Tony Hawk's Underground Review
The Tony Hawk series is one of the longest running non-sports series of games on the market, yet unlike old-timers like Tomb Raider, Hawk's games always seem to earn high scores. However, people have begun to grumble that the tried and true formula is starting to grow stale, and the yearly updates are looked upon with a little less enthusiasm each time around. This year, Neversoft has done a major overhaul of the game, giving it a new name: Tony hawk's Underground (THUG) and lessened the focus on professional skaters. While the core gameplay that everyone loves remains intact, the new feel to the game is a bit hit or miss. Some of the new additions are a breath of fresh air, while others feel like they were thrown in simply for lack of better ideas.
Instead of choosing a well-known, professional skater when you start the game, you are asked to create a character to take through the game's 27 chapters. The Playstation 2 version of THUG allows you to upload your own picture into the game, and while the process isn't flawless, it's pretty cool to finally see the promise of putting your face in a game realized after all these years. You start off in your house, working on your skateboard when your buddy Eric comes to tell you that Chad Muska has come to your run-down New Jersey town to skate a demo. After skating around a little and getting your bearings, you