Genre: Extreme Sports
Release Date: Fall 2007
For the ninth core release of the venerable Tony Hawk franchise, Neversoft appears to be tossing in everything but the kitchen sink — though we wouldn't be especially shocked if such an item appeared in the game's compelling new Skate Lounge mode. As expected, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground will build around the modernized core developed for last year's Tony Hawk's Project 8, but the amount of new content (in the form of features and new gameplay mechanics) is simply staggering.
We've seen the game in action a couple times over the last several weeks, and while Activision has kept the game hands-off for the time being, we're not too concerned about the gameplay. Through its seemingly endless iterations, the Tony Hawk series has played host to some iffy ideas, but the gameplay has rarely faltered. In the face of potentially stiff competition by EA's buzzworthy Skate, Proving Ground is exploring a heap of new concepts, but the question here isn't whether they'll work — it's how they'll work together.
While Proving Ground's overarching objective of turning a no-name skater into a pro is hardly new territory for the franchise, the way it goes about portraying that struggle is quite unique. Proving Ground sees skaters as falling into one of three categories: career, hardcore, or rigger. Career skaters (Tony Hawk, Ryan Sheckler) go for the limelight and magazine covers, entering competitions and raking in the dough. Hardcore skaters (Mike Vallely, Dustin Dollin) are a tough breed, skating anywhere they please and pushing aside those who get in the way. Riggers (Rodney Mullen, Vanessa Torres), dubbed by Neversoft as "creative mavericks," build their environments, modifying benches and moving objects to create (and dominate) the perfect line.
All three types will coexist in a single campaign, but players (thankfully) won't have to choose one path and stick with it. The myriad goals in Proving Ground will be spread amongst the three categories, allowing players to pick and choose their development progression and dabble in a bit of each. While specific skills and visual identifiers (scars, bling, etc.) will be tied to each type of skater, each player will have the ability to perform any of the moves or abilities in the game. How well you perform ultimately depends on how much time you put in on the corresponding path, so players must bounce between several ongoing storylines (and interact with a variety of professional skaters) to become a well-rounded skater.
Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. form the unified setting for Proving Ground's adventure, with each city connected via an underground subway system that can be freely skated. Project 8's world was a bit of a stretch, what with the 'burbs, the state capital, and an amusement park within skating distance of each other, but Proving Ground looks to pack a more realistic portrayal of the aforementioned cities, featuring familiar landmarks such as Philly's LOVE Park and the National Air and Space Museum in D.C.
Proving Ground's massive environment is said to be the largest seen in a Hawk game to date, but we're not sure that the actual campaign will be significantly larger than those included in Project 8 and other entries. Luckily, ambient goals (such as grinding a specified line) return from the last game and will still include objectives for each of the three difficulty levels. We also saw a multi-layered photo goal that has the player set up a camera (both its location and aim) and perform a trick within its view, clicking the right analog stick to take a picture at the correct moment.
While Proving Ground maintains the core controls and fluid combos that have kept the series afloat through three console generations, the developers at Neversoft have packed the title with eight (!) new gameplay mechanics that build upon previously explored concepts, as well as expand in all-new directions. Nail-the-Trick introduced a dual-analog way of performing flip tricks in Project 8, and Proving Ground looks to broaden its reach with Nail-the-Grab and Nail-the-Manual. Both work in similar ways, using the analog sticks to fully control the move in slow-motion, allowing the player to create entirely new tricks that may not be possible in the real world. Where Nail-the-Trick mapped each analog stick to a virtual foot, Nail-the-Grab links the sticks to the character's hands, while Nail-the-Manual is all about weight distribution.
Along with a new Bowl Carving mechanic comes the Aggro Kick, which gives skaters a temporary (but highly effective) speed boost to clear massive gaps. Likened to the Active Reload system in Gears of War, players must tap RB/R1 as the skater's foot is going forward to receive the maximum boost. Skaters have been able to bail off their boards to explore on foot since Tony Hawk's Underground in 2003, but in Proving Ground, they'll also be able to scale certain environmental pieces (such as chain link fences and vines) and find interesting ways to get into locked buildings (including the aforementioned museum).
Also significant is the Skate Checking ability, which allows skaters to physically attack anyone in their path. It may sound like an unfortunate consequence of the Jackass generation (see Underground 2), but associate producer Brinton Williams assured us that it is a significant and fully realized component of the narrative, as players will often be hassled by thugs that are blocking access to skate parks and the like. Skate Checking, along with the other new abilities, can be upgraded over the course of the game, with two upgrades available for each.
The final two mechanics, Rig-a-Kit and Environmental Altering, provide the greatest change from previous entries as players can modify and add to the environment at will without using a separate level editor. Pressing Select brings up the modification options, allowing players to place a ramp or reshape a rail to piece together a fantastic line. Placed/altered items will remain in the environments permanently and are no longer mapped to a grid, so prospective level editors may look to Proving Ground as the Promised Land.
The Neversoft reps were especially high on the freshly minted video editor, which allows players to mash-up saved footage with music and special effects to create two-minute clips that can be submitted to their "sponsors." Clips will be analyzed by the computer for trick placement and correspondence with the beat of the track, and those deemed acceptable can be uploaded via Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network and voted on by other players. Video footage plays a huge part in the real-life world of skateboarding, and based on what was shown, it doesn't look like something that was tacked on at the last second. Two minutes may not seem like a lot for a clip, but we suspect that amateur directors could spend hours polishing a classy clip with the comprehensive editor.
As with the forthcoming Burnout Paradise, online play is no longer a separate mode from the single-player campaign in Tony Hawk's Proving Ground, as players will be able to transport their fully customized skaters online from within the campaign and take part in a variety of eight-player game types. Virtual currency earned online can be used to purchase items for your very own Skate Lounge, which serves as both a trophy room and an extension of the old Create-a-Level mode.
Items as diverse as plasma televisions and helicopters can be purchased or earned (through the campaign) and placed as you please in a hangar-like setting. Designed as a visual, skateable representation of your style and progress, your Skate Lounge can be adorned with standard skate park pieces like quarter-pipes and rails, video screens, and one of 10 available themes (including a dojo and a nightclub). However, the most compelling feature of the Skate Lounge is not that you can pimp it out in any way, but that any of your friends can check it out online at any time, greatly extending the replay value of the title.
Arcade machines scattered throughout the world of Proving Ground allow access to the Pro Skater-style Classic Mode, while others unlock Hawkman, a new pellet-snatching mini-game that sounds suspiciously like Pac-Man, but it has yet to be shown. Skate may be the more innovative of the skateboarding offerings this fall (with its analog-based FlickIt controls), but Tony Hawk's Proving Ground will impress with sheer volume, packing expansion and improvement in nearly every aspect of the experience. It's easy to become jaded about a franchise that has pumped out yearly iterations for nearly a decade, but after the successful Project 8, we think the ninth could be the best (and certainly most fully featured) in years.
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