A proving ground is what the military calls a reserve used to test new technology, weapons, and tactics. What we have to figure out with Tony Hawk's Proving Ground is if the name refers to the game being an exploration of skating styles, like rigging, hardcore, and career, or if the game is simply an experiment to see where Neversoft will go with their next proper instalment to the series. Graduating from THPS101, which focuses on over-exposure to the series, 'completionist' playing, and thus knowing its history as a series, I would like to issue the educated statement that some Tony Hawk games are simply filler. This game, unfortunately, fits that statement.
The series goes up and down; the originals all scoring very high with critics, and future instalments always receiving average to high scores, even if they are the filler titles. American Wasteland was, in my opinion, the poorest of all, adding nothing at all to game play or graphics. THPS 4 was the leader in online console play and introduced the free roaming mode, and THUG1 rode on its coat-tails. THUG2 then rode on THUG1's coat-tails, and Wasteland rode on THUG2's. Project 8 came along and brought the series back from the dead, and now it seems we're in next-gen gaming, but being left with much to hope for every year.
That's not to say that Proving Ground doesn't have anything to offer, because it boasts plenty, as each Hawk does. It's just not a breakthrough it all. It has what I like to call, "the high-school syndrome," wherein it has great potential, but hasn't fully reached it. Tripping over a lazily tied shoelace as they bum-rush the podium for the diploma so they can pack their bags and move out on mom and dad (or in this case, release for the holidays). Neversoft still seems to rely heavily on updating their games with patches post shipping, fixing the floating hair, the "11 of 10 photos" textual errors, and of course swapping or adding in giant Jeep ads in every nook and cranny.
Proving Ground focuses its story on three skating styles. Career skaters, like Tony Hawk and Arto Saari, choose the life in the spotlight, entering competitions and filming skate videos. Your goals will obviously reflect this. The hardcore skaters, like Mike V., is a personal favourite of mine in this title. These guys barge the biggest gaps and take out security guards while they do it. Or if you like to rig up a kicker and a flat pipe to create a spot, like Daewon Song, you're most likely a rigger skater. This would have to be the weakest part of the three, modifying the environment around you and placing a limited amount of pieces to your heart's desire. Chalk challenges are still around and a tad bit harder, but they don't advance the story whatsoever this time. If you're not familiar with the chalk marks around town, they're simply set up like start and end points for you to manual, grind, or air across to increase your stats. The start is marked with green chalk; make it to orange for amateur, to blue for pro, or yellow for sick. These add a lot of replay value, especially when going for the sick marker.
The lifestyles are episodic, with each chapter of goals supported by a different pro. To name a couple more: Burnquist, Houston, Saari, Sheckler, Williams, Jeff King, Bam, Mullen, Daewon, Vanessa Torres (thank you Neversoft, my suggestion in the Project 8 review must have been heard), Dustin Dollin, Andrew Reynolds, and Mike V. Some will teach you new tricks, some will simply get annoyed that your interrupting the taping of their TV show, all will have at least one goal that will challenge you. Finding the skaters in the giant map without any form of travel/jump mode means it may take you just as long to find the characters as it would to complete the goal they have set out for you. A meter also fills as you complete goals, each time it's full to the brim, you'll be showered with a fancy new sponsor of some kind (boards, shoes, etc.). When all of the episodes in one lifestyle are finished, you'll have a final challenge appear, and it'll be a clincher. As an overall goal, you'll gain popularity and gain the ability to put together a new skate team. This of course unlocks another challenge. Complete this one and the credits will surprise you with a pre-mature, extremely anti-climactic appearance. The final goal is so trivial it seems like you're still trucking along once the credits are finished scrolling. No finisher video, no set of impossible goals, no grand finale whatsoever. The time clock was hitting around seven hours when this happened, and I was only at about the 50% completion marker.
Although some of the best things about Proving Ground are the things that were removed and not the things added. The lack of a "freak out" mode comes to mind right away, no back-flips or double jumps or wall-climbs, as well as the lack of a focus mode (but that's only because I'm an old-school Hawk veteran). This is the first time Hawk has lacked the trusty special meter as well as the wacky special moves that it enabled players to execute. The traditional balance meters have also been swapped out for a more natural curved bar that goes across the entire screen either horizontally or vertically, whilst grinding or manualling, respectively. So, what do the career skaters teach you then? Nail-the-trick modes mostly, including flip, grab, and manual. I'm glad they've kept nail-the-flip, and nail-the-grab isn't bad, but nail-the-manual is just too touchy and will never be trusted for those cracking out high combos.
