading between levels. One new innovation is Nail the Trick, in which you can perform custom midair combos at designated spots, sometimes requiring some intricate timing to fulfill the requirements. Wallplants are now easier to pull off, as they are mapped to a single button and replace the Sticker Slap from previous entries. You can also grind on street curbs, which is a nice option, however this can backfire if you're trying to do something else in the same spot. Interestingly, while you can attempt to roll or bounce out from a bail, you can now intentionally induce a bail by pressing all four shoulder buttons at once.

The game has its own form of currency in the form of Stokens, which are used to purchase additional tricks and decks. You can earn Stokens by performing tricks in front of random onlookers, with the number of Stokens earned based on your skill level. Stokens can also be earned by locating secret spots, many of which are placed in seemingly-impossible locations that require some minor puzzle-solving skills to pull off.

While the game doesn’t have a dedicated Classic Mode, there are NPC Challenges in each area that replicate it, which are even called out as such during the transitional cutscenes. While the open world is still seamless, the play area is determined by a soft barrier that puts you right back into it without penalty if you stray away for too long. Secret Tapes return as one of the challenges within Classic Mode, however they have been modernized to Secret Discs, as VHS has been considered an obsolete technology. As for the cutscenes, there is some effort in providing a story justification like some of the other Challenges, however I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that said story never gets resolved, even if you do the bare minimum to increase your ranking.

During my playthrough, I ran into some issues, in fact a lot more than I anticipated. For starters, off-board capabilities are heavily stripped down from what you could do in American Wasteland, likely related to the change in physics engine and for the sake of an attempt at realism. Tying into this, while I did appreciate the attempt at using more realistic sounds for grinding on different surfaces, the sound for grinding on rails now sounds like the cartoon sound effect for someone drinking through a straw. Additionally, while going into Focus zooms in and distorts background noise as it did previously, this ends up making handclaps sound like popping bubbles.

On the more technical side of things, the ragdoll physics employed in this game can lead to some funny shenanigans, though they are more often than not frustrating or questionable. Though the loading times are reduced with a greater draw distance, I still managed to reach part of the gymnasium in the School area before it finished loading, causing me to bounce off of it like it was a wall. The Compass is also reintroduced as a way to help navigate the open world, however it is largely unhelpful since most of the goal markers are just color-coded triangles that are difficult to differentiate at a glance.

The biggest issue I had with the game, however, was the camera placement in relation to the skater, which now is so close that it actually reduces the field of view and can come as a shock if you had just played any of the PS2-era games. This camera choice actually led to a bout of motion sickness at one point during my playthrough, something that rarely ever happens to me while gaming outside of more intense VR sessions. As a result, this, coupled with my eventual boredom with the game, led me to try and complete it as fast as I possibly could just to get it over with. After finally getting into Project 8, ending up at #7, I stopped there since there isn’t any real motivation to become #1 aside from bragging rights and there isn’t any special reward for doing so either.

You'll feel something alright...

While the compass isn’t that helpful a lot of the time, one thing that does make things a whole lot easier is the ability to turn off the camera inversion, allowing for far smoother and less awkward skating. I also liked the small detail that the soundtrack will run continuously in the background and during loading screens, but with the exception of cutscenes, providing more seamless ambience. One other small detail I found interesting was that Eric Sparrow makes a return as one of the Project 8 contestants, however he doesn’t appear in person and he’s on the lower end of the rankings.

As a launch title for the PS3 in the US, the general age of the graphics is pretty excusable, though they are otherwise fairly decent and a step up from American Wasteland in terms of capturing realism. As a result, however, the art direction feels a bit generic and doesn’t do much to stand apart from preceding entries. That said, it is interesting how they try to make the world feel larger, though the Classic Mode Challenges only serve to remind you how condensed they actually are. Throughout the world, though, I noticed clear product placement for Nokia, Powerade and Jeep. While the Powerade placement is more subtle, a Nokia N93 is explicitly used to deliver messages, which have now gone from simple texts to video messages that often feature sponsor and pro videos. As for Jeep, there’s one area of the game that’s literally a Jeep factory, though aside from the visuals the game doesn’t really call attention to this.

The open world feels large and yet still small.

In spite of the soundtrack containing 56 songs from a variety of different genres, I found it underwhelming in terms of its staying power compared to the previous games, including American Wasteland. That doesn’t mean the songs are bad, however, as I still managed to find a number of tracks that stood out to me, including “Hemlock” by Aurelius, “Social Suicide” by Bad Religion, “Anthem of the Prodigal Son” by Die Young TX, “Gone Daddy Gone / I Just Want to Make Love to You” by Gnarls Barkley; “80 on 80” by Legitimate Business, “Optimo” by Liquid Liquid, “Moving at the Speed of Light (feat. Aesop, Slug)” by Living Legends, “Stigmata” by Ministry, “Glasgow Mega-Snake” by Mogwai, “In This Legacy” by Monty Are I, “Getting Smaller” by Nine Inch Nails, “Lycanthrope” by +44, “American Life” by Primus, “I Wanna Live” by The Ramones, “Angel of Death” by Slayer, “Plastic Passion” by The Cure, “Gravity’s Rainbow” by the Klaxons, “You’re Not the Only One” by The Throwaways, “Ice  Cream Headache” by The Thunderbolts, “Smack” by Ugly Duckling” and “Do What Your Daddy Say” by Voltera. Rather notably, “Angel of Death” by former thrash metal band Slayer is presented in this game completely uncensored, as it should be, which is big considering the song’s Holocaust-inspired subject matter often caused it to be censored even when performed live.

On another note, I will admit that while “Punk Rock Girl” by Dead Milkmen isn’t a bad song on its own, I overexposed myself to the song on an earlier playthrough when the game first came out and never quite recovered from it. In games where I can manipulate the playlist, I usually leave on even the songs I don’t like as much so I can have the full experience, however my personal experience with this particular song in this particular game made it the only exception. This song did, however, still play anyway during a Pro Challenge(s) involving Lyn-Z Adams, as it is the song used for her pro footage, though once the Challenge was over the song remained turned off.

In an effort to take advantage of the PS3’s capabilities, Tony Hawk’s Project 8 takes one step forward for the franchise and two steps back. While there are some interesting ideas and some things are still done well, the overall execution is a bit mediocre, or as the kids say, “meh”. The efforts to make the game more realistic also end up sort of taking away from the unique voice that made previous games so beloved, which even American Wasteland still tried to retain with its punk atmosphere. This game is personally harder to recommend even to Pro Skater fans, especially when you factor in the potential for it to induce motion sickness on the player. That isn’t to say someone out there might still enjoy Project 8 since it isn’t outright terrible, I’m just not one of those people.

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