Underrated Games: Tony Hawk's Proving Ground

In the wake of the disastrous release of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 - a game so horrible that it makes me seethe with anger to know that Activision had the cheek to add it as a sequel to a series so beloved and revered by gamers - I started to have a look back at what I would like to call 'the glory days' of this franchise. I used to live and breathe the Tony Hawk games during high school. I used to play Underground and Pro Skater 4 for hours and my addiction to playing Underground 2 online with friends was slightly troubling. Although my love for these old games isn't the same that it used to be (that's what happens when you play something to death), they still hold a dear place in my nostalgic heart. But recently I have had a resurgence of enjoyment from the franchise, and that is after I finally got a PlayStation 3 and played Tony Hawk's Project 8, a game that until recently I had only played in the form of a downgraded PlayStation 2 version. After that I grabbed a copy of Tony Hawk's Proving Ground, the one I was most apprehensive to play out of all the Neversoft (R.I.P.) developed Tony Hawk games. The game's reception from people seems to be lukewarm at best. 

So where to start? Well something that always made the Tony Hawk games really great in my eyes was the customisation of your character, something that was sadly lacking from Project 8. As a lover of skateboarding and the culture that surrounds it, I always wanted to be a pro skater and the ability to make a character as close to my likeness as possible is a great way to immerse myself in the game and truly live out my pro skater fantasy. My first impression of Proving Ground was incredibly positive from seeing how it handled this feature. The amount of options available to customise your character was truly astounding to me. There weren't any scaling options to make your character shorter/wider etc, neither is there an option for female players to play as a girl, but I can let these things slide because the amount of options allowed me to create a character that looked so like me that my girlfriend and I agreed that it was slightly creepy. Other cool features include changing the colour of your skateboard's griptape and trucks, as well as, for the first time ever, picking the graphic for your wheels. It's surprising how many non-skaters don't realise that the best skateboard set ups are created by combining different parts from different companies. Although simply an aesthetic thing, being able to put wheels by companies like Gold, Ricta and Momentum on the skateboard of my character felt weirdly satisfying to me.

Skater created, you are then thrown into a storyline with three paths. Career, Hardcore and Rigger. Career is all about entering competitions, getting photos in magazines and getting sponsored, while hardcore is about skating like a badass for the passion of the sport without reward. Rigger I ignored from the get go because it is a bit silly and involves placing ramps and rails down to create 'insane' ways to skate certain spots. Unfortunately this whole idea is not very well realised and the system similar to the old create-a-park mode is clunky and doesn't work quite like it used to back in the older games. Career however was right up my ally, because I assumed it would be like Tony Hawk's Underground but next generation. It lacked the great storyline of Underground, but it was pretty similar: get sponsored, win stuff, get your own board design (although you sadly don't get to design it like in Underground - definitely a missed opportunity), create a team, etc, etc. It was nice to see my character talking in the story too, just like in Underground and American Wasteland. I went down the career path first, although you can progress with any of these three paths at any time you like.
The world you skate in builds perfectly on what Project 8 got right; a free-roaming world. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland was a bit sneaky with it, having tunnels between areas that basically functioned as ways to load the game without a loading screen. Project 8 changed this and made it so you could skate from one area to the next, no problem, one second you're in the school area, then you're in suburbia, awesome. Although very grey in colour, the areas that are based in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C. and they are much larger than Project 8's areas, and stream together in utter perfection. Skating through these huge city areas uninterrupted with cars driving and people walking past makes me very happy indeed. This is what a true next generation Tony Hawk game should feel like, and Neversoft definitely met all my expectations and then some with the areas of Proving Ground.
Before I move onto my gripes with the game, let me talk about the soundtrack. The Tony Hawk games are well known for having awesome soundtracks, my favourite being that of Tony Hawk's Underground. This one is awesome too. The Hip-Hop tracks especially. It feels absolutely epic to skate a competition while an absolute legend like KRS-One is rapping in the background. The rock tracks are good too, but I'm not so fussed about the metal ones. I'm not a hater of metal, but this is where the soundtrack falls a bit flat for me. In older games the metal tracks had variety: tracks like 'Embody The Invisible' by In Flames from Underground, or 'No W' by Ministry from Underground 2 stood out and were instantly recognisable to me, but since American Wasteland they seem to all just blend into one another.

