In some ways, it's easy to think that skateboarding games are the new beat-em-ups. Both genres involve bizarre combinations of button presses to pull of special tricks and combos, both offer a variety of scenery and opponents, and, like the Street Fighter series at 2: Special Championship Edition, many thought that the Tony Hawk's series of games had climaxed at 4 and was now on a route to nowheredom.
How wrong they were. Tony Hawk's Project 8 has managed to reinvent the skateboarding genre in a way that Street Fighter never quite managed. The latest outing - available for any platform you can think of - changes all the things that sucked and keeps all the things that were rad. In short, this is the best skateboarding game on the face of the planet.
Gone are the crummy storylines and lame characters of the Underground series: this is a return to the old-school days of 3 and 4. You play an up and coming skater, who gets started on his pro career as Tony comes to town to form a new skateboarding team consisting of eight of the best local skateboarders (the titular Project 8). You start out at the bottom of the rankings and you have to work yourself up to the top eight by completing challenges, getting high scores, unlocking new areas of the city - all the usual things you'd expect.
These challenges are a varietous mixture. There are the Underground-esque missions, such as removing a number of posters from walls, or performing stupid tasks for stupid characters. Then there are some classic missions - collect SKATE, COMBO, the secret tape. There are also new challenges - keeping sets of crowds entertained by performing tricks in front of them, for example. Missions are doled out by characters highlighted on the map, and there are several recurring missions, too. These include performing for a photographer (tricking over set lines) and recording video footage (following a dude on a skateboard around the map pulling the tricks he calls out).
Most challenges have three levels of completion, depending on how difficult you want to play the game. One challenge illustrates this perfectly - ollying off a set of stairs, over a rail and landing, getting the perfect publicity photo. Getting Amateur on this requires a simple kickflip over the rail. Hitting Pro needs a 180 rotation and a hardflip. Getting Sick - the highest accolade - requires a 360 spin and a triple kickflip, which means perfect timing and approach. If you can nail the Sick tricks all the way through the challenges, you'll end up at number one on Tony's Project 8 team. Nail a majority of Pros, and you'll be somewhere in the top eight - stick to the Amateurs and you can expect to come close but not quite close enough.
The multiple levels of difficulty for a challenge add massive replayability - you might complete a trick on Pro, then spend another hour or more busting your ass again and again to hit the exact Sick combination. The compulsion comes from the knowledge that the Sick combo is somehow possible, if only you could work out the kinks.
You're never left cursing the controller, however, since you can expect exactly the same input configuration as in previous renditions, regardless of the platform you're playing on. On the Xbox 360, which we tested, the extra precision in the analogue sticks makes a little bit of a difference, but the rest of the experience is warmingly familiar. The PS3 offers some enhancements - with the SixAxis motion controller using the tilt function to handle balance in manuals and grinds, quite a nifty use of the feature.