Jackson Pollock was once asked how he knew when he was finished with a painting. His reply was another question: “How do you know when you’re finished making love?” By that measure, the Tony Hawk series is a tantric master who refuses to say “when”. Rather than reinvent the series, each successive title has continually pushed it higher, farther, and faster than before.
[image1]As the video game equivalent of the Winchester Mansion, the Tony Hawk games continue to add more and more features to each new title. For all its many additions over the years, few elements have ever been taken away. New techniques get grafted onto old ones; environments get bigger and bigger; and new customizations become available. Like waiting for a stack of building blocks to fall, I keep waiting to hear the loud crash of the Tony Hawk series finally smacking the pavement in a bloody mess.
While Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground piles more to the growing stack of gameplay elements, it does not all come crashing down. And though it doesn’t radically change the core gameplay as old as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, it brings enough new features and techniques to keep the whole franchise alive for at least another year. The heart of the game is still all about combining superhuman skating techniques seamlessly. Building directly from the framework of Project 8, Proving Ground tweaks last year’s predecessor just enough to keep things interesting.
There are a handful of new techniques this time around, but for my money, it’s the upgrades to Project 8’s “Nail the Trick” mode that shine brightest in Proving Ground. In “Nail the Trick”, you are able to enter a slow-motion trick mode that lets you flip your board in different directions using just the analog sticks. Now in Proving Ground, you can “Nail the Grab” and “Nail the Manual”. Just as in “Nail the Trick”, you enter a slow-motion mode and use a combination of analog sticks and shoulder buttons to grab, tweak, manual, flip, and twist your skater and your board. If I had my druthers, I’d have made the entire game out of these analog-centric “Nail the” techniques—but EA already beat me to the punch with Skate.
Most of your time in the game will be spent hunting down the next task in a given storyline. There’s no single overarching storyline as there have been in Tony Hawk games past; instead, you pick and choose tasks from among three different game types: Career, Rigger, and Hardcore. Career tasks satisfy your inner celebrity by doing photo shoots, organizing video sessions, and entering competitions. Rigger tasks satisfy your inner geek (and try your patience) by asking you to build custom course layouts. And Hardcore tasks appeal to your inner street punk by having you do tricks over, through, under, and in just about everything. Being able to follow any of these three threads at any time opens the game up, but having to watch the obnoxious cut-scenes and live-action videos that introduce each new sub-plot gets old fast.
[image2]Additionally, many types of tasks have about as much to do with skating as scrubbing a walrus. Photo shoots in the Career storyline often demand that you set up the shot as much as the tricks. Arranging the camera position and snapping a photo at the right moment can be frustrating and an unnecessary handful on the controller. Most other Career tasks, though, are reminiscent of the best that the series has to offer. In the Hardcore storyline, the tasks are much more geared towards walking, climbing, and racing than skating, returning us to the dark days of the Underground series which I had hoped Neversoft had left well behind them.
Worst of all, though, the new Rigger storyline forces you to build custom trick lines using a variety of homemade skating equipment – quarter pipes, rails, etc. Not only is it strange that the game forces you to do something that had always been an optional (and maddeningly time-consuming) task in prior games, but the controls for laying out the lines are clunky and slow. There’s a reason why courses are designed by professional game designers and not gamers.
A minor annoyance is the game’s skill development system. Skills develop according to how you use them (much like in certain RPGs), and you spend skill points on skill-related bonuses—like unlocking more techniques. This in itself isn’t a bad idea, but many of the game’s earliest tasks are only possible to complete at the lowest ranking (“Am”) until your skills grow. This means that if you’re looking for a higher ranking (“Pro” or “Sick”) for a given event, you’ll probably have to return to that event later in the game. Even worse, you gain nothing but personal satisfaction and a couple measly bucks for completing an event at higher levels of difficulty. We want some substantial goods for all of our hard work, like, say, an unlockable ability to spit on lesser skaters.
A slightly larger annoyance is the cluttered course design. There’s simply too many objects to skate on. If I blindly ollie anywhere in the world, I will likely land in a rail slide. I would rather have much fewer and cleaner lines than a lot of jumbled, packed-in objects, which makes combos too easy to build. Long gone are the days of finding the best combo lines. There’s no motivation to explore the world and rip in some forgotten corner of the city where you’ve found the ideal mix of rail, pipe, and flats. In a word, the game world is boring.
[image3]Multiplayer content remains virtually untouched from Project 8, but PS3 owners will be happy to find that they can finally play online, too. Graphics have never been a strongpoint in the series, and the same is true here, but frame-rates are fairly steady on both 360 and PS3. The music is a mostly forgettable blend of hip-hop, punk, and rock. It’s painfully obvious that the series has long since tapped out its musical inspiration.
Nevertheless, I spend so much time criticizing this game only because the core mechanics are so good. These have remained unchanged throughout the whole series and anyone who has mastered them will enjoy some of the new uses to which they are put this time around, especially the “Nail the…” techniques. People new to the series, however, will have much catching up to do in learning all the ins and outs of threading together combos. But if it’s been a while since you hit the pavement and picked up a Tony Hawk game, this one may be worth your time. Everyone keeps predicting Tony’s fall, and with the recent introduction of Skate, this is a very real possibility in the future. For now, Tony’s still flying, but who knows for how much longer?