Neversoft didn't do everything right though. Exhibit A: a game mechanic called Nail-The-Trick and all of its variants. For veterans of the Tony Hawk games, this feature will make you grind your teeth until only gums are left. It all works in theory, but then you have goals where you are expected to do the impossible so you can get the best ranking. Nail-The-Trick was something introduced in Project 8, and I was perfectly fine with it then. You were only asked to do it on occasion and then after that you can chose to do those goals but can still beat the game without ever going near them. All it is is a feature where you press the analog sticks down, and then go into slow motion and use the analog sticks to flip the board. In Proving Ground they also introduced Grabs and Manuals into this feature, making things a little more complicated. I think Neversoft were pressured by Activison to include this feature as the Tony Hawk franchise was trying to compete with Skate, a competitor game by EA that was much more realistic in comparison. In reality the Nail-The-Trick feature wasn't really realistic at all because no one on earth can flip 6 times in one air and then transition to a grab trick halfway through. The problem was that people who bought Tony Hawk games didn't want a game like Skate, but that is what they got, because the absolute worst (emphasis on worst) thing about this game is that they found a way to shoehorn this clunky if not broken feature into more or less every single goal possible, no matter what path you take. You'll have a goal where you are required to use traditional Tony Hawk game controls and you're like "phew, I escaped Nail-The-Trick for a second", then the moment you've breathed your sigh of relief, you are given a task that needs you to do it (no buts) and the only way to get a 'sick' ranking (the highest possible) is to be the best Nail-The-Trick'er that the world has ever seen. I would consider myself a pretty good Tony Hawk player, but my inability to grasp this horrible game mechanic would make me look like an absolute amateur to those who weren't familiar with the traditional control scheme. I am not sure why this game got such a lukewarm reception, but if they had placed less importance on this mechanic, this game would have probably been close to a next generation Tony Hawk masterpiece. I'm not kidding.
Compared to that, my other gripe is relatively small and that is the balance metres. They swapped out the traditional style balance metre for this weird wavy line that travels up and down the screen. It's really hard to get used to at first, and even after you've gotten used to it, it still doesn't work as effectively as the old balance metre style used to. The old one used to be positioned right above or to the side of your player depending on the trick, whereas this one fills the screen and is harder to follow while you're also concentrating on how your player in the middle of the screen is moving. Could be better really, but acceptable nonetheless. It would have been nice of the designers to include the option to switch back to the old style, just like how they had the option to change the camera angle back to a more traditional style.

When I'm skating around the massive world and messing around with my character's appearance, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground feels pretty much perfect to me, even the balance metre issue is something I can let slide. But the moment I attempt goals and Nail-The-Trick shows its ugly face again, it reminds me that this game isn't perfect, and instead has the makings of a near perfect game, something that sadly may never be improved upon now the Tony Hawk franchise is pretty much dead. I don't mean to be a downer, and I wish deep down I didn't have to say those words, but current developer Robomodo are clearly incapable of making Tony Hawk games correctly, and Neversoft were merged into Infinity Ward in 2014. Also reports of Activison's licensing deal with Tony Hawk expiring at the end of last year and not being renewed (leading to rumours that this is the reason Pro Skater 5 was rushed) doesn't exactly make me hopeful either. But I'm not going to end this article on a negative note and instead I will rectify this by suggesting something positive: If you can, get yourself a copy of each Neversoft developed Tony Hawk game. Have a marathon from the first game on the original PlayStation all the way up to Proving Ground. It isn't hard to notice the passion that fun-loving Neversoft clearly put into each of these games. I think Neversoft really put their all into Proving Ground and that is quite clear, because, though flawed, it's incredibly ambitious. When Nail-The Trick wasn't involved, I absolutely loved it, and I think anyone soured by Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 and wanting to relive this great franchise can learn to appreciate this game too.

I can't believe I haven't written an Underrated Games article since the Summer of 2014! Anyway, have you played Tony Hawk's Proving Ground? What did you think? Do you think it as bad as some people say it is? Sound off in the comment section below or on our Facebook and Twitter pages! 

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