Thursday, September 10, 2020

Tony Hawk's Proving Ground (PS3)

Following the release of Tony Hawk's Project 8 in 2006, another annual installment to the Pro Skater series came in 2007 in the form of Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground, offering the premise of a more customizable story mode to create a more unique experience. Notably, Proving Ground would also be the final game in the series developed by Neversoft, after which the series would be further developed under new studio Robomodo while Neversoft would exclusively develop the Guitar Hero series until their closure in 2014. Despite the game representing this particular milestone for the Pro Skater series, it didn’t exactly go out with a bang.

As the game bills itself as being your story, once you get past the tutorial stages, you are presented with a total of nine Episodes, divided between the Rigger, Hardcore and Career paths. The game doesn’t stop you from going down all three paths, however the state of your skater by the end of the game’s meta story is determined by which path you emphasized the most between the three. That said, due to the game’s structure, it’s very likely you will only have completed at least three Episodes, the minimum required, by the time you reach the endgame. No matter what you choose, however, the ending is a bit anticlimactic as it concludes rather abruptly with little fanfare.

Due to the episodic nature of the storytelling, there were a couple that I found more interesting than others. For instance, Mike V.’s Epic Episode in the Hardcore path touches on the advent of digital media at the time and how physical mediums, such as magazines, have had to adapt to the internet to try and survive. Notably, Bob’s Competition Episode in the Career path features the first physical appearance of Eric Sparrow since Underground 2, however, despite being presumably voiced once again by Ben Diskin (Diskin has a non-specific credit), he doesn’t feel like the same character. In this game, he is presented as a more watered-down version of the character, retaining the fact that he is a jerk except without any of his backstabbing tendencies that made him so memorable and hated back in Underground 1. In general, the Story Mode of this game seems like it’s trying to recapture what Underground 1 did by representing the struggles of becoming a pro and what the heart of skateboard culture truly is, except Proving Ground generally lacks the nuances of this outside of Mike V.’s Epic Episode and the meta story goals (ex. obtaining sponsors, joining and creating a team) feel unearned as a result.

That aside, completing goals to advance the story also unlocks new tricks, cosmetics, additional areas of Philadelphia and new items to use in your Skate Lounge. The cash system also makes a return, and can be earned by completing challenges, performing tricks in front of spectators and simply picking up wads of it in the game world. Cash can be used to purchase cosmetics for your skater, though depending on your preference it may be best saved for new Skate Lounge items. Advancing through the game unlocks new abilities, as well as Skill Points that can be used to upgrade said abilities, though much like in Project 8, you have a set of Core Stats that can be upgraded just by performing related tricks enough times.

The aforementioned new abilities are unlocked as you progress through the story, with some locked behind certain paths and Episodes. Among these new abilities are Aggro Kick and its extension Aggro Push for extra speed, a new form of skitching called Aggro Skitch Boosts, knocking people over with Skate Checking, and bowl tricks Carve and Slash Grind. Both involve staying within the edge of a bowl, however it is far too easy to Slash Grind when you mean to Carve, which involves avoiding grinding the top of the bowl at the last second and is difficult to pull off anyway. Additionally, the Nail the Trick feature makes a return from Project 8, except now you can activate it whenever you want by clicking both sticks in midair and it has been expanded to include Nail the Grab and Nail the Manual. You can also go into Focus any time by rapidly clicking the left stick twice, instead of filling a meter first, though from my last playthrough the game doesn’t really tell you this.

Nail the Trick Mode has been greatly expanded upon.

Photo Spots have been added as well, in which you can take a photo of yourself at designated areas by clicking the right stick as you would an actual camera. The Rigger path unlocks a new Rigger Mode, initiated by pressing Select, which allows you to place skateable objects within the game world at any time with few restrictions, with new Rigger pieces added as you progress down that path. In addition, you can no longer willingly induce a bail, or roll/bounce out of one, though it is still easy to exit a bail with a single button press.

