Version tested: Xbox 360
Tony Hawk's Project 8 was like a fresh summer's morning, the last of the dew glistening on the luscious blades of grass, a warm sun emerging above the distant hills, while puffy white clouds dotted a rich blue sky. Through its fields and meadows you gaily skipped, pausing to pluck a large, happy-faced daisy and weave it into your hair, before busting a sick flip-trick off a convenient nearby quarter pipe in gorgeous slow motion.
Proving Ground is a cloudy, early Winter's day, with the worst of Autumn's drizzle over, but before it's become snugglingly cold. There's a fog on the horizon, grime on the streets, and a weighty cloud of melancholy hanging over all below.
It's peculiar that Proving Ground is so much less of a game than Project 8. Because if you look at what it offers - the impressive list of features, both those evolved and those new - it should by rights be a step forward. It is, however, a sort of sit down and stare at the wall. Added to the glorious Nail The Trick mode is a Nail The Grab, and a Nail The Manual. Then on top, there's the new Aggro Kick to offer speed boosts, Skate Checking for beating up innocents, Bowl Skating for old-skool Dogtown vibes, as well as Rigging - letting you manipulate your environment, build ramps and rails, and film it all, and finally the ability to get off your board and climb the cities to look for exciting new gaps. Oh, and the skate house. Oh again, and the video editing. Phew, eh? What a lot.
It's important to cover the new Nails. The original Trick mode is still entered by clicking both sticks, converting each analogue into one of your legs. Grab kicks in when you hold down the left trigger in Nail mode, and then the control switches to your hands. Grab tricks are given the same grace and freedom as feet juggling, with sweeping turns of the sticks letting you spin the board and catch it again at the right moment. Manual is on the right trigger, with each stick representing the weight each foot puts on either end of the board. Push down with one foot, land it, and then balance the manual with the sticks. You can leap up out of this, and be straight back into Trick mode, and indeed switch between all three in elaborate combos.
So why hasn't this made Proving Ground into the skateboarding game of the century? Let's explore. But with some rules. It remains a fine skateboarding sim, and there's a vast amount to do, in three huge city areas covering Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC. What follows is why this falls short of the completely lovely Project 8, and not why it's a rubbish game that no one should buy. When expectations aren't met, or hopes are dashed, it's too easy to focus on the negatives, in a game that carries a hefty pocketful of positives.
If there's one thing that sums up the whole game, it's grime. This is, of course, a deliberate decision, in an attempt to bring the game a bit closer to the roots of skateboarding - urban, inner-city areas - the locations have been chosen for their realism. These are the kinds of places people really do skate, rather than, say, over the bows of ships, or on the rollercoasters of theme parks. The problem is two-fold. First, horrible grey cities might be much more true to the activity, but it looks horribly miserable on my 360. And second, what good realism when your game is predicated on anti-gravity superhero skating?
So for all its grisly, grey streets, you're still breaking into the museum and grinding the exhibits. You're still leaping off rooftops into fountains, entering slo-mo on the way down. You're still achieving the impossible in the company of the world's leading pro-skaters. So frankly, I miss those boats and rollercoasters.
This time the game's 'story' is about being a plucky young skater, who starts getting recognised by the pros in town, including Mr Hawk. As you play, you can improve your basic stats (which max out remarkably quickly), while you progress through four skill sets, each reflecting a different approach to skateboarding. There's Career - the professional route, gaining sponsorship deals, magazine coverage, television exposure, etc. Then Hardcore - skaters who are in it for the love of skating, and apparently the love of maiming strangers. There's Rigger - the improvisational sort who knocks together his own ramps out of a shopping trolley and piece of 2 by 4. And somewhat separately, there's Street - which is the catch-all for those on-the-spot challenges that you encounter everywhere you go.
The first three are improved upon by taking on challenges and tasks from the appropriate skaters. A Rigger might ask you to manipulate the street furniture until you can grind a lamppost onto a balcony, then take pictures of you as you jump some gaps from the rooftop. A Hardcore fellow might require you to get up some mean speed and clear a large gap. And so on, and as you make your way through these mini-stories, you gain experience points which can be spent on boosting the core skills you've learned. So following the Career path will open up the Nail the Trick, then Grab, then Manual modes. Spend points on these and you'll be able to unlock their "Perfect" modes, or gain extra point-scoring options like a body-spin for Trick, or "trucks up grab" for Grab.
Unfortunately, these tasks are a massively uninspired collection, with most of the fun Project 8 challenges gone, replaced with incessant use of the tiresome "perform the trick as I call it out" missions. Even the most fun tasks, like scoring as many points as possible using Nail The Trick, are hindered by a peculiar insistence on forcing you to do them in super-high pressure situations, like during a plunging acid drop. While certainly tough to pull off, they're not a great deal of fun. In fact, what they do is reduce the freeform improvisational bliss of the Nail mode to the intricate button mashing from which it had so joyously freed us.
The Rigging tools are pretty poor. Putting down ramps and rails shouldn't be a massive challenge, but you'll spend half the time screaming at the stupid thing for somehow refusing to stay at the height you set it, or for madly getting stuck under some scenery. And the challenges that involve it rarely extend beyond throwing down enough rails in a row so you can grind past trouble. The same mode lets you augment your skate house - a vast barn in which you can spend your winnings on ramps and rails for building your own indoor park, or on daft decorations, furniture, and twenty-foot wide televisions (seriously - I spent $20,000 on one, and all it shows are adverts for skate companies). The notion here is you create the ultimate pad, and then invite in your jealous chums via the magic of Xbox Live. To be honest, that may appeal to some, but it all seemed a lot of fuss, and with the rigging tools so annoying, the desire ran out at the wall-sized screen, and a sofa in front of it.
