Tony Hawk's Proving Ground (PS3)
Tony Hawk has been skating solo across the screens of gamers for so many years now that when EA's Skate landed in our consoles earlier this year, it completely blindsided us. Skate, with its accent on real-world physics and novel control scheme, blew many of us away. So, now that a skate war has erupted, how does Activison fire back? Tony Hawk's Proving Ground -- the ninth in the lengthy gaming career of Tony Hawk -- doesn't attempt to reinvent the skateboard. It feels very familiar right out of the box, but it does toss longtime fans of the series a few new toys to play with.
While Skate takes far more of a sim approach to the world of skating, Proving Ground attempts -- in its own small way -- to make things more realistic. In last year's Project 8, your goal was to move up the hierarchy of skaters from number 200 up to a spot in the elite eight. It was a goofy enough premise, made only goofier by the arbitrary way you moved up the ladder: You'd do a flipkick in some suburban backyard swimming pool and then get a message saying that now you're at #193.
In Proving Ground, your progression is a bit truer to life -- it's a lot more open-ended, and it allows you to choose the type of skater you want to be and learn the skills you want to learn. There are three paths you can take. If you decide to be a Career skater, your goal is fame, money, and recognition. If you're a Hardcore skater, you play by your own rules and don't care what anyone else thinks. If you're a Rigger, you're into designing the most screwed up tricks imaginable and then landing them. Each path has its own specialty moves that you'll learn.
Early on, you'll be able to dabble in all three styles, which is cool because it allows you to learn the basics of the different paths and acquire some nifty skills. Eventually, when you have to spend talent points to advance, you'll need to focus more on the type of skating you want to do. The system creates a lot of freedom, as you can pick and choose when -- and if -- you want to bother learning different tricks.
That said, the tricks you do learn will put smiles on the faces of longtime Hawk players. The size of that smile, though, will depend on what tricks you're talking about. Big-smile tricks include the new Nail-the-Grab. In the Career path, you'll not only unlock the slo-mo Nail-the-Trick feature from Project 8, but you'll also have the chance to learn the Nail-a-Grab. When you're in the air, hit both sticks to get into the Nail-the-Trick mode. Then hit L2 to get you into the grab mode where each of the sticks controls one of your hands. It takes some getting used to. We didn't find it as user-friendly as the Nail-the-Trick, but then again, we've been doing the Nail-the-Trick thing for about a year.
Smaller smiles will come from a couple of features from the Hardcore path. To get a little more speed on the ground, you can use the new Aggro Kick. By timing the pressing of the right shoulder button with the movement of your skater's leg, you can get an extra-powerful push-off. It's a cool idea that you'll find yourself using often. There's no quicker way to get your speed back up after a bail than by a few well-timed Aggro Kicks. A drawback for the PS3 is the lack of vibration. We found the timing was easier to get down on the 360 than it was on the PS3; on Microsoft's machine, when you nail the timing correctly, you actually feel it.
On the plus side, as far as controls go, it was far easier for us to manual using the Sixaxis than the 360 controller. Things just seem tighter. Another advantage to PS3 gamers is the ability to use the movement of the Sixaxis to control your skater's balance. We found that it made a huge difference on grinding challenges.
One new feature that didn't entirely wow us was the Skate Check, which was part of the Hardcore path. Here you can slam to the ground anyone that gets in your way. It's visceral fun for a while, but gets old quickly. The build-your-own-stuff that constitutes the guts of the Rigger path we also found underwhelming. Hitting the select button tosses you into a clunky skate-park-designer-looking deal that lets you put kickers, half-pipes and whatnot anywhere you want. As you progress, you have access to cooler and cooler stuff, but we still found this path the least exciting and enjoyable.
When you're not following your career path, there are still a billion ways to keep your forward progression going. Borrowing from the deep history of the series, you can shoot for your Amateur, Pro and Sick scores in a timed run, spell S-K-A-T-E and C-O-M-B-O, and find the hidden disk. It's stuff you've been doing for years, and it's a good litmus test on how the thing compares development-wise to past releases. If you had no trouble banging out Sick scores in previous games, but could only muster Amateur scores here, it would be a telling fact. Early on, we were convinced either that development was out to kill us or that we had lost our skills when we had trouble scoring crazy numbers in a timed two-minute run. Eventually, we discovered a locale that let us get serious air and pull off some nasty transfers.
Another potential time suck is the video editor. Here, you can look at the clips of you that were recorded at the various video challenges sprinkled around and then edit them into a promo worthy of the X Games. The editor is surprisingly deep, letting you toss in effects and synch up music to your tricks. A minor complaint is that the music options don't include the tunes that play while you skate around the rest of the game. The only thing that would have made the editor even cooler would have been the option to do your video tricking to the sounds of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Foo Fighters, or the Stones.
We were really looking forward to the online game, mainly because Project 8 didn't have one. Unfortunately, it didn't impress me much. Frame rates were inconsistent and choppy. And don't think about firing up your 360 for any better results; the online game was no less choppy in that version.
So while there have been several new additions to things, this is still essentially the same Hawk we've been playing since the original PlayStation days. Sure, the technology has gotten better -- the skaters look more realistic, and the locales flow seamlessly into each other -- but at its core it's still about beating a lot of challenges to unlock new areas in which to beat challenges. One of the most telling signs of the series' lengthy teeth is that the one new mini-game -- Hawk-Man -- is merely a skate-centric version of Pac-Man. And when "innovation" is a riff on a character from 1980, you know you've hit a rut creativity-wise.
Hopefully, Skate -- while not perfect -- will light a fire under the developers at Neversoft. The Hawk series has been on cruise control for a while, and maybe some competition is exactly what's needed. Tony Hawk's Proving Ground will appease those looking for the annual Hawk-a-thon. There are a couple of new treats -- mainly the Nail-the-Grab and the Aggro Kick -- but they are simply exciting little side dishes served up alongside a reheated leftover main course.
This review is based on a retail copy of Tony Hawk's Proving Ground that was purchased by the reviewer. He no longer has the game, but he does have the receipt.