Reviewed: November 26, 2007
Released: October 15, 2007
Over the past handful of years we have seen a number of Tony Hawk titles released for the GBA and DS, and one thing that has remained a staple in the Hawk series is the commitment to excellence that Activison and series-creator Neversoft command from each subsequent release, even (or especially) when the game is an entirely separate third-party build for handheld console by the likes of Vicarious Visions – the commitment to quality remains.
From the handheld series’ roots as an often cumbersome isometric trick simulator similar to an the ancient classics 720ş and Skate or Die, to the more recent behind-the-skater romps similar to the traditional console versions of the game – the Tony Hawk series oozes quality and fun on the handheld mediums.
Tony Hawk's Proving Ground is a perfect example, proving to be the absolute best handheld iteration of the series and probably the best extreme sports title on the DS to date. And after playing through the Wii and PS2 versions Proving Ground, I would have to say that I like the DS version the best.
The Tony Hawk console formula has been rock-solid since its inception in 1998. Over the years, we have seen a steady succession of gameplay tweaks and structure changes, but the Hawk formula has generally remained intact. And while this can be seen as a tribute to a job well done, it can just as easily be considered lack of innovation.
On the handhelds however, the Tony Hawk series has experienced a number of significant gameplay changes; most noticeable the recent move from the non-rotating overhead isometric viewpoint to a more traditional 3D behind the back view found in the console releases. This was a function of the handhelds’ memory and processing limitations at the time, and as the developers have been able to utilize the added strength of the DS and PSP, we have seen the games steadily approaching the quality of the console titles.
To any Hawk veteran, Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground is immediately going to look familiar as a kind of mix between the gameplay and structure of the consoles’ Tony Hawk Underground (THUG) games, in particular THUG 2, with its mix of mission-based Story and challenge-based Classic single player modes.
The Story mode follows the main plotline of placing the gamer in the shoes of a fledgling local skater who somehow has inherited the use of a gigantic warehouse area in which to build a skatepark. Through the course of the story, the gamer accrues money for performing certain missions that are doled out by the inhabitants of the seven different east coast levels, including Washington DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. This money can be used to purchase items for the skatepark headquarters with the ultimate goal to bring the Birdman to your pad for a demo shoot.
He missions range from the standard “Grind this many feet” or “Get this combo score” to the more wacky ones requiring the gamer to pick up litter, or alleviate the boredom of scattered museum patrons by tricking off the displays. Each mission has a three-tiered achievement level; Amateur, Pro, and Sick, which differ, based on the requirements put forth by the game. Gamers might receive Amateur level by collecting three of five scattered icons during a given time limit, Pro might require all five icons in the same time limit, and Sick might require all five icons collected in a single combo. Some missions are easy for getting Pro and Sick level achievements, while others are nearly impossible. The payoff for getting the higher rating is in the cash rewarded, so it often pays to retry missions a few times over even if you already have the needed progression medal.
Proving Ground introduces the new chaining move, the Agro Kick, which allows gamers to build previously unseen levels of speed by well-timed presses of a face button. This has the dual benefit of increasing speed and continuing combos, making for massive score multipliers, especially when combined with reverts, manuals, and transfers in vert-heavy areas like pools and bowls. It is not uncommon to have a 600,000-point single combo score that incorporated 20-plus tricks – meaning you will be all the more frustrated when you unexpectedly bail at the end of a run and lose the points entirely. The game does offer a unique Freak Out mode, which allows bailed gamers to tap on three rapidly moving onscreen bars, trying to max out their levels and in doing so retain a certain percentage of the score that had been built before the wreck.
The game doesn’t try too hard (in a good way, mind you) to incorporate the touch screen, other than to map each character’s super special moves to a bouncing onscreen icon that appears once the special meter maxes out. The other element is a nod to the console versions’ Nail-The-Trick mode, which flashes a series of stylus swipes that must be performed in order to achieve the required goals. Since the stylus tricks require sacrificing the use of the face button hand, most of the skater control is performed on rails. Although it was a nice attempt, the stylus moves are just not all that compelling during gameplay.
The Classic mode brings back the series early days’ of collecting S-K-A-T-E, grinding out C-O-M-B-O, collecting hidden tapes, and performing specific tricks. For old timers like myself, this is the ultimate Hawk experience, and the drive to collect all the items in a single run will leave gamer heading to the pause and restart loop more often then they would like to admit.
Proving Ground looks killer on the DS. In fact, while it could never compare to the console versions visuals, it is one of the best looking games on the handheld, hands down. I would liken it to the late-cycle PS1 visuals, but with a rock steady 30fps framerate and nary a nick of slowdown.
The levels are relatively large, and feature a ton of neat textures and pattern overlays to give the different surfaces a unique appearance. Even the plywood has the trademark knotting and grain structure that the Hawk series has nailed so realistically over the years.
Tony Hawk games have always been tops on sound quality, and Proving Ground does not disappoint. From the rockin’ licensed soundtrack to the awesome sound effects, Proving Ground nails the Hawk audio formula 100%.
Licensed soundtrack? Yes. This Hawk game features a ton of licensed tunes from the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, the Sex Pistols, and more, and although the sounds are a bit compressed and tinny on the miniscule DS speakers, they are quite acceptable with the use of headphones.
The one effect that the Hawk games nail time and time again is the accurate sounds of the polyurethane wheels on the different surfaces, and no surprise Proving Ground makes the grade. There is never a question when transferring from brick to concrete, it just sounds right. Even transferring between streets (continuous concrete) and sidewalks (regularly spaced seams) is noticeable simply by the accuracy of the clack-clack-clack sound effects. My personal favorite, plywood, comes across with an excellent soft roll that will make all skaters (former or current) smile.
Gamers looking for the perfect blend of casual and hardcore gaming for their handheld systems are not going to find a better bang for their buck than Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground. Between the Story and Classic modes there are hours’ worth of single player gaming – that can be equally enjoyed in either small commute-sized snippets, or long late night sessions.
The addition of wireless play via both local link and Nintendo WiFi is an awesome addition, and the unique method of gameplay selection (allowing each player his or her chance at picking mode) is a nice feature. Heck, gamers can even design their own basic board designs using the stylus and a Mario Kart-esque art palette. Who could ask for more?
Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground is a hand-cramping jam on the DS. It looks great, plays great, and has enough meat to keep gamers happy long after the holiday hangover has worn off. Kudos go out to the folks at Activision, Neversoft, and especially Vicarious Visions, for giving us the first true old school Tony Hawk experience on the DS.