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Tony Hawk's Proving Ground


The Tony Hawk series has been a fruitful one for Activision. Itís spawned ten titles since the days of the Nintendo 64 and has dominated the genre until Skate was released recently. While American Wasteland was moderately popular in the early days of the Xbox 360, last yearís Project 8 was disappointing to say the least. In this yearís version, Neversoft took more of a career oriented, role playing path to try and attract skaters that left the series for Skate.

The presentation is highly stylistic, but the videos / in-game clips needed more polish on the graphical end. With recorded clips from tons of professional skaters as well as their digital counterparts, the game relies on a bevy of material to push along the narrative, which follows an unknown skaterís rise to the top. Unfortunately this method of presenting really does wrap the player into a strange sense of commercialism, typically not found in the sport of skateboarding. While the rise to fame is certainly an imitation of life, you almost feel like a sellout playing the title, especially if you have a pure love of skating. The feeling it invokes is very much the opposite of Tony Hawk: American Wasteland.

Gameplay

At the start of the game, you jump directly into the create-a-character mode to start your career. The number of customization options is fairly standard and I found the facial options to be a bit limited. Of course, any game that lets me walk around looking like the Incredible Hulkís rebellious son is ok in my book. I tinted my skin a lovely shade of green, donned the purple cargo pants and turned my hair into a hot pink nightmare. Despite my best attempt at customizing a freakish monster boy, the characters in the game still treated me like a normal human being. Oh, well.

In terms of locale, the game is all about East Coast skating. During the story, the player will travel between Philadelphia, Baltimore, and our nationís capitol, Washington D.C. The cities are somewhat representative of their real counterparts, with the exception of almost no traffic. As Philly loads up for the first time, Tony introduces you to the basics of the game, very much Skating 101. After you nail your first trick session (and each subsequent one), money and points will be awarded to your character. This is where the limited role player elements start to seem into the game.

In Proving Ground, you can not only customize your characterís equipment, but also their skill set. Each challenge you complete will increase specific attributes on your skater. Expanded skills can eventually be purchased in the skills menu after you have accumulated enough points. For instance, you will be able to increase the accuracy for speed pushing and eventually unlock a bonus multiplier. The skills are targeted toward the type of skater you wish to be. If you want to become a hardcore skater, spend skill points on speed and agro kicks. If you want to become a career skater, spend points on landing flips and grinding rails. While many of the skills compliment separate paths, you will have a limited amount of points to spend early in the game.

The final career path is uses the build tool to modify the surrounding landscape at any point in the game. As a Rigger, you have to setup ramps, rails, or pretty much anything to accomplish goals like taking pictures or hitting distance marks. Unfortunately, the execution is very time consuming and often doesnít work well with the structure of the gameplay. For instance, manually taking pictures while in the middle of a trick is terribly designed and doesnít make a lick of sense. Why to I have to take a snapshot in the middle of my kickflip if Iím the one on the skateboard? Canít one of the cheering fans work a darn digital camera? Rigging also doesnít work well for timed challenges. How in the world am I supposed to create several grinding rails and perform the trick before the time runs out?

To perform some of the more complicated tricks, Neversoft included the Nail-the-Trick mode from Project 8. It kicks in when the player clicks the thumbsticks simultaneously and also allows for bigger air. The camera only shows the lower half of the skaterís body and itís very easy to correct the position of the board before landing. Itís also apparent when you are completely out of control and the game zips back into real-time to accent your collapse. The best way to utilize Nail-the-Trick mode is to enter the mode early and zip back out to hit some automatic flips.

One aspect of the game that I didnít care for was the hard to read graffiti written on the ground for the tricks. Additionally, there is no indicator for nearby tricks unless they are tied into the story or skill development somehow. While I like having to explore the landscape for trick markers, any beacon would have helped when looking to improve my skills. One hidden feature that I loved was the throwback to the old school Tony Hawk games in the form of Arcade machines littered around the cities. You can hop right into the game and perform all the old challenges like spelling Skate or grinding a specific spot. Itís an excellent diversion when wanting a break from the simulation style of play.

I found the multiplayer to only be accessible to Tony Hawk experts. The level of competition is far too high for anyone new to the series. Too often, I was connected with experts that skated circles around me and busted out several hundred thousand points easily. Neversoft included familiar modes like Horse, but also offered a custom option that I enjoyed called Skate the Line. Basically, you create a line for your opponent to skate. It can be incredibly complicated and often fun to watch people trying to pull it off. As far as matches were concerned, the game performed well in multiplayer and the lag was always minimal.

The achievements are perhaps slightly easier than Project 8, but still offer an enormously difficult challenge to complete all the tasks. This set of achievements may appeal to hardcore fans of the series, but it tremendously alienates casual gamers. Scoring Sick rankings of all tasks, finishing all the episodes, or trying to play 1000 games online sets the bar far too high for folks wanting an immediate reward for their efforts. It took me five hours of play time before I unlocked my first 15 point achievement. Overall, the set is insanely challenging and offers little reward to folks that have limited time to play each day.

Graphics

The graphics engine is solid, but you can immediately tell itís not pushing the Xbox 360ís full capabilities and more typical of a port across systems. There are an enormous variety of clipping problems with the character model and the animations are very stiff. The environmental layout is definitely eye catching though. The cities, while somewhat barren, are filled with high rises, graffiti filled walls, wandering pedestrians and moving train cars. Each city has a distinct appeal and aesthetic as well. The framerate is rock solid and the load times are tolerable.

Audio

The soundtrack for Proving Ground is certainly the absolute best quality the audio has going for it. You will hear music from Beastie Boys, Jurrasic 5, The Stones, The Sex Pistols, Nirvana, The Clash, Foo Fighters, and Smashing Pumpkins just to name a few. The 40+ bands will delight your ears with mostly hard alternative rock as you cruise through the three cities. While I certainly commend Neversoft for getting the professional skaters record voice work, many of these guys canít deliver a line to save their life. After years of titles, even Tony still canít convincingly speak his own material. Unfortunately, I think we have all gotten used to the horrific mediocrity. The sound effects work well in the title and are on par to the previous games in the series.

Conclusion

Despite the vast variety of gameplay features to explore in Tony Hawk: Proving Ground, I found myself wanting a less skill-specific, more rewarding experience. The controls were too unforgiving and the difficulty was set far too high in many cases. Itís a frustrating title that doesnít give you any breaks in single or multiplayer. Iím not sure if Neversoft really knows what direction to take the Tony Hawk series into. Proving Ground almost seems like a collection of great ideas thrown together from a brainstorming session, but the execution wasnít cohesive. Tony Hawkís Proving Ground is worth a rental, but casual gamers should beware of the oppressive difficulty.