|Tony Hawk's Proving Ground (2007)
Available for: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii
For the past eight years, Activision’s “Tony Hawk” series has coasted along with little to no competition, but with the release of EA’s “Skate” earlier this year, the long-running skateboarding franchise has been put under the microscope for its most grueling evaluation yet. Featuring little in the way of improvements when compared to last year’s “Project 8,” fans will be happy to learn that the series is still very much alive, thanks in part to a necessary expansion of the Nail the Trick system and an open-ended career mode that allows the player the chance to choose his own path. As a result, “Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground” is not only one of the best installments of the franchise, but it marks the first time that two great skateboarding titles have been released in the same year.
“Proving Ground” sticks to familiar territory at the beginning of the game – create a character using a regrettably shallow selection of models and learn the basics from a few pro skaters – but it quickly opens up after your tutorial on the different skating styles. Career skating is something fans of past “Tony Hawk” games will know all too well. Your main goal here is to score sponsorship deals through photo-ops and skate demos, and it’s the path that many will choose first, since it offers the richest of three storylines. Hardcore skaters are the complete opposite. They seek out the coolest spots and challenges in the city, and most importantly, skate for individual glory. Finally, there’s rigger skaters – guys who use everyday objects to build the most unique lines you’ll ever see. In order to follow this path, you’ll need to spend lots of time with the in-game Rig-A-Kit menu, which allows the player to create whatever they want, wherever they want, as long as they’ve already earned or discovered the product they want to use.
Thankfully, you don’t have to choose just one, and you don’t have to perform every challenge in a certain style before moving on to the next, either. Instead, a hidden menu (which can be accessed by clicking the right analog stick) features a grab bag of challenges that are currently available, and after you’ve selected one, an arrow points the way. Too far for your liking? No problem. Just click again and select a challenge that’s a little closer. It’s not as helpful as the subway system in “Skate,” but it’s also not nearly as complicated. Unfortunately, the on-street challenges (allocated by the same graffiti markings that appeared in “Project 8”) are complicated – not to accomplish, but to understand. You speed by them far too fast to recognize what kind of challenge it is, and by the time you realize what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s either too late or the accompanying arrow directing you is completely unhelpful.
You’re more than welcome to ignore these on-street challenges, though, and you’re probably better off doing so – that is, until you’ve mastered the system. Not too much has changed since the last installment, however, and while “Project 8” delivered a brand new gameplay mechanic with Nail the Trick, “Proving Ground” simply expands on the concept. No longer restricted to perfecting flip tricks in slo-mo, players can now pull off expert grabs, tweaks and manuals with the addition of Nail the Grab and Nail the Manual, both of which are accomplished in much the same way as the previous incarnation. Grabs are executed by holding on to certain parts of your board with the left and right analog sticks, while players can also do a finger flip with a quick quarter circle in any direction. Manuals, on the other hand, utilize the analog sticks as a means of balancing your board on one trick. And because of the way the system is set up, you can even ollie out of a manual, into a trick, and then into a grab while still in midair.
The only other noticeable changes include the addition of the Aggro Kick (a speed boost that is executed by hitting the right bumper during a push) and a brand new balance bar that’s more seamlessly integrated into the interface. Instead of the usual “Madden” field goal meter that used to appear above your character, a white halo now surrounds you like an oversized hula-hoop – changing to green and red when you’re in trouble. The environments also look better than ever, but the character models are still seriously lacking, something that Activision will have to remedy in the coming years.Here’s hoping the “Tony Hawk”/”Skate” debate lasts much longer, because as long as there’s competition, fans will always have something to argue about. And as long as that happens, developers won’t have the luxury to slack off. Both games can easily co-exist (much like “Gran Turismo” and “Burnout” respectively rule the racing genre), but for the time being, “Skate” edges out a victory if only because it’s new to the scene. Give EA a year to screw things up, however, and Activision could very well climb its way back to the top.