They say that owners come to resemble their pets. We're not sure what the scientific basis of this claim is, but people frequently compliment this reviewer on the appearance of his own dog, so it must be true.
In the same way, the Tony Hawk series has come to resemble the virtual skateboard at the centre of its universe. Despite being unremarkable on the surface, both have indefatigable forward momentum and both are capable of much more than their modest exteriors suggest.
This is the tenth Tony Hawk game to have appeared in the eight years since the series' first appearance, and, while there have been refinements, not much has changed over the generations. After last year's racer Downhill Jam, developer Vicarious Visions has returned to first principles with Proving Ground.
Let's start small. You begin with the choice of Story, Classic, Free Skate and Lessons. Given the staggering number of moves available, the last of these options is a crucial first port of call, walking you through the basics of movement and the simpler tricks.
In what looks like a junkyard, littered with girders and rusted vehicles, you learn first how to execute the most basic skating stunt, an 'ollie', by holding down B and then letting go. This enables you to jump. Soon afterwards, you're doing something called a 'manual' by pressing up and down in quick succession, and soon thereafter a Spine Transfer by pressing R shoulder at the rim of a slope. And so on, until you're prepared for the game proper.
Except, you're never prepared. Free Skate and Classic let you play without stabilisers, but before tackling at least some of Story, you'll be fumbling in the dark – at least half of Proving Ground is training.
Story mode places you in a series of environments peopled with professional skaters and other individuals. You progress from level to level by completing tasks, and each task has three grades of completion, from 'amateur' to 'sick', which means that you can stagger through the game scraping ignominiously by or persevere for full marks in everything.
For the most part, Story is nakedly a drawn-out training session. The people you bump into specify moves for you to carry out and mark waypoints on the map, like the disembodied voice that stewards you through the brief lessons, and the points-scoring games simply force you to demonstrate what you've learned. As you make your way through it, you'll find you're picking up a lot.
While each of the environments looks ordinary on the surface, if a little heavy on the plank ramps, you'll come to develop a skater's eye for the jumping potential of every rounded corner and the grinding possibility of every straight edge. The number of tricks you can do seems innumerable, and only sustained play will see you using a tenth of them to good effect in strings of combos and aeronautic displays. Ignorance won't stop you having fun, however, and even before you've mastered the more intricate moves you can get thrills by bowling from wall to wall, gathering pace and tumbling through the air as the world spins and seesaws.
Classic mode invites you into the environments you've unlocked to complete more open-ended tasks. Each map contains a farrago of subtasks – like collecting all the letters in a word, or picking up objects – that you can't complete in a single go, adding another layer of completist incentive.
Unfortunately, use of the touchpad is limited to rare moments. If you fill up your style meter, you can use your thumb to carry out a range of bonus tricks, like playing mid-air guitar with your skateboard and slowing time, but for most of the game the touchpad is underused. Proving Ground has plenty of detail, then, but it lacks imagination.
Nevertheless, where it fails to employ the touchscreen, it makes up for the omission with the DS's wireless capabilities. Amongst other things, it's possible to play in Elimination and Endurance competitions locally or online against three opponents, recording your scores centrally and even downloading points from the website onto your machine.
The graphics are plain but competent, with untroubled frame rates throughout, and the sound is superb. Bands like Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins provide the music, while the effect of the skateboard clattering off surfaces and rolling across the ground is satisfyingly solid.
Aesthetically, and in all other regards, Proving Ground is a luxuriously glossy game. The general neglect of the touchscreen is a disappointment, and sticklers might criticise it for not moving the series on, but criticisms like this aren't going to injure the skating behemoth's pride. And nor should they, because Proving Ground is by far the best at what it does on DS.
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