You can't walk down a virtual street these days without some young hooligan's skateboarding game tearing around in front of you, probably mugging old ladies and eating their drugs I shouldn't wonder. And it's only going to get worse, with EA's Skate imminent, and now news that Mr Tony Hawk has once more been hard at work in his attic, coding another in his long-running series.
Tony Hawk's Proving Ground. That's what part nine is called. Nine! That's not bad going, especially when you consider at one point the series was a horrid, soulless, Jackass cash-in. But all that was forgiven with a God-like grace after the prodigal son came home, and was dressed in the robes of the sublime Project 8. The fattened calf never saw it coming.
Proving Ground is looking smart. Clearly, using the same engine as Project 8, it looks just as gorgeous, but we're talking brainy here. Project 8 was so very successful because it went back to basics, but at the same time revolutionised how we control games. And yes, no other developer has been half-way intelligent enough to notice yet, but perhaps Proving Ground's further development of the Nail The Trick mode will slap some of them awake. Entering a slo-mo mode (that's the cliché, the next part is the clever bit) it converted each analogue stick into a leg. The camera zoomed in on your feet, and you flicked the sticks as you would wish each shoe to interact with the board. It took some practise, as it jolly well should, but once mastered became a new degree of connection between the detached process of manipulating a controller, and the sensation of being a part of the game. So add in Nail The Grab and Nail The Manual mode.
Project 9, then
That's the smart part. From our hands on with the new code (on 360/PS3, rather than the separately developed PS2 or Wii versions (but not on PC at all, oddly)) Neversoft seems to have left the purity of Project 8 in place, perhaps even taking things down a notch to an even more relaxed, urban feel. Both Nail The Grab and Nail The Manual don't complicate the interaction, but simply expand it. Now, if you click the left trigger, the analogues become your hands, letting you reach down and perform elaborate, slo-mo grab tricks that were previously assigned to disingenuous button clicks. Go for the right trigger, and land your board on two wheels, and the sticks are back as feet, this time instinctively letting you balance the board as you roll along. And you can string any combination of the three modes together.
Things start to look a little more potentially dubious when it comes to the offering of something akin to career paths. There are three approaches to the fine sport of skating presented: Career, Hardcore and Rigger. The Career skater is one who is in it for the financial glory, garnering sponsorship deals, press attention, and presumably their own line in videogames, and also includes the Nail The Something business.. The Hardcore is in it purely for the skating day and night, and apparently the wanton violence, able to punch anyone he comes across.. And the Rigger, who represents the newest idea in the game, manipulates his environment to create his own skate paths.
This is either by using the familiar skate park building options, but accessible anywhere in the game, or by finding highlighted features which can be broken, bent, or otherwise adapted to your grinding, flipping needs. However, the simple idea that there might be a route by which you'd miss out on the Nail moves is too ridiculous to consider. So instead all three will be available to you throughout, and you'll likely end up being a muddle of them all, rather removing the point of the distinction in the first place, you'd think. Well, we'll see - perhaps it has clever ideas up its baggy sleeves.
Much else is being tweaked, from the character creator being enormously more involved, to the basic moves being slightly elaborated, most notably with Bowl Carving, reflecting skateboarding's biggest moment when those 70s Dogtown boys snuck into their neighbours' empty swimming pools. But there are still more rather bigger additions worthy of note.
Yo, fly pad, gangsta
The Skate Lounge is a large warehouse in which you can build your own indoor skate park, with vast amounts of customisation. Another small change (fnarr) in the main game is the rewarding of money for impressive moves and completed goals.
You'll constantly be adding to your cashflow as you play, which can then be spent on items for your pad. These range from ramps and grind rails, to refrigerators and vast, wall-sized video screens on which you can play the music videos of the game's licensed bands. Once your crib is to your liking, you can then invite your online friends to come in, have a skate around, share an imaginary beer, and generally be amazed by the quality of your bling compared to their paltry efforts. (It's like MTV itself wrote that paragraph).
The Rigger's skills also boost Proving Ground's online potential. Because you can place ramps, rails and various objects anywhere you like into the game, you might create something particularly (searches through urbandictionary.com again) sick, that you want to show your (search) good chums. So connectify, and in they come, able to skate around your unique version of the game.
Finally, from my scribbled pages of "Things I Must Tell My Friend Jo About The New Version Of The Game Because She Likes Skating, And Should Probably Write About On EuroGamer Too I Suppose" (which also contains the opening legend, "NO GIRLS!" acknowledging the completely idiotic decision not to offer female player characters for no good reason, you sexist morons), is the video editing.
Using your directorial skills (wait, skillz), you can place a camera anywhere you like, and record your antics. The resulting video works something like the motion-picture version of that camera thing in Bladerunner that could look around corners, letting you manipulate the results from any angle. Then you load it into an in-built video editing tool, that lets you chop, stretch, loop and sepia-tone it all. And this is looking remarkably complex. During our demo, they quickly knocked together a movie of a simple ollie, shown from an over-the-shoulder camera, then cutting to a slo-mo version of the leap looking up from beneath, then again rapid cutting to an overhead fast-action view, and then putting the whole thing to music. It all looked rather slick, and it gets even slicker.
Using some technology from Activision's other financial friesian, Guitar Hero, the game is able to measure how well the action of your video matches the accompanying music, and rates you on this. This seems like witchcraft to us, but we're promised it's for real. But we'll wait until we've tested it for ourselves before we really believe.
Set in Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, featuring real-world skate parks such as Philly's excellent Love Park, there's a much murkier tone to the game's settings. It appears more urban, and less cartoony than Project 8, and seems to be further emphasising the reality of skating, while maintaining the ludicrous, arcade impossibility of the moves. And once again, they're promising no load points, with tunnels linking the sections. This didn't work so well in Tony Hawk's 7, but apparently this time the tunnels will be entertaining skating sections of their very own. We shall see. The whole thing is 1.5 times bigger than Project 8, which was already pretty damn big to start with.
Simply because it's the same tech as the wonderful Project 8, but elaborated on in ways that appear likely to enhance, rather than bloat (with a worried eye on the muddle over career paths) enthusiasm is very high for this one. It seems like it would be hard for Neversoft to mess it up. Just someone lock Steve-O in a cage, and store it on the moon.
Proving Ground should be arriving on all formats (except the PC) later this year, hopefully before winter. In the meantime, for your homework go and rent Lords of Dogtown, and learn some skateboarding history.