Well, it’s another year and more Tony Hawk games are hitting the market and the latest batch goes by the name Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground. To be honest, this is my first Tony Hawk game. Hell, my first “extreme” sports game (unless you count Wave Race). And really, I’d have to say that it was pretty much exactly like I was expecting. Though, for a free-world game based on an activity that’s supposed to have some sort of imaginary sense of freedom engrained into its very existence…it sure is linear.
You all know the story. It shows up for every “non-traditional” sport (or “underground” style of music) whenever they try to tie a story into it. There’s a “poser” who wants to become a “career” in whatever pseudo-sport or thing that he considers “art.” In this case, a nameless, faceless (until you give him a face) hero with a skateboard who wants to become a pro, starting as the mere amateur with a skateboard, wearing common clothes, and eventually ending up as a rich, sponsored practitioner of the pseudo-sport. The cast of the game includes the aforementioned anonymous skateboarder, who gets encouraged and mentored by what seems like just about every single big-name person who’s ever even touched a piece of wood with four wheels. With this backdrop, there are three non-exclusive storylines that manifest throughout the game, dictating what “type” of skateboarder you are (let me point out, though, that they all still use the same moves, and there is no real gameplay difference between where things go), which determines how “commercial” or “hardcore” your character is. There are several mini-stories that pop up throughout the game, including some silly thing about the skater taking on a DC skateboarding gang that doesn’t end with anybody getting shot and a struggling-turned-popular magazine that gains fame by following your exploits. None of these are especially important, and all take a backseat to introducing more real life skaters to include new tutorials. Cohesion and any sort of continuity suffer as a result. If you actually care about seeing all these people, it’s not a big issue. Otherwise, it provides little reason to play the game to the end.
Controls for Proving Ground are fairly simple but effective, generally speaking. You move around using the control stick, and hold A to skate, and RB lets you push off. A allows you to jump. From there, pressing different buttons with directions allows for tricks to be quickly and easily done. There is also the “Nail the Trick” feature, where clicking down on both directional sticks while in the air goes into a bullet time-like slowdown that zooms in on the skater’s feet, with each stick controlling a leg. From there, all sorts of tricks can be done in succession, or you can go into “Nail the Manual” mode by pressing the right trigger down, which allows you to enter a manual simply by adjusting the height of the skater’s feet by pressing up and down on the sticks. In this way, you can go into a manual, do a trick, and repeat for as long as you have a road. There are loads of different tricks, and plenty of opportunities to do them, both in the air and on the ground. They’re fun for a while, but the novelty wears off fairly quickly. The real kicker here is how the game has painfully imprecise controls for what should be the most simplistic things. Moving from one close-by place to another (from one side of a highway to another, for example) ends up being this painfully frustrating series of jumps, turns, spins and grinds that don’t get you where you want to go until you stop, and very slowly and carefully slide to the destination, stop, jump and repeat as necessary. It isn’t often an issue, but it is quite possibly one of the most difficult-to-do “simple things” around.
Proving Ground takes place in digital equivalents of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington (D.C.). There is a pretty solid degree of freedom throughout the game, but new areas only become accessible through completing missions, quite similar to Grand Theft Auto. There is a lot of exploring to do, and there are loads of mini-challenges to get involved in, specifically “Trick Lines,” where a line of quarter-pipes, railings and other things are all put in a row and, which should be linked together via tricks, ending with a score and rating. There are also little challenge spots on the ground, where you can do something like grind a sidewalk or do a manual (riding with only one truck on the ground) for a certain distance. Neither of which means anything. There are also nice areas that work as a half-pipe and plenty of ramps just lying around, and every sidewalk is waiting for you to grind it. Railings, cars, dumpsters, fire hydrants, highway medians and even front porches are there for you to do tricks off of.
This brings us to the major problem with Proving Ground. No matter what, nothing feels like it has ever changed. You’re just not really rewarded for anything, ever. You can bust out the most insane, longest, best trick in the history of skateboarding, and all you get are a few useless points and, if you’re lucky, some kudos from the fictional onlookers. In all honesty, there’s so little reward and so little gratification for doing things, that any enjoyment to be found in the game lies in the missions, which are of varying entertainment value. All this results in the game that just plain isn’t going to keep you interested for a long time. Sure, there’s a wide-open world for you to explore, but just like with Ultimate Spider-Man and many other non-Oblivion or GTA games that give you a sandbox experience, the complete lack of anybody trying to stop you makes it so, not long after completing a mission, you’re not going to spend time appreciating the seemingly endless environment, and will instead just skate to the next person who has you do X tricks in the span of X seconds.
The game is pretty good, graphically speaking. The models and environments are all well-detailed and realistic. And by the way, the in-game ads are great, Activison. Now where’s that price cut that was supposed to accompany it? I mean, we pay for the game. We pay for HBO. Why should one have ads and the other not? Anyway, the voice acting is absolutely awful. But this is to be expected, as the real life skateboarders voice themselves, and as they aren’t experienced actors, they just sound like…well…people of below-average intelligence talking about skateboarding. Which is, pretty much, exactly what is going on. Good luck deciphering “skater talk” (just so you know, an Aggro Kick is when you push off).
Everyone who has bought every Tony Hawk game thus far knows what they’re getting; a game about skateboarding, and that’s all. And when it comes to that, it is pretty good. It’s got loads of tricks, precise, but not overly-simplistic or difficult controls and there is plenty to do. But that’s all the game has. A solid control scheme. There’s no rewards for doing tricks, there’s no compelling story and there’s no real reason to play this game longer than it takes to completely master the tricks, which doesn’t take very long. Tony Hawk fans will get what they’re expecting with a slightly-better-than-the-last version of a fairly dated game series. For skateboarders who idolize the real life masters of the game, it’s worth checking out for all the commentary and videos. For everyone else, this is a rental at best.