Tony Hawk's Proving Ground (Xbox 360)
If you've ever had d&eacure;jà vu of a d&eacure;jà vu that reminded you of a time that you had d&eacure;jà vu, you'll know exactly how I felt when I fired up Tony Hawk's Proving Ground. It's the ninth installment in the Hawk series, and it does what every previous version of the game has done -- thrown in a few new toys for gamers to skate with while taking them through a familiar leveling-up storyline. With EA's Skate impressing the daylights out of most gamers, this latest Hawk comes off as a paler version of its predecessors.
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 Nail-the-Grab. When you're in the air, hit both sticks to get into the Nail-the-Trick mode. Then hit the left trigger 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. We found the timing on the Aggro Kick far easier to nail in this version of the game then on the PS3. Mainly it was due to the vibration in the controller: When you hit it right, you actually feel it. The feather-light Sixaxis doesn't deliver in that department.
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 back button tosses you into a clunky skate-park-editor-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 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.
In keeping with next-gen tradition, the multiplay on the 360 game is a lot deeper than it is on the PS3. (The PS3 version of Project 8 didn't even support online play.) There's no shortage of ways to put your wheels up against a total stranger. Exclusive to Xbox Live is a Nail-the-Trick game and game called walls, in which a surreal wall keeps building up behind you the longer you can keep a combo going. Unfortunately, the online game suffers from an inconsistent frame rate. Don't look for greener pastures on Sony's side of the fence; 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.
There's definitely a been-there-manualed-that feeling to Tony Hawk's Proving Ground. In true Hawk tradition, this year's game throws a few new tricks into a very familiar mix. Some of the new features work -- like the Nail-the-Grab and the Aggro Kick -- and some don't -- like the Skate Check and the clunky rig-building idea. EA's Skate took gamers by storm and by surprise, and it will hopefully be a wake-up call to the developers at Neversoft. They owe Tony something very special for his 10th game next year.
This review is based on a retail copy of Tony Hawk's Proving Ground that was rented from the Hollywood Video near where the reviewer lives. Because he is very thorough -- and kind of a doofus -- the reviewer ended up racking up a huge late penalty. He probably should have just bought the thing in the first place. Live and learn.