The nice thing about the Tony Hawk series is that you can practically set your watch to it. Activision's long-running skateboarding franchise has taken some knocks for being one of those games that never seems to miss a year, but to its credit each new Tony Hawk game tends to try out new ideas and up the ante from the year before. Last year was no exception; Project 8 has been hailed as the best Tony Hawk title in years, a triumphant return to form after the less than stellar American Wasteland. Being a huge fan of Project 8 I was excited to see if Neversoft would be able to top what they did with their first "real" next generation Tony Hawk title. After an extended play session at a recent Activision event I have come away more convinced than ever that Proving Grounds may just be the greatest Tony Hawk game yet.
In a lot of ways Tony Hawk's Proving Ground feels like an extension of Project 8, it's using the same style of graphics and you skate in a large open connected world. This time around Tony Hawk and gang take a trip to the East Coast. Proving Grounds features three major U.S. cities to skate through, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. Much like the eight installments before it, the cities in Proving Grounds are basically over-the-top models of these real locations, so don't go in expecting a realistically modeled landscape where all of the streets and buildings are right where they are supposed to be.
But really, just as long as you have enough railings, ramps and real world landmarks to trick off of does it even matter where the game is located? Most people are coming to Tony Hawk's Proving Ground wanting to see something new; they want to do something they've never done before. The good news is that Neversoft listened, because Tony Hawk's Proving Ground is jam packed with all brand new ways to control and interact with the game.
For the most part the trick system remains the same; you'll still be pulling off ollies and grinds the same way you have for nine years. What has changed since Project 8 is the "nail the trick" mechanics. In the 2006 game players had a very limited amount of options when it came to using this new mode, but all that has changed in Proving Grounds. Like before you go into nail the trick mode by pushing both analog sticks in at the same time, but now you will be able to nail a manual after your kick flip allowing you to combine impressive tricks. On top of that, you will be able to nail the grab, which you do by pulling the left trigger and using your left and right analog sticks to control your hands. As always this mode takes a little getting used to, but once you've mastered these new tricks you will be pulling of some amazing moves that will impress all of your friends.
Speaking of impressing your friends, in Proving Ground you will be able to record and edit your best tricks. Thanks to a robust video editing mode, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground actually becomes a way for you to make your own home movies. At any time during the game you can start recording your tricks; this will allow you to record up to 30 seconds of your best tricks (or wipe outs, if that's what you're into). Once you're happy with the 30 second clip you can go into a video editing mode that allows you to do just about anything to it, including changing the camera, adding effects and selecting the song. Once figuring out the basics of the editing tools I was excited to see what I would be able to pull off, trying out brand new effects and camera angles. And just when I thought I had seen it all, I realized that I could affect the game's speed, play with the lighting and try and time my edits with the music. If I had the time I could probably have spent a full day doing nothing but making these skate videos.
After you're done fiddling around with the edit mode you will be able to save your videos and show all your friends. I was impressed to learn that most of the promotional videos coming out of Activision are done using this video editing software. While there are a few problems I had with the overall implementation of the mode, this is a great first step for the Tony Hawk series. I can only hope that for next year's model Neversoft goes in and adds to it, I would love to be able to have the game recording all the time, but alas you are forced to go in and actually turn on the record mode when you feel like you're going to do something impressive. It's worth mentioning that owners of the PlayStation 3 will not be able to share their videos with their friends, Activision said they would like to have added that feature but at this point there is no infrastructure for this option. Hopefully this will be resolved for whatever the 2008 installment is.
Another new feature allows you to physically change the environment around you by adding ramps, rails and other items that you can trick off of. Tony Hawk loyalists may not feel this is a new mode, since you've been able to alter your world in past games, but in Proving Grounds you will be able to do this wherever you want, not just in some pre-approved part of the game. For gamers looking to create huge combos this new mode makes a lot of sense, you can essentially change the city so that you can rail your way through all three of the cities without missing a beat. While I didn't have enough time to lay down anything as impressive as what Neversoft already had created, I can definitely see the potential for this addition. Best of all when you host a game online your friends will actually be able to see all of the pieces you laid down in the city.
Speaking of online modes, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground handles the multiplayer in a drastically different way. Instead of going into some lobby and then finding the game you want to play, Proving Ground makes the offline and online modes completely seamless. Going online is as simple as pausing the game and hitting the Xbox Live tab, from there you can set up online challenges and invite up to seven of your friends online.
Most of the online modes from past Tony Hawk games are making a return visit in Proving Ground, you get the tried and true classics like score attack and graffiti. But there are a couple of new multiplayer modes that I had a chance to check out. The first new mode is Skate The Line, it allows the host to pick a line and determine how many objects the various players will have to trick off in one extended combo. The other new mode is an online version of Nail the Trick, which is testing the players to see how proficient they are at pulling off those nail the trick (or nail the grab, nail the manual) sequences. In both modes the winner is determined by whoever has the most amount of points.
While Neversoft has added a lot of new ideas to this Tony Hawk game, there are still a lot of modes returning from the previous games. The overall feel of the game is very reminiscent of Project 8; you are a user created character that skates around the city looking for missions and tricks to pull off. Just like last year's game, Proving Ground have three difficulties per task, you can either pull off an easy version of the mission or go after the other two more difficult tasks. This is a great way for new Tony Hawk players to jump in and feel like they can make some progress, while also giving something to the veteran players who are looking for more of a challenge. Best of all, Proving Ground comes with plenty of diverse tasks to complete. Tony Hawk's Proving Ground has a winning formula that should keep even the most hardcore skater fan interested for months to come.
The problem with previewing a game like Tony Hawk's Proving Ground is that there's no way I would be able to actually talk about everything that makes this game worth playing. Although I have covered a lot of the new features that make this year's installment so good, I'm sure I've left out just as many minor gameplay tweaks that go a long way to change the game up. The good news is that there's a lot for Tony Hawk fans to get excited about, Proving Ground looks like it may just be the best installment yet ... and that's saying something given how many versions of the game have come out in the last decade. Look for even more on Tony Hawk's Proving Ground closer to the game's October release, and for those who can't stand the wait you will be able to whet your appetite by playing the recently released demo on the Xbox Live Arcade.