Tony Hawk's Proving Ground Review
It's the holiday season, folks, and that means there's a new Tony Hawk game in stores. It's the ninth year in a row now, and at least until this year, there were very few choices available in the skateboarding genre. Tony Hawk veterans know what'll be in the box before they open it: a few new features and a couple of moves, as well as a new world for you to skate in. We know that the controls won't fundamentally change, and that the ridiculous number of moves you can pull out aren't anything close to being realistic. Yet Tony does have a pretty good following, as some fans coming back every year no matter what. The series itself has had its ups and downs ("World Destruction Tours" with way too much Bam Margera, for example) and last year's Project 8 was about as close to a high point as you can get eight years into the series, but it turns out that Tony Hawk's Proving Ground is another low point in the series.
The guys at Neversoft have been making skateboarding games with such frequency that I don't know if they actually understand what is good and bad about these games anymore. Sure, Tony is back to find some new scrub and groom him into becoming a real pro. You're stuck configuring a male character, like you have been for the last few years now, and unfortunately the ability to customize his look isn't enough to make you actually like him. The cutscenes look good overall, but most of it is just talk about being "sick" and "stoked" and all those skate terms that have evolved from "rad" and "gnarly" from back in the 80s. Please, if you play this game, understand that today's skate culture pretty much hates how it's represented in the Tony Hawk games.
The focus this year is on having three career paths, which you can eventually just build all of simultaneously: Pro, where you basically skate for points and high-scoring combos, Rigger, where you use the long-running skate editor to create new places to skate, and Hardcore, where you gain tons of speed and do really huge gaps and large single moves. The career mode is pretty strange to start, dropping you into an ugly section of Philadelphia with no real tutorial and letting you discover people to skate with.
The new moves this year round are the Aggro Kick which you've got to time on the Right Bumper to gain extra speed (it's actually really handy for building up speed for huge moves) and the Nail the Grab and Nail the Manual moves. Those last two build off of the Nail the Trick move that showed up last year, and they're fairly good additions to the series. Overall, I think that the new moves in this game are better than the few extra moves we've any of the last five years of Tony Hawk. So far, so good.
Proving Ground plays around a little bit with U.S. geography and attaches Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. into one big mega-city. With it there are nice, long sections like bridges for easy, fun lines, and lots of vertical movement. Of course, this is Tony Hawk so any low vertical wall is inexplicably curved so that you can quarter-pipe off of it, and a lot of things are designed such that you will have an easier time skating. Overall, I actually like the design more as it feels more "cluttered" and realistic, although the smashing of three cities together means you're getting 100% urban sprawl without a lot of open space to speak of.
Unfortunately, the few bits of originality don't work out like the developers planned. We get many of the same goals we've seen dozens of times along with annoying new twists. For example, for photo challenges you now have to click the right stick yourself when you're in the "target area" for a trick to take the photo. Why? I'm not the one taking the photo - some guy with the camera is! There are frustrating races where you're expected to just magically know when to hit a kicker and go up to a rooftop to hit a checkpoint, and all you've got to go by is an arrow at the top of your screen vaguely pointing to the next checkpoint. Sure, it's not quite as annoying as some goals were in the past, but I can't even imagine just how difficult Proving Ground is for someone who has never played a past game.
In a lot of ways, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground is more like an action-adventure game that happens to involve doing a lot of tricks on your skateboard. There's stat-building which you must do to become a better skater and increase your skills, and new tricks must be unlocked before you can bust them out anywhere you like. The stat building works independently of the money you'll earn (which can unlock various bits and pieces) or the amount of respect you have, and many of the plot elements and cutscenes try to focus on skating but just can't be taken very seriously. They don't really have any foundation in reality, and we get many of the same pro skaters yawning out their lines of dialogue just like in years past. It all winds up being just a little underwhelming, even if I do like the idea of actually being able to ollie higher and spin faster at the end of the game than I can at the beginning (unlike EA's skate, released last month).
The best feature from skate was most definitely the video editor where at any point in the game you could look back at your last 30 seconds of skating, do some basic edits to the footage, and make a video to upload to EA's Youtube-like site. Neversoft has done their own video editor here and it's got more features than in skate, but it's completely ruined by the fact that you have to actually go to the menu and start recording, which means if you accidentally pull off a great move or hilarious bail, too bad. Making me start the recording kills off the spontaneity of the whole video-making craze, and reduces its appeal to pretty much zero. Maybe next year Neversoft can work on this feature and make it, well, actually useful.
And the Rigger portion of the game basically takes that skatepark editor that has been in Tony Hawk for many years now and puts it into the regular game. While the developers have flirted with this in the past by having specific goals that make you place ramps and such, you can now start placing stuff anywhere in the game at any point. The Rigger goals you receive will get you going in this and eventually give you some freedom rather than force you to put this kicker here and that QP there, but overall this feature is not very exciting. I never really got into the skatepark editor in past games, and it's pretty much the same here.
Yep, you can get online with Xbox Live if you want, but if you hated the way Tony Hawk worked in the past, you won't find much different here. The biggest problem from years past is still here: people get thrown into a big area to mash tricks out, with the game giving no regard to skill level and supplying most of the same tired gameplay modes we've seen before. There's no real ranking system to speak of, no focused duels for one skater to beat another, and there are still the ridiculously long three-minute combos some players can do that make the game no fun for someone just getting into it. In the future, I think we're better off seeing a game that focuses more on more responsive controls and Nail-the-Trick-like accuracy rather than massive million-point combos that no skater could possibly do. In a word, more realism - it'd freshen up the game's career mode and would keep things much more interesting online.
From the two-minute, almost completely useless tutorial that pretty much expects you to have played Tony Hawk games before to a wide range of difficulty on many of the goals and new features that just plain suck, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground simply fails to be much fun and will definitely frustrate new players. It's like the guys at Neversoft were forced to spend all of the last year creating their three-city monstrosity and didn't have the time to put anything actually fun into the game. The new moves are good, sure, but there isn't much else new that's actually fun and the online play is the same old thing we've seen before. Neversoft and publisher Activision have got to start thinking about restarting this franchise with new controls, a new focus, and a completely reworked online mode. If they've got to skip a year to accomplish this, then by all means that's what they should do to keep this franchise alive.