Tony Hawk’s ‘Proving Ground’

I’m going to give all of you who dare to attempt it a moment to think about how many Tony Hawk games there have been since the series premiered in 1999. Don’t worry, take your time. Trust me, it’s more than you think. OK, done? It’s 10. Yes, 10, not counting multiple versions of the same title. Bonus points in the Nerd Olympics if you can name them all. The question is, after having everything from his beak to his giblets hacked up and sold off so many times, can the “Bird Man” still fly?

The answer is yes, kind of. Years of rehashing the same basic game have allowed the developer Neversoft to create a finely honed base of control and design that manages to shine through its off-putting presentation and the “haven’t I done this before?” repetitiveness. Veterans of the previous games, especially last year’s “Project 8,” should feel right at home with the controls.

The different face buttons and triggers allow you to execute your various tricks, and the controls are natural and well-implemented. Once in the air, you can click the two analog sticks to slow down time and perform a “Nail the Trick” stunt (returning from last year) or the new “Nail the Grab” and “Nail the Manual” maneuvers. This can be pretty cool in the beginning, but the game quickly demands an amount of dexterity and precision that will elude many players. That holds true for the rest of the game – those that have been following the series all along will feel very comfortable, but newcomers and amateurs will become quickly frustrated with the game’s complexity.

In terms of presentation, the game features scores of real-life professional skaters lending their speech and likeness to the story, although their collective lack of voice-acting talent, awkward lip-syncing and inane dialogue often makes their inclusion more of an annoying distraction than a treat. Thanks to this, along with the game’s lackluster story and brooding atmosphere, I quickly wished I could skip all of the game’s cut scenes.

Otherwise, Tony Hawk’s “Proving Ground” is graphically sound, if not unimpressive. It would be hard for anyone to discern a difference between this installment in the series or last year’s version from a visual standpoint. The animation, however, continues to be top-notch, making the tricks impressive to watch, if less interesting to actually perform. Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C. serve as the game’s backdrop this time, so if you ever had the desire to grind your way down The Mall, you can finally do so without the ensuing FBI file.

The soundtrack continues to be full of recent and not-so-recent hits, but the well of appropriate skater music for the games has begun to run pretty dry. One of the few new features this year is the ability for the player to add ramps and other environmental hazards at any time to the game world. This sounds nice, but after a while I started to wish the developer had just done the work for me.

Ultimately, Tony Hawk’s “Proving Ground” does nothing to push the series forward, and now that it has real competition for the first time in years in the form of EA’s much praised “Skate,” Neversoft needs to ask itself if “same old, same old” really cuts it anymore. If you love the Tony Hawk series and are dying for more, you’ll enjoy this installment. If you’ve always hated the games, this chapter won’t change your mind. And if you’re craving a new take on the genre, you finally have that option with “Skate.”

By next year’s release this dog will hopefully have learned some new tricks. Otherwise it might be time to send the old boy upstate.

Tony Hawk’s “Proving Ground” is rated T for Teen and available now for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PlayStation 2, Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS.

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