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Tony Hawk's Underground
Review By: Greg Lynch
 
Developer:  Neversoft
Publisher:  Activision
# Of Players:  1-2 (2-8 online)
Genre:  Extreme Sports
ESRB:  Teen
Online:  Yes
Accessories:  Memory Card, Network Adaptor
Date Posted:  1-15-04

The Tony Hawk series has been universally accepted as the epitome of extreme sports games for good reason. Not only is it essentially the grand-daddy of the genre, it has also continually set the standard to which all other games in the genre have been compared. Each installation in the series has featured rock solid gameplay with just enough changes to keep the game feeling fun and fresh. However, Neversoft took the concept a huge step further in their latest game, Tony Hawk Underground (THUG), by offering a story mode which will likely change the landscape of sports titles for years to come, and for the most part it’s a success.

The game does little to evolve the series’ basic game controls, and if you’re familiar with other Tony Hawk games you will undoubtedly feel right at home in this title. All the tricks and moves are executed in the same fashion as Tony Hawk 4 (and apart from minor changes in each version, all the rest of the games in the series as well). For the uninitiated, executing tricks merely consists of moving the directional pad (or joystick) in any direction followed with a button press. Getting higher scores requires stringing tricks together in a combo, and keeping it going as long as possible. Thankfully, tricks are easy to execute on the PS2’s extreme sport-friendly controller.

The largest change to the series in this version is the focus on a story mode. While the story, which tells of your character‘s quick rise to stardom from a small town in New Jersey (like Jon Bon Jovi with a skateboard!), is fairly uninspired, it still does a decent job of compelling you to keep playing through the game. It also allows for some pretty amusing challenges, although several missions almost feel like Acclaim’s BMX XXX inspired them. Whether or not you consider that a good thing is totally dependent on your tastes.

Overall, the story mode does add a new element that lets the title feel like a fresh change of pace to the series, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. For example, there are driving missions that put you in control of a car, and send you on mundane and sometimes annoying missions. The car physics are inexcusable in even the cheapest of bargain games, and the whole experience does nothing except pull you out of the role of skater and break up the flow of the game. If you can imagine replacing the skater’s unrealistic “floating” physics with a car, you’ll get the general idea.

More successful, but still questionable, is the ability to jump off your board and explore the level on foot. This allows you to reach locations that would otherwise be impossible; including rooftops on which you can climb and ladders you can shimmy up to reach higher ground. It helps to keep things interesting for a while, but does little apart from adding an extra layer of height to a level. You can also continue a combo for a short period once you jump off the skateboard, but I found it mostly worthless after a while and ended up only getting off the board if the game required me to for missions or to find hidden objects.

Probably the largest hit the game takes from the story, however, comes from your inability to play through the career with any of the pro skaters. While the rest of the series allows you to play as each pro included in the game, sometimes even changing goals slightly for each character, THUG forces you to play with a user-created character (male or female) which seriously hurts the longevity of the title compared to the other games. The developers did give you a reason to keep playing in the form of four selectable skill levels, and additional rewards for each one completed, but by the end of the game you might find yourself hard pressed to want to go through it all again.

Of course, a new iteration of the Tony Hawk franchise wouldn’t be complete without adding even more stuff in terms of customizing the game, and this time the developers really went all out. Level editing is even easier, and now includes the ability to create level goals, including the feature to edit the text spoken by the people who give you the goals. There’s also the ability to create your own tricks by cutting and pasting the game’s default tricks and combining them together to make a completely new one. Also, the game returned the ability to create your own board. However, it’s more a matter of combining board effects into one design. In the end, it does allow for the masses to make a much neater looking board, with no drawing skills required.

Then there’s the online support, which is worlds beyond the Xbox’s system link capability (that version features no online support).  Supporting up to 8 players at a time (3 via modem), there are a ton of different games to take part in.  Games supported online include Capture the Flag, Firefight (shoot fireballs at other players), Freeskate, Score Challenge, Horse, and more.  Online support doesn’t just involve playing though, as each player has their own storage space to upload and exchange custom parks, tricks, skaters, and more! The PS2 also supports importing your own face into the game, which is really the ultimate in customization.  All the player has to do is submit a photo via thugonline.com, which can then be downloaded to memory card and customized as the player sees fit.  This little thing alone really adds a lot to the game, making the journey to become a star skater your own.

If you are like me and found Tony Hawk 4’s level design a step backward from the rest of the series, you’ll be pleased to find a much more focused experience in THUG. The levels have returned to a smaller size, resembling those of the rest of the series, but with a much better placement of line-forming objects. Everything is colorful and memorable, from the bustling activity as people walk around to the landmarks found in each of the cities you visit. It’s definitely some of the best stuff I’ve seen from the series.

The game’s graphics are also a step up from the rest of the series, though by no means perfect. The game now features smoother animation, better texture work, reflective surfaces, and just an all around cleaner presentation. The framerate is rock solid, though the weird slowdown around steam still remains for whatever reason. My main complaint is the same one I’ve had with the entire series, and that is in the form of character design. For whatever reason, all the characters in the game still look a little strange, and now, with the focus being on user-created characters, it becomes even more noticeable. Despite the ability to shift and warp nearly every aspect of your character, it’s darn near impossible to make one in the least bit appealing, not to mention look in the slightest bit like you or anyone you know. Though, seeing what the pro’s distorted faces look like, it might be for the best.

The game’s audio is another small step in the right direction, thanks to some fairly decent voice work. Your character speaks every line of dialogue in the game, with one voice set for male and one for female, and it adds a lot to the in-game cut scenes. The music is also better than last year’s game, though still nothing memorable like the first couple of games in the series. At least it doesn’t hurt the ears too much, and if it does there’s always the ability to use custom soundtracks. The sound effects are also spot-on, and do a great job of adding atmosphere to the title.

HIGHS:

  • The return of interesting level design
  • A nice change in the series overall design
  • Customization is better than ever
  • Deepest online play in any sports game this side of Madden

LOWS:

  • Few reasons to play through multiple times
  • Painfully tossed in vehicle levels

FINAL VERDICT:

In the end, if you take the game in context of the rest of the series, THUG is a solid entry. All the elements are there for both fans of the series, and newcomers alike.  Online play adds a lot to the experience, and definitely makes the PS2 version the one to own among all three consoles.  However, it never feels as much like an evolution of the series as it does a side project, and when compared to a game like SSX3 you can’t help but scratch your head wondering if maybe the series should take a break for a couple of years and really revolutionize the franchise.  It’s definitely a fun game worthy of the name, but fans looking for more out of the series might find themselves slightly disappointed in spite of all the fun the game has to offer.

Overall Score: 8.8

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