I find it hard to believe that when the developers of the Tony Hawk franchise first sat down and came up with the idea that it would spawn eight sequels in as many years. But here we are; another year and another collection of sick goals and ridiculous trick lines drops onto the current crop of consoles like a familiar relative visiting for the holidays. It’s true we all love the simplicity of the series, not to mention just how much enjoyment we get from nailing the incredibly unrealistic combos, but you can’t help but feel that the series needs something fresh and inventive to once again rise to the top.
Proving Ground takes the groundwork laid down by Project 8 and adds some new ideas; some good and some not so much. For starters the amazingly user-friendly controls are still here and feel more solid than ever, even with the Xbox 360′s dodgy d-pad. The beauty of this system is that it allows just about anyone feel like a pro immediately upon picking up the sticks. Proving Ground sticks with the formula of giving you access to the simple things first while requiring you to slowly increase your skills by completing objectives, but for long-time veterans of the series this feels restricting and almost punishing as some of the cooler aspects are not available from the outset.
Instead of having one main story arc this time though Neversoft has crafted three unique paths that you can dabble in at your leisure. No more annoying goals that have to be completed to progress thus opening up the game to the freedom promised in the past few outings. These are broken down into what the game declares as “lifestyles” and as I mentioned you can choose what you want to do when you want to do it. The first lifestyle is the career path where you will learn the basics of skating as well as shooting videos and trying to get sponsored. The second is the hardcore path where you will learn the art of mowing down pedestrians in addition to some other dirty tricks. The final path is known as the riggers path and this is where one of Proving Ground’s coolest new features comes into play.
In this path you can literally place objects anywhere in the game world to perform tricks. Think of it as a giant sandbox at your disposal. There are of course some hindrances with this mode that keep it from obtaining classic status. For starters the interface is clunky which usually defaults to more frustration than gratification. However, the biggest problem with this entire scheme is that most of the goals that use this feature simply are not any fun. They are dominantly made up of laying a kick box down in front of a vehicle or simply stringing together long rails in order to get from point A to point B. Sadly you can see the potential in this new feature set, unfortunately as it stands it feels more like a tacked on feature.
Of course these three lifestyles are only the tip of the iceberg as Proving Ground is also home to those classic goals and challenges that fans of the series were raised on. These challenges are once again broken down into three separate categories: AM (amateur), Pro, and Sick. The difference in Proving Ground is that outside of earning some Achievements in the 360 version and of course bragging rights there really is no benefit to completing these at the higher difficulties. Your progression isn’t hindered in any way outside of earning a few less dollars in the process.
The world of Proving Ground is also part of the overall dilemma. There are three total cities and each one is connected via a bridge similar to Rockstar’s GTA series. Consequently the areas can also feel constricted like the aforementioned crime simulator with tons of pedestrians, narrow side streets, and an abundance of objects strewn about the world. The ability to warp from location to location is also sadly absent forcing you to manually traverse from one goal to the next which, at times, can take what seems like forever. Couple this with the fact that the goal arrow simply points in the direction of the goal and not necessarily the correct path to get there and the transit system becomes more of a chore than it should.
All is not lost in the land of the Birdman though as THPG does manage to deliver on many levels. One of the high points is the video editor. Not unlike the ones recently found in EA’s skate and of course Bungie’s Halo 3 THPG gives players the ability to record clips and add different layers of effects and camera angles for dramatic effect. You can also overlay the clip with any of the songs found in the game to personalize your video. The only downside is that you cannot upload and share these with your friends which is both perplexing and disappointing given the fact that the aforementioned skate offers it. Thankfully the editor in THPG is much more robust and user-friendly than most games and it really adds a nice touch to the overall package.
Another cool new feature in this year’s game is the Skate Lounge. Think of this as your own personal skate park that you customize to your style. As you progress through the story you will earn money and parts to trick out your lounge, which can be placed anywhere you want. While the idea of having your own area to skate and customize to your liking it really isn’t a necessity to the core game and serves more as a diversion from the main experience. But it does become addictive trying to obtain all the parts and items for it.
As with any game in the series once you are finished shredding alone you can take the action online and skate with up to seven of your closest friends. The best part about the Tony Hawk games online is that the lobby is basically a free skate zone until the host chooses a match type, great for just toying around with friends and trying out new combos and lines with others. The traditional modes all return and creating a game is as easy as ever, but connection issues were apparent when more than four to five skaters entered a room. Connection problems aside the online mode is as robust as always with the ability to shred in your custom parks, enter one-on-one challenges, or simply showing off your mad skills in a high-score challenge. Bottom line is that even online this game retains its enjoyment.
As a card carrying member of the AV club Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground would certainly earn a passing grade. While not the best looking game on the market, and not quite as slick as its recent competition, THPG manages to retain the look and feel that fans of the series have come to expect. Over the top physics and ragdoll effects still look painful and the trademark animation system still looks great. Character models and facial animations leave a bit to be desired, but the design of the city is great with solid textures and a rock solid frame rate across both platforms. The soundtrack is once again makes a solid appearance with the likes of Nirvana, The Sex Pistols, and one of my personal favorites the new track from Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters. The voice overs are great as always but some of the side characters will wear on your nerves quickly.
When all is said and done Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground is a great game; albeit a game in desperate need of a reboot. The series is still fun but it hasn’t evolved in such a long time that it is starting to show it’s age. If you are a fan of the series there is no reason to miss this chapter as it does add plenty to keep fans occupied for quite a long time, but if you have never been on the TH bandwagon Proving Ground is going to do little to change your mind. Neversoft I think it’s time to give the Birdman a vacation and come back strong for the ten year anniversary of this amazing franchise, trust me he deserves it.