by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Tony Hawk's Proving Ground & r & Rated Teen; XBox 360, Wii, PS3, PS2 & r & 4 Stars & r & & r & I started out as a forgettable inner-city hoodlum, rolling my skateboard across the cracked asphalt of the neglected parts of Philadelphia, jumping off curbs and hoping to catch a glimpse of something better behind the run-down buildings. My body hit the pavement a few hundred times whenever I started learning a new trick. But even in the most rat-trap neighborhoods there are plenty of fences, abandoned cars and bent boards on which to practice. All I needed was perseverance.

A few of the more experienced skaters gave me pointers. They taught me how to rig pipes along nearby Baltimore harbor, getting my picture taken with the sun dipping into the water behind me as I skidded along like an urban god. They taught me how to add speed and ferocity to my skateboarding so that I could ram into anyone who tried to stop me. And they hooked me up with as many professional skaters as a major videogame franchise can attract.

From these pros I discovered that skateboarding is like any form of theater. Audiences got bored if I repeated the same tricks. They demanded new flourishes every time I rolled up the quarter-pipe, and they wanted them done right before their eyes, not in front of the crowd at the other end of the skate park. And they really went wild if I improvised, flipping my skateboard between my feet with the dexterity of thumbs juggling joysticks.

Eventually skate companies, shoe manufacturers and clothing franchises all wanted to be on my body as I rode around the East Coast impressing tourists and sideswiping businessmen. So now I've got a sponsorship with Oakley sunglasses, more money than I know how to spend, and Tony Hawk calling on my cellphone. What's left for me to do? Practice skating. But now I do it in my tricked-out warehouse lair, hidden behind a graffiti-encrusted door in the heart of inner-city Philly where no one can see me bail.

THE GOOD: The cities in Tony Hawk's Proving Ground are the most beautiful urban environments erected in any videogame. Harbors reflect the grimy warehouses around them. Downtown fountains flow with crystalline foam. Storefronts have unique signs that aren't repeated every few blocks. And the transition from derelict neighborhoods to affluent centers of commerce is as apparent in the gleam on the buildings as it is in the sound of my skateboard wheels rolling from rough pavement to smooth, unblemished concrete.

THE BAD: During the last decade, the Tony Hawk series has progressed from featuring a handful of skating tricks to dozens and dozens. Figuring out what they all are is nearly impossible since the game only defines them with a name and sequence of button pushes. Couldn't they have licensed a skater to demo them, or used the in-game characters to show them off? As it is, the Grand Theft Auto III-style openendedness of Proving Ground is just another maze to blindly navigate on my way to mastering the tricks that interest me.

THE BOTTOM LINE: With Proving Ground, the Tony Hawk franchise skates onto new-generation consoles with stunning cityscapes and gracefully animated skaters, lacking only a coherent storyline to roll me through the game's abundant activities.

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