The best of both worlds.
Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground is the ninth game in the Tony Hawk series, and one would think that the formula is getting stale. You can only grind around various cityscapes for so long, after all. And to be honest, the reviews of Tony Hawk games for the last few years have been a little lackluster. So it was with some apprehension that I popped Proving Ground in my DS, as I didn’t really know what to expect. Happily, the game far exceeded my expectation. To understand where Proving Ground is going, though, it’s important to know where Tony Hawk has been.
I followed the series up through Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, and I felt like that game took a real turn for the worse. THPS3, though, had a pretty simple concept: You have two minutes to skate around an environment, completing goals and gunning for a high score. While exploration was encouraged, it was finding the perfect combo line that really motivated you. Toward the end of my THPS3 days, I was grinding around entire maps, racking up point totals which skyrocketed toward the stratosphere. But what was really great about THPS3 was that everything was doable, and the game moved along very quickly. As you experience with the control scheme grew, you found yourself revisiting previous maps to best your old high scores. The formula never got old.
THPS4 changed all that. Rather than dropping you into an environment with specific goals to complete, you were free to roam the map at your leisure, finding combo lines on your own and generally getting a feel for the place. When you felt like actually accomplishing something, you need only interact with one of the many NPC’s scattered around the map, and they would give you a task—an often ridiculous task. For the most part, these challenges mimicked those in THPS3—get a certain score, do a certain trick, grind a certain line. But others were just plain stupid, like ride a shopping cart down a steep incline while avoiding barrels, or grinding off a rhinoceros’s back. The more inane the task, the more difficult it became to complete. As a result, I found myself constantly restarting certain goals, my teeth wearing down with every tap of the Start Button, sometimes upwards of a dozen times. THPS4 was kind of like Tony Hawk meets Jackass. Of course, the inclusion of Bam Margera into the game surely influenced its content.
So I turned away from the franchise after THPS4, thinking it would never get back to its roots. With Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground on the DS, though, it looks like Neversoft is beginning to see the light. The game, which is surprisingly robust, allows players to choose between Career and Classic modes of play, which simulate the experiences of THPS4 and THPS3, respectively. I’m thrilled—finally, after all these years, I can go back to the gameplay style I love.
Career mode puts you in the shoes of an up-and-coming skateboarder who is building his own skate park. Your ultimate goal is to learn from the masters, go pro, and earn money to further improve your park. As you travel to different cities and locations, you can explore the amazingly large environments and talk to NPC’s in order to access goals. These tasks range from relatively simple (do this trick off a certain jump) to virtually impossible (follow a cameraman who zig-zaps around, doing certain tricks while you’re “in range" or else it doesn’t count…while on a timer). Thankfully, the goal system is a smidgen forgiving, as you are ranked based on how well you accomplished the goal. You earn cash and unlock a variety of things by completing NPC goals.
And then there’s Classic mode, which uses the same environments, but gives you the two-minute timer and set goals that THPS3 did. The goals are never ridiculous, and can all be accomplished within a few runs of the map. Accomplishing a certain number of goals unlocks the next map, so there’s always an impressive amount of variety to be had. Sick of trying to grind a certain line in the museum? Go back to the harbor and find that secret tape.
Customization in Proving Ground is just as rampant, if not moreso, than in console Tony Hawk titles. Everything from the hat you wear to the color and design of your board and the pieces in your skate park are up for grabs. Thanks to the DS’ touch screen, you can design your board logo yourself, although the draw area is a little small. If you’re good at drawing pixel pictures, you’ll have a blast. Otherwise, go for one of the pre-drawn designs. You can also unlock various costume choices and fish-eye camera videos, just like in the console counterparts. The sheer amount of content on this game card is frightening.
There’s also a simplistic wireless mode, in which you and three other skaters roam around one of the game’s environments, trying to out-score each other. It’s fun, and a great place to test your mad skillz, although I kept getting booted off the server via error code. I’m not sure if it was just my game or the service itself, but it was annoying. I don’t have the problem in any of my other Wi-Fi capable DS games.
The graphics are impressive considering the hardware this game is running on. While the character models are, perhaps, the ugliest human polygonal objects to ever grace a screen, the environments more than make up for any lackings in the character model department. Each map is distinct, colorful, detailed, and huge! There are combo possibilities everywhere. And I’ve got to say that no matter how awful your character looks, they animate incredibly well. All of the tricks and the animations that go along with them from the console games have been translated extremely well to the DS.
The controls falter a little due to the unnecessary use of the touch screen in performing special tricks. In previous Tony Hawk games (and, to a limited extent, this one), special tricks could be triggered by inputting a certain button combo (left, right, X, for example). Here, however, your “best" tricks are activated by tapping a floating symbol on the touch screen. This forced use of the touch screen kind of takes you out of the moment, though, and instead of watching where you’re going during a grind line, your eyes must zip downward so you can see where the symbol is, tap it, and hope that your character performs it without bailing first. More often than not, I bailed while attempting to perform a touch screen trick. There is also a new “Focus" technique, also activated via touch screen icon, which slows the action down for a few seconds when your special meter is full. While I’m not quite sure what advantage this gets you, it certainly helps during speedy grind lines, as it helps you plan your next move.
Overall, Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground is a great game. It will appeal to both the old-school THPS fans (like me) and the newer crowd who are more familiar with the post-THPS3 games. For skating fans who like gaming on the go, Proving Ground is a worthy choice.