If I had a dollar for every Tony Hawk game I have ever reviewed-well I would be able to afford many an extra value meal. Whether on console or handheld the Tony Hawk games have seen more action than most ten franchises combined and for good reason, they are solid games. Last year Vicarious Visions took a different approach with the portable iteration of the game basing it more on the downhill antics of its Wii brethren, but for 2007 the team goes back to its roots for what is, quite possibly, the best handheld Tony Hawk game yet-no seriously.
The first change to this year’s outing is the visuals. Unlike previous installments Vicarious has managed to siphon some hidden resources from Nintendo’s pint-sized system. Textures are gritty, skaters sport great animation, and the park design could rival some of the original console versions. It is also worth noting that the game packs some impressive video clips, albeit short, and licensed music featuring your favorite skate-rock tunes from bands such as the Foo Fighters and Nirvana. The music sounds surprisingly decent coming from the DS’ tiny speaker system, but as with any game on the system the use of headphones is pretty much required.
The visuals aren’t the only thing changing in Proving Ground. Ditching last year’s cel-shaded racing extravaganza Vicarious Visions has went back to the tried and true mechanic that the game’s big brother has built upon over the years. Think back to American Sk8land and you get the idea. The world is free-roaming and tricks and challenges are broken down into three categories just like the console versions. You can progress through the game simply by completing the Amateur ranked challenges, but if you want to earn bragging rights the game offers Sick scores that could literally take hours to complete, which adds a nice bit of replay value.
The Tony Hawk system isn’t broken so the developers obviously didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Chaining combos together and creating sick scores are the foundation of the franchise and Proving Ground is no different. You control your boarder with the d-pad and each face button corresponds with a different action. Ollie off a half-pipe, perform some grabs and kick flips, land with a revert and top it off with a sick manual. Any fan of the series knows what I am talking about when I describe this line and with Proving Ground it has never been more fun to control these actions on a handheld system.
Outside of the buttons and d-pad what DS game is complete with a little touching? In Proving Ground you use the DS’ touch screen to perform special moves, activate slow-motion and of all things throwing a temper tantrum. Special tricks should be familiar to fans of the series and are still as flashy as ever. The slow-mo is used as a sort of focus mode enabling you to perform more tricks before landing. The temper tantrum action is sort of a mini-game that you learn early on. Basically if you find yourself about to bail a massive point trick enable the tantrum and finish the mini-game to keep your score. While this is far from how skating works in real life, it is actually quite compelling to watch.
There is of course a story mode in THPG and if you have played any recent version of the game the stakes are pretty much the same here. Scattered throughout each level are various pros that will give you challenges. Completing these challenges opens up new skate parks and of course new pros to offer challenges. The new aspect to the formula comes from the fact that the game actually differentiates between career skaters and the more independent brand. Learning moves from different styles actually gives your skater their own personal feel, thus creating a nice customization aspect.
If you want to ignore the story mode the choice is yours. THPG offers the typical modes found in any game in the franchise. This classic timed mode is standard stuff if you have ever played a game in this series. You get two minutes to complete as many goals as possible such as collecting the letters S-K-A-T-E and of course the various high-score runs. Everything works as it should and it is obvious the developers did little to change the formula. This is probably our biggest gripe with the series, nothing feels fresh and innovative. Sure the game is solid, the problems fixed, but when will Mr. Hawk and company finally get the makeover they deserve?
Much like the rest of the game the online component has also been tweaked a bit for Proving Ground. As opposed to American Sk8land, PG now offers up to four players online complete with voice chat. Of course this being a Nintendo system it will require those annoying friend codes, but for what it does, it does well. Just like before you can also link your cartridge to the world wide web and show off your ranks, swap clothing designs and of course brag about your leaderboard position. Overall Proving Ground maintains the exceptional quality of past games when it comes to online features and to this day remains the poster child for the DS’ online functionality.
When all is said and done THPG is a great game, it’s just not going to knock your socks off if you have played previous incarnations. Vicarious Visions seems content with simply improving the game as opposed to completely re-writing the formula. The series is in desperate need of a reboot, but with games of this quality it is hard to complain and it is certainly worth your time and money if you are a fan. If you loved the previous outings Proving Ground will not disappoint, but don’t be surprised when you get that “been there, done that” vibe while playing.