August 14, 2007 - Like any long term relationship, it's inevitable that my infatuation should wane from time to time. Inevitable that my eye may wander, sliding sneakily along the curves of a new skating game on the scene. But then, it's also true that for a relationship to last this long, there must be something strong at its core. Some combination of grind, manual, flip trick and grab that speaks to the soul. And that's certainly true of the Tony Hawk series.
Unfortunately though, gamers need a compelling reason (or several) to shell out for the latest version each year, and after nailing the genre so concisely in its first three years on the scene, that can be a tall order. So we've seen the series change from year to year. Never massive, paradigm -shifting changes, just regular updates to the mechanics and changes of emphasis. One year, Jackass-esque antics seem to dominate, the next it's back to grass roots and you're building your own park. You generally know the broad brushstrokes of each Tony Hawk game, just not if it will compel you all the way through.
The last game in the series, Project 8, was disappointing for a number of reasons, but like the seasons, the series is back, attempting to blossom into life once more. While the US guys have already had their say, we recently went hands-on with the latest build and figured we might as well weigh in with our thoughts.
First things first. The best new addition in Project 8, 'Nail the Trick', is back, and Neversoft has wisely expanded upon it. Welcome to the family 'Nail the Manual' and 'Nail the Grab' - make us proud. Both of these are basically modifiers off the Nail the Trick mechanic, and you know how that worked. Catch some air, click in both sticks to go into slow-mo, then use the sticks as your feet to kick out and flip the board. Now, however, you can hold the left trigger in and each analogue stick becomes a hand, allowing you to do custom slow-mo grabs. Then, as you're coming down to the ground, hold in the right trigger and use the sticks to angle the board so you land in a manual. Keep the manual going and you can then release back into an ollie and another spectacular Nail the Trick. It's awesome, awesome fun, with stacks of potential.
Of course, you won't have access to the expanded Nailing options when you start out in Proving Ground. These three abilities are unlocked (and upgraded - you'll eventually be able to bust finger flips as part of Nail the Grab) as you progress down the 'Career Skater' set of missions. And that's just one of three options available. There's also Rigger, who earns three abilities: being able to climb drainpipes and the like to reach inaccessible areas; being able to set down park components wherever he likes to create his own lines; and using the hammer tool to modify the landscape (such as turning billboards into kickers or knocking lampposts sideways so you can grind them). The final choice of skater is Hardcore, who has three abilities to unlock as well: Aggro Kick, which lets you use the right bumper/R1 to build up speed quickly, letting you hit burly tricks with only minimal run-up (and which is upgradeable to give you a wall push-off); Body Check, which, erm, lets you slam into cops and other people, sending them flying; and Bowl Skating, which basically lets you rip up backyard bowls with some custom moves.
Each choice is designed to reflect a different breed of skater, and as such has its own set of missions that fit into that vibe, so Career skaters will find themselves looking for glory in competitions, Riggers will be setting up ramps, rails and cameras, and snapping the perfect shot, while Hardcore dudes will be slash grinding bowls and battling with gangs. Thankfully, however, once you've chosen a particular path, you can always switch over to another, and keep the skills you've learnt. In fact, we expect most people to dabble in all three - that way you get to try a wide range of challenges and learn a varied set of new moves. Pause the game in fact, and you'll be able to pull up graphs showing how far you've progressed along each path, as well as how many of the separate missions you've completed.
The East Coast setting - across the three cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C. - has plenty of flavour, from rundown slums to shiny city squares and into the Air and Space museum, where you can catch air off craters on the surface of the moon (okay, that's gimmicky). As expected, you can skate between the cities, as they're connected by bridges, roads and train lines. The skateable area as a whole is close to twice as large as it was in Project 8, but it's the quality, rather than quantity, that's most important to the hardcore fans. Is Proving Ground a return to form after the cluttered, convoluted design in Project 8? Has Neversoft found its concrete and plywood muse once again? They're definitely on the right track. We've only scratched the surface of the city layouts to date, but there's definitely more room to move, and more room to experiment, so that's a tentative thumbs- up. We're also impressed by how well the cityscapes themselves have been realised, not just in terms of the iconic landmarks and skate spots you'd expect, but also in giving a sense of scale to the game; the feeling that you're in the midst of an asphalt and steel jungle.
As in previous games, the world is brimming with objectives to complete, but this time - for both PS3 and 360 - the single player game is seamlessly linked to online competition. At any time you can pause the game and bring up the world map to quickly check what online games are going on around the city, then hop into one. Or you could set up your own game and invite friends to play, then wager with in-game currency on your performance. You'll also be able to invite friends over to your Lounge in the game - essentially a huge private warehouse that you can customise, choosing from décor presets such as dojo (straw mat floors and rice paper walls), disco (mirror ball lighting and lit-up disco dance floor), club, theatre and rec room, packing in ramps and equipment, showing off trophies from past successes and running massive videos on the walls.
Potentially the greatest inclusion in Proving Ground, however, is video editing. We've been asking Neversoft for years for the means to make our own skate videos, and it's finally becoming a reality. The editor is straightforward to get a handle on too - you can edit multiple clips, then slot them into a timeline, and you can see at a glance what video overlays and effects/filters you've applied and when too, as they also have their own timelines. For a little more on the Lounge and the video editing, check out the recent US coverage.
All in all, we're looking forward to playing more Proving Ground; particularly in exploring the cities, mastering the 'Nail the' moves and creating our own killer skate and stack videos. Will it be the best Tony Hawk game since THPS3? You'll have to wait and see.
Thanks to IGN.com for sharing the news with us!