One major issue I had was that, much like Project 8, the camera is placed a little too close to the skater, however when you’re on your board the camera pans in a little closer to the point where the skater takes up as much as a third of the screen, which is very disorienting at first. The camera itself can also seem uncooperative at times, though it gets especially screwy during Rigger Mode as the camera can zoom uncomfortably close onto some pieces for seemingly no reason. Rather than a compass, an overhead arrow guides you to the next goal, however this arrow can be nonspecific when you’re trying to get from one end of the map to the next, which can often result in accidentally hitting a dead end unless you’ve memorized the layout of the game world. On a smaller note, aside form the occasional subtitle slip-up, some of the dialogue sounds unnatural and robotic, such as at least one exchange about checking out a cool skate spot.

Classic Mode makes another return, this time accessible through arcade cabinets found in smaller sections of the larger areas of the map. The gameplay works similarly to Project 8 and, though there is no overt barrier telling you what the play area is, said play area is still implied here and this mode also serves as a good way to rack up Skill Points. Despite the series starting on the PS1 era of consoles, the Classic Mode HUD has an interesting 8-bit aesthetic, which ties in more with the arcade machine angle. One thing I did like is that the camera actually pans away to a more comfortable distance from the skater much like the first seven entries, making one wonder why the rest of the game wasn't like this to begin with.

Though it’s three larger areas connected by tunnels and bridges, Philadelphia is designed such that it feels more like a larger world, rather than Project 8’s approach of placing non-specific condensed areas next to each other and hoping it made sense. While Philadelphia has a great level of detail, the accuracy of which I cannot vouch for, some things such as vehicles look a bit unpolished (then again, this is an early PS3 title) and Tony Hawk’s character model in particular looks a little unflattering compared to the other pros and original characters. On the more interesting side of things, it’s possible to spot a number of background references to Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, since Neversoft had also become the de facto developer for the series around this time.

While there is a lot of detail in the environments themselves, the muted
color palette and permanent gray skies make Philadelphia feel lifeless.

Aside from various clothing and accessory brands, there’s some visible product placement for Motorola, Jeep and 5 Gum. While the 5 brand can be seen on billboards, an entire Jeep dealership can be seen in one section of the game, in an inaccessible area just beyond a chain link fence. Motorola is once again the phone brand through which the player receives messages, specifically through a Motorola ic902, though in the form of audio rather than video. There is also a Motorola store within Philadelphia, including an entire store interior, though you cannot go inside.

The soundtrack, comprised of 58 songs, is generally good and has a lot of variety to it, however for some reason it didn’t feel like it had the same lasting impact as the soundtracks of some of the previous games. Regardless, some tracks did stand out to me more than others, though I didn’t like that I couldn’t see what song was currently playing while I was in the middle of a challenge. Among the more stand-out tracks are “Girls In Black” by Airbourne, “Electric Worm” by Beastie Boys, “Version 2.0” by Bloc Party, “Sanctuary” by Darkest Hour, “Everything Changes” by Deadbolt Zen, “The Sound of Words” by Divine Era, “Up All Night” by El-P, “The Pretender” by Foo Fighters, “Gift Tax” by Future Pigeon, “Radio” by Jurassic 5, “Carpenter” by Kittens, “Memories of the Grove” by Maylene and the Sons of Disaster, “Bear In The Air” by Motorcity Daredevils, “Breed” by Nirvana, “The New Beauty” by Paint It Black, “I’d Rather Die Than Be Famous” by Pierce the Veil, “Loathsome” by Pig Destroyer, “Well Thought Out Twinkles” by Silversun Pickups, “Tarantula” by Smashing Pumpkins, “Starving Artiste” by The Bled, “Clash City Rockers” by The Clash, “Garbageman” by The Cramps, “Holiday In The Sun” by Sex Pistols, “Electric Kingdom” by Twilight 22, “It Beats For You” by Voltera and “Secret Crowds” by Angels and Airwaves.

While there are some improvements over its predecessor, Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground is one of the weaker entries in the Pro Skater series as developed by Neversoft. The soundtrack and the attention to detail with Philadelphia are some of the better aspects of the game, though the story is largely uninteresting and several other visuals leave a lot to be desired. There are some interesting innovations in regards to the gameplay, however not all of it is executed very well to where I questioned whether some moves were really that necessary. Much like Project 8, this game is honestly a harder sell for me, even to more die-hard Pro Skater fans, though if the reception to the games developed by Robomodo are any indication, you’re better off playing this one instead.

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