What kind of skater are you? Are you the kind that likes to skate for the glory: the magazine covers, the endorsement deals, and the fame and fortune that come with it? You could be of the technical variety, the kind of grinder who gets more satisfaction out of finding and creating new places for skaters to perfect their craft. Or you may be the kind of skater who's not looking for the glory, but rather the sheer thrill of lighting it up on four wheels. Perhaps your personal approach is a mixture of all three of these different paths. Regardless of your philosophy, Activision's upcoming Tony Hawk's Proving Ground will likely be able to scratch that skating itch. We had a chance to spend some extended hands-on time with a recent build of the game to see how the different styles in the game add up.
The three different paths in Proving Ground are career, hardcore, and rigging. Career-path skaters are those looking to make a living as a pro, get the magazine covers, and the endorsement deals that follow. The hardcore path is for skaters who are in it for the love of the game, but aren't above laying out a little street justice in the process. The rigging path will challenge your building chops by giving you the tools to create your own ideal skatepark.
The slightly wider net of skating approaches is the means to an end in Proving Ground's story--in short, becoming the best skater around. As you play through the game, you can focus on any of the different paths available to you at any given time. Spend some time building an impromptu skate paradise in your favorite section of Washington, D.C. (one of the three cities featured in Proving Ground, along with Philadelphia and Baltimore), or go deal with some thugs who've taken over Philly's famous FDR Skatepark. Completing these various missions will earn you new abilities across all of the different career paths in the game. For hardcore missions, you'll earn upgraded abilities for your skater, such as skate-checking. As a rigger, you'll earn new items you can use to build out your skate parks. In one D.C. rigging mission, your job will be to customize the Air and Space Museum into an indoor skate park, and you'll earn objects such as rails, jumps, and more.
Along with story-specific challenges, there will also be a ton of spot challenges you can try at any point. These are your basic challenges that will test your skating skills along a number of different events, including rail grinding, jumping, and, naturally, racking up trick combos. A couple of the challenges we tried during our hands-on time with the game included a timed race event that had us skating through a series of trickily placed checkpoints, and a long-jump challenge that had us trying to clear an overpass. For the latter challenge, we had to make liberal use of the new "aggro kick" system, which will give a boost of speed, provided that you time each kick correctly.
Last year's Tony Hawk's Project 8 introduced a new gameplay feature--nail the trick--that let players have more control over their board's movement during jumps than ever before. The dual-analog-stick system, which let you kick or flip your board in any direction while your skater flew through the air in slow motion, has been extended in Proving Ground with a couple of new additions: nail the grab, and nail the manual. To nail the grab, you pull the left trigger while in the air, and your right and left sticks will control your right and left hands, respectively. You can grab the board at any point and move either analog stick to tweak your grab, or even do a finger-flip by moving either stick in a quarter-circle. Nail the manual will allow you to land on either the front or back wheels. To use it, you pull the right trigger and, once you've nailed the jump, you can move the stick up or down to control the angle of your manual, or left and right to steer. To ollie out of the manual, you simply let go of the right trigger. When you chain the various "nail the" modes together--with complex, huge air tricks involving multiple flips, twists, and grabs, only to finish by landing a perfect manual--you've got a pretty robust trick system that should please the more obsessive fans of the series.
Other new touches in the gameplay include a slightly reworked balance meter. Instead of the meter being above the player's head as in previous games, the balance meter is now integrated in the center and edges of the screen, resulting, oddly enough, in a more seamless look than before. There will also be a sim mode that will feature more realistic physics (such as jumps that aren't as high). In addition, the weather will have an effect on how your board handles, and you'll be able to have both a wet deck and a dry deck to choose from.
As you skate around in Proving Ground, you'll occasionally run into arcade machines strewn through the environments. The arcade spots let you can play minigames such as Hawkman, a skate-themed variation on Pac-Man that will have your skater collecting color-coded pellets throughout the environment. The different colors indicate the different "states" you need to be in to gobble up that pellet type--red pellets, for example, can only be collected when in the air, while yellow pellets can only be collected while grinding. However, in true open-ended style, you're always welcome to use your rigging skills to place rails or jumps in order to improve your chances of getting to hard-to-reach pellets on the map.
Speaking of rigging, the menus for building out your skatepark dreams are quite easy to use: You simply choose the object you want from the menu and place it in the environment. Once an object is placed, you can change its size with the analog sticks and, for rails, you can choose to either place them one at a time, or connect multiple rails into one continuous grind by clicking the left stick. Up to 30 pieces can be placed in the world at any given point. A new version of HORSE in the game will be tied to individual objects, with players competing for high scores on different objects placed in the map. In addition, when in multiplayer, all of the objects you create will be available for other players to check out for themselves.
One of the more interesting features in Proving Ground will be the new video editor, which will let you record footage from your various runs throughout the game, and then edit it to your heart's content with editing software that looks to be fairly robust. There are tons of effects and overlays you can add to your clips (many of which you'll unlock as you progress through the game) and you can place a camera practically anywhere in the environment to help capture your best tricks. You'll be able to add music to your clips, and developer Neversoft, who is also heading development on the upcoming Guitar Hero III, is using technology from the rocking rhythm game in Proving Ground in order to judge the quality of your edits. In the video editor, you'll be able to see where the beats of the tune you've selected are; the closer you cut to the beats, the higher the score you'll earn for your clip.
The downside to the system is that you can't rewind and save a clip on the fly. Instead, you have to manually begin recording before pulling off your best tricks. While that might detract from the spontaneity of the clips you have--inevitably, you'll have a few incredible moments that you wished you had "on tape"--with such powerful tools available, we still expect to see plenty of creative stuff coming from the Tony Hawk community once the game is released.
Your skate lounge will be a representation of all the things you've accomplished in Proving Ground. There are 10 themes to choose from for your lounge, from dance club to dojo, and you can fill up your huge space with items you've unlocked or bought with your hard-earned cash. Among the more interesting items were cars, skate ramps, and an absolutely massive plasma-screen television that looked to put most IMAX screens to shame. The video screens will play unlocked skate videos you've earned along the way; unfortunately, you won't be able to play your created videos in the player, which is a bummer. Still, once you build up enough stuff, your lounge can be a fun diversion for you to live out your skating fantasies--or invite a few buddies over for multiplayer fun and let them gawk at the items you've collected in the game.
With EA entering the competition with a skating game of its own this year, the competition for skateboarding supremacy has become a lot more interesting. Still, with control tweaks aplenty and enough gameplay variety to appeal to a wide range of skating approaches, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground looks like another winner in the popular franchise. According to Activision, a demo of Proving Ground will be available on Xbox Live in the near future. Stay tuned for more information on the game in the coming weeks.