If you've been keeping up with the Tony Hawk series on the DS, you'll recall that the previous game, Downhill Jam, shifted the focus from linking sick tricks together in free-roam skate parks to doing so in claustrophobic downhill courses. That experiment must not have been popular with the powers that be because the newest game, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground, takes the series back to its open-ended roots. You can build your own custom skater and skate park in the story mode, as well as tackle challenges for up to seven skate parks in the classic mode. You can also try to outscore other players in the wireless or online modes all while exploring the surrounding environment and performing tricks at your own whim or pace.
Performing realistic tricks and learning how to link them together into monumentally lengthy chains has always been the hallmark of the Tony Hawk series. And that aspect is definitely in full force in Tony Hawk's Proving Ground. As you manipulate the D pad and ride your board around one of the game's expansive 3D skate parks, you'll notice plenty of edges, rails, ramps, quarter pipes, or other interesting surfaces with which to interact. Literally every button on the system is put to use to let you go wild on those surfaces. If you key in a button sequence in the air or near an edge, your onscreen persona will kick, grab, grind, or handplant just as you've indicated. When you're falling back to solid ground, you can initiate a transitional move, such as a footplant, revert, or manual, to keep the combo multiplier growing while you speed toward the next ramp or rail. Wall slides, wallplants, and spine transfers also let you change course without breaking your trick chain.
In addition to using the buttons to perform various tricks, you can tap spots on the touch screen when your style meter is full to execute special tricks, activate a slow-motion effect, or bail out into a temper tantrum minigame. Special tricks are high-risk, high-reward tricks that can be performed while grinding in midair or during a manual. As you'd expect, the slow-motion effect gives you more hang time, which in turn means you have more time to link kicks and grabs together. The last option, the temper tantrum, is a bizarre ability that's taught to you by Bam Margera in the story mode. Basically, if your style meter is full and you're about to land on your face, you can distract the judges with a tantrum to hold onto the points you'd otherwise lose. It isn't very realistic, but it sure is entertaining.
Getting the hang of the controls does take a while mainly because there are dozens upon dozens of skater moves and tricks to learn. However, the controls are laid out logically and never feel unwieldy. It merely takes time for every button's purpose to become ingrained. To that end, the lesson tutorials and the challenges the pro skaters give you in the story mode will gradually lead you through the basics to the finer points of spooling out massive combos.
The story mode in Proving Ground is set up similarly to the story mode in previous games, in that you roam around looking for pro skateboarders and then try to complete the tasks they ask of you. These tasks vary in difficulty and provide different levels of cash reward for how well you complete them. For example, if you're told to follow the camera crew around, you'll get more money for performing 15 tricks on cue than you will for 10. Every time you accomplish a certain number of tasks, you'll unlock a new skate park and another pro skater will start appearing in all of the parks you've opened up to that point (giving you additional challenges to complete). A neat part of this game's story mode is that you actually get to outfit one of the parks with ramps, rails, and other structures of your choice. Another sweet aspect is how the game makes the distinction between hardcore and career-style pro skaters. By setting out to complete tasks doled out by skaters from a specific discipline, your own custom character will learn moves unique to that discipline. In short, you have some control over how your park and skater develop.
As always, if you simply want to pick a pro skater and forgo the story, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground offers the standard timed classic mode that has been with the series since its inception. For each park, you're given a list of goals and two minutes during which you need to complete as many goals as possible. Goals include scoring milestones, as well as gap and transfer challenges. They also include collecting things like video tapes and the letters that spell "S-K-A-T-E." It isn't possible to accomplish all of the goals in a single run, which means there's some incentive to replay each park multiple times to complete the overall checklist. If you've played a Tony Hawk game in the past, you'll realize the developers haven't done anything to tinker with how the classic mode in this game works. Just about the only new option is the ability to save a run from each park as a "video" clip that you can watch later. These clips also play randomly when you leave the game sitting idle at the menu screen.
Whatever you say about the previous game, Downhill Jam, it did at least offer a solid multiplayer mode with a good selection of match types suitable for as many as four players in both local and online connections. Tony Hawk's Proving Ground builds on that solid foundation. You can link up with players locally or through Wi-Fi and compete in any of 10 different competitions. There are the usual suspects: score challenges, endurance challenges, and eliminations. There are also unique types, such as horse and red light/green light. Red light/green light is a goofy contest in which points are gained by performing tricks when the light is green and lost by performing them when the light is red. Matches played online over Wi-Fi are a little jittery but totally playable. Furthermore, if you play against people on your friend code list, you can voice chat during the match. Without a doubt, the best thing Proving Ground offers over Downhill Jam in terms of online functionality is integration with the game's official Web site. You can look at stats, join a clan, and participate in tournaments. Also, your status will occasionally result in rewards being transferred back into the game.
For the most part, Proving Ground looks and sounds just like Tony Hawk's American Sk8land did two years earlier. That's not a negative because the polygon-rendered characters still look decent and the 3D environments still pack plenty of detail. The behind-the-back viewpoint and smooth frame rate haven't changed either. What has changed, though, is the style of the graphics. They don't have the cartoonlike cel-shaded outlines anymore. Now, they look crisp and realistic--or as realistic as the limited polygon output of the DS allows. You'll see better renditions of skaters, such as Tony Hawk and Bob Burnquist in your lifetime, but these are fine. Skate fans will also appreciate the brief video clips showing the game's pro skaters in action doing what they do best. As for the audio, the digitized groans and board effects sound spot-on, while the 13 different grunge music tracks provide a fitting soundtrack. You'll hear tracks from Foo Fighters, Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins, among others.
All told, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground is a "classically" styled Tony Hawk game that, for better or worse, doesn't really bring anything new to the Tony Hawk experience. Instead, it simply layers more variety, customization, and polish on top of everything that people loved from earlier installments.