To expand on the NTT (nail-the trick) modes, the nail the grab mode assigns your sticks to your hands, thus letting you grab the board in any direction you so desire. Flicking the stick around while grabbing the middle of the board will produce a finger flip. Flicking while holding the nose or tail will produce a board spin. It takes some time to get used to but it is a solid addition. Nail the manual is a nightmare. The only way to experience it is really to try it as it's more of an ease of use thing. It's a great idea, but the flow between nail-the-manual and nail-the-flip is much too difficult. The view also poses a problem as it is focused on your board and most Hawk players will understand that hitting a wall while you're in a manual isn't very beneficial to your progress.
Personally I feel most people will avoid the rigging episodes as much as possible as they are the most technically flawed and straight forward goals of all. The piece addition idea still doesn't sit well with most players as they would much rather have the create-a-park from their THUG days. Placing rails and ramps and then being confined to those pieces for a line is simply too linear and gets old too quick. One of the first goals requires you to place a piece on a specific ledge high above your head, but if you happen to move the cursor off the edge when you start the goal, you'll have to exit and restart because the cursor will simply not come back up. It's little flaws like this that can make a came frustrating. The riggers are also the ones to set up tripod cameras facing an object. You'll then be asked to trick over this object, handle the fact that your view will instantly change and go to slow motion, and then scramble your hands up into a pretzel to hold your trick and take the picture at the perfect moment for the best results (centering, middle of trick, facing the camera, and more). These goals are all trial and error and furthermore, all suck. Not to mention the goals in which you have to take a series of three or four pictures in a row when they are seconds apart from each other or right in the middle of a giant gap. The photos are graded instantly but it's hard to tell whether you're getting low scores from camera placement, or simply bad skating. The whole idea of taking the photo yourself whilst doing the trick is a bad idea in general.
The most enjoyable additions to the game are within the hardcore lifestyle. Lance Mountain will show you how to carve bowls and slash grind, and Mike V. will show you how to aggro push and skate check. These are my new selections for things within Tony Hawk that will never get old. Upgrading these skill sets later in the game allows you aggro kick harder and faster, knock over multiple people at once, and send them all flying further too. It adds that superfluous violence we all love. The rag doll effect in this year's instalment is actually like a rag doll this time, and thus it looks a lot smoother. The idea of animating rag doll effects mixed with natural human resistance to an impact (putting your arms out to soften the impact) was a good idea, but poorly implemented in Project 8. The hardcore goals are also the most fun, having you fly over the biggest gaps, pissing of security guards for as long as possible, and skate checking rival gangs into water.
One of Proving Grounds new features is the seamless play from offline to online with friends, via the skate lounge. This space is customizable with stuff you've earned in game. Personally I was hoping this would replace the Create-A-Park mode and bring it online too, unfortunately not. Eight players can enjoy the world or your skate lounge while playing a well-worn set of multiplayer games. This feature is entirely new to the PS3, which to the upset of most gamers, didn't have any online last year. This is good for games like graffiti or walls, where the full world is just too large. Although there are a great variety of gamers online these days with different skill levels, there are always hardcore veterans like myself to tear you a new one with a last second multi-million point combo, so watch out or simply play with friends.
Visually, Proving Ground is much the same game. The new balance meters are very well done, but it can be 'glitchy' in spots, like being trapped in a kicker or dumpster. The water looks much better than in Project 8, as does other small things. Proving Ground is definitely much more natural feeling though, which is a new direction for the series. The levels themselves include Washington DC, Philly, and Baltimore. It's very urban, filled with bums and Jeeps, but it flows extremely well. The art direction for menu's and cut-scenes are below par compared to Project 8, as it feels a little generic. Most of the minor visual issues show up within the Create-a-Skater mode, with hair popping through sunglasses and hats, hair floating above your skull, and watches popping out of sweatshirts. Missed details like this bring down the professionalism of a title very quickly.
The sounds haven't really changed much, and the music is quite generic. The voice acting is usually pretty terrible since skaters are well, skaters by trade, not voice actors. Any skater with video experience (Tony, Bam, Mike V) usually does quite well in this area though. The dialogue could be a bit better, but that's not out of the ordinary for the series either. The sounds are also much more natural, straying from the arcade style bangs, booms, bleeps, and bloops. The soundtrack has almost completely eliminated my taste in music, heading more for the classic punk sound as well as some rap with a sprinkle of (what I like) some decent rock.
Proving Ground feels like filler in the end. It has great ideas and a great start on all areas like visuals and audio, gameplay and replay value, but they're rushing these ideas and the end product is suffering. Fans will ultimately still find enough to love, but it screams average, and that can be frustrating for those who felt Proving Ground would be the best Hawk game to date.