Oct 17, 2007
Proving Ground is an almost obscenely plump package. In a bid to outdo itself and fresh-faced rival Skate, Neversoft has jammed its latest game with so much content that you expect to hear distant groaning when holding the disc up to your ear. The first thing we noted, though, was what seemed like an oversight - there's no "free play" option, no chance to dive straight into the three-city-wide game world to just mess around. No, you'll have play the full-blown Career mode before you can unlock Proving Ground's new abilities. But, that's OK.
Career mode is chopped up into three strands that you can dart between when you like - glory-seeking "Career" skating, limit-pushing "Hardcore" skating and level-editing, clambering "Rigger" skating. Each strand is cut up into episodes, played out with a pro skater and a story in tow, offering new skills on the way. This drip feed is initially frustrating, but near essential for easing yourself into the new features especially since the tricks picked up in one episode can then be reapplied to previously completed episodes in order to get higher grades. The "Am, Pro, Sick" system returns from Project 8, where you need only complete "Am" to progress, too.
So, drip by drip, you shake hands with techniques both old and new. The Aggro Push is brilliant, and also lets you use walls and vehicles for extra speed during manuals. Bowl carving and slash grinds aren't the most graceful of additions, but they make up for it with offerings of big points. Body checking - barging into folks with - is daft, but fun nonetheless. The level editor is always on hand, and straightforward to use. The new "Nail" modes expand greatly on the strengths of Project 8. The Hawkman mini-game is lovely. The photo editor is plenty intuitive, although taking pics - done from the camera's perspective - while maintaining your balance can sometimes be awkward.
The new dynamic camera angle isn't intrusive, and adds energy to your trick lines, although you can select the classic stationary follow cam if you want. Sixaxis support for balance and steering is pointless, since it's just not as reliable as twitching your thumb on the analogue stick. Video editing is well-fleshed and wieldy, but clips can't be shared - the score/grade you're given for them can be uploaded to a leaderboard, though. And there's plenty of online play to be had, offering myriad modes supported across the whole game world (including your custom-built Skate Lounge crib).
Visually, it's more down-to-earth than it's ever been, and character detail for the series hits a new high. The huge world itself, despite its many secret nooks, quirky touches, hidden rooftop bowls and other neat details, is lacking in colour, with authenticity for its Philly, Baltimore and Washington DC skate spots replacing the cartoony character of previous games. And there's some shabbiness that crops up here and there. For example, during one mission you have to knock a bunch of security guards down, in close succession; barge one, and the camera cuts away to show them barreling through the air, while your off-screen character continues to move, possibly leaving you in an awkward position that's just not your fault.
So should you buy Skate or Proving Ground? They're different enough to co-exist, we reckon, operating in distinct ways. Skate's like some violin that you coax along with careful analogue strokes; Proving Ground's a xylophone that you rattle away at with ludicrous hand speed. Both make sweet, sweet music when played well, and offer tremendous scope for expression and feeling like a badass. Skate has an edge, since it is to skateboarding what Fight Night Round 3 was to boxing games: a fresh interpretation. But it doesn't dismiss the fact that Neversoft has bent over backwards to cram in enough new ideas to make Proving Ground worthwhile, and is at pains to teach you how to use them all.
But if you're a newcomer, surely Proving Ground is the best place to start? That's debatable. Even though its early objectives are welcoming, the learning curve needs one hell of a run up. Tony Hawk games, remember, are a lot like Russian Dolls, and the skills you pick up from one game are transferred virtually wholesale to the next. So you could happily rinse Project 8 first before moving on to Proving Ground ready-programmed to get stuck in right up to the elbow. Or not, of course. Just be wary you're diving into the deep end of a series that's spent nine games evolving, with Proving Ground as its pinnacle. Nailing its trickiest challenges and wringing every bit of mileage out of its fearsome feature set will probably take as much time as becoming boss hog of every one of Oblivion's guilds.
That's not to put you off. The reward for your efforts is the immense sense of satisfaction that comes from being in the driver's seat of one of the most complex and flexible combo-scoring systems in gaming. There's a reason why Hawk is an institution that's managed to persist this long. It's because it's still brilliant and irresistible once you get flowing. And that applies to those Hawkers who fell in love with, say, Pro Skater 2, and have avoided the series ever since. Come back to the fold. The view from the top is as exciting as it's ever been, even if you might twist your ankle én route.