But worse is the damned photography. Constantly, challenges require you to take a snap of yourself in the middle of a trick, halfway over a gap, or on an extensive grind. Either these cameras are set up by the game, or occasionally you must place your own, and fiddle with them to arrange the ideal shot. But here's the thing: to take a picture, you have to click the right stick. You just try that when you're trying to trick your grind, balance it, and prepare to ollie to the oncoming target. Let alone with it going into slow motion where you can't see your balance meter, and then sodding well freezing to a static photo that must be dismissed with yet another button press, by which point you've forgotten what they hell you were doing and inevitably crash into a wall. It's so mind-numbingly stupid. Now imagine trying to enter NTT mode (clicking both sticks) when the flaming camera field gets in the way. Aarrggghhhh!
Oh, and that camera you have to set up yourself? So, so broken. I had to snap myself doing a flip trick over a fire hydrant. To score well you have to have everything in shot, be facing the camera as you go past, and keep your waist as near to the middle as possible. So why the cocking crikey did it keep failing me for the "fire hydrant barely being in the shot" when it was RIGHT IN THE BLOODY PICTURE? Some random setting eventually worked, but lordy lawks.
And breathe. See - it's all become so very negative, when in fairness, for the majority of the time, it's all fine. You skate about in the traditional fashion, you take on the billions of tasks, and you charge around looking for gaps and new areas in the really very huge space (1.5 times bigger than Project 8, and with no perceivable loading as you go).
It's all tremendously silly, too. The character creator has been fleshed out, but not very sensibly. Rather than letting you custom create a face and build, here you can only change the colour and the facial hair, and then faff around with clothing. This does mean that you can create a bright purple-skinned avatar, and I jolly well did, later turning him to a Henry Rollins red. Oh, and you can only play as a boy. Presumably because they couldn't be bothered to re-record all the character dialogue with a girl too. It's an odd choice to have your character speak, and an odder one to have him be a squawky voiced twit who you wish would just shut up.
While you're star-struck meeting your first couple of pros, it seems this becomes second nature to you very quickly, barely batting an eye when Bob Burnquist stands up for you in a fight, and seeming nonplussed by the appearance of Bam Margera, until he steals your wallet (which is odd of him). When Rodney Mullen told me to vandalise a car parked in the street, so I could ollie off it to grind an electrical wire onto some railway tracks, well, I was wondering at that decision to have the entire game be grey again.
One last gripe: The music selection is appalling. Half of it is thrash metal terribleness, so offensively awful that I negotiated the mangled playlist to find it all and stop it from ever playing again. Highlights like Jurassic 5, the Beastie Boys, and the Sex Pistols are lost amongst nu-rock nonsense and half-arsed hiphop. And I realised quite how uncool I was upon my delight at hearing a Folk Implosion track somehow featuring, and wished for that to be the theme. Roll your eyes in unison now.
All I've done is complain! It's not that bad! It's just so far short of Project 8's non-stop loveliness. So here are some more positives. The video editing tools, while relatively crude compared to proper editing software, is a fantastic inclusion. You can record yourself performing some "sick tricks" (as people who haven't heard of Folk Implosion might say), and then manipulate it to a remarkable degree. A recorded section can be re-shot, with you choosing the camera angles throughout, directing on the fly, or setting up cunning angles. Then the footage can be trimmed, sped up, slowed down, cut up and switched around, then treated with effects and overlays, and intercut with other films you've made, or alternative angles of the same trick. This can all then be set to music, and using some Guitar Hero 3 tech, it will judge how well your video matches the music. It's a huge amount of fun.
Nail The Grab is every bit as brilliant as NTT. And switching back and forth between the two during vert tricks is simple and intuitive. You can pull off some remarkable manoeuvres this way. Sadly, Nail The Manual is a bit poo, unsatisfying to balance, far too fiddly, and very unrewarding. But who cares, because NTG and NTT are ace.
The classic modes are worked in very nicely. You'll find arcade machines in various places, which let you play "Tony Hawk's 2000", which is basically Classic Mode, confined to a section of the city, letting you collect SKATE, jump gaps, score points, etc, in the two minute limit. And there's "Hawk Man" - a pleasingly silly arcade mode where Pac-Man-style pellets appear everywhere, and must be collected either by grinding, through air, or manualing, according to their colour.
Multiplayer has been fleshed out, and you can now race around the entire city with your chums, or simply have them hang out in your private residence. There are eight modes, including the stand out Tron mode, where you leave large coloured trails behind you for other skaters to avoid. But the online best serves just letting you ride around with buddies - something Project 8 strangely didn't let you do.
Some sort of conclusion, then. I feel disappointed with Proving Ground. The multiple modes, with individual progression based on the challenges you take, is all good. The challenges themselves, and the landscapes in which they exist, are mostly dull and uninspired. Where Project 8 felt like the result of Neversoft's having gone away and thought long and hard about what to do with their ailing series, Proving Ground feels like an attempt to just stick a load more stuff into the mould, without enough thought. The rigging feature is too awkward to have justified such a major part of the game, and too much else is glitchy and clippy. And yet, it's still a solid Tony Hawk game, with vast amounts to do and plenty of new stuff to learn. (Although, the amount of new features can have the effect of having the entire game feel like a tutorial). It's very, very big. But the dingy environments don't endear you to exploration - where Project 8 might have you stumble upon a pretty park, Proving Ground is more likely to reveal a litter-filled wasteground.
It falls short of its predecessor, which succeeded thanks to cheeriness, simplicity and fluidity. However, it still stands out ahead of its own worst Jackass era, and many of the new inclusions, especially the video editing and Nail The Grab, deserve your attention. If you never played Project 8, go get that at some super-cheap price. If you did, adored it, and can't help but want some more, you won't regret this. But don't expect it to live up to the same standards.
7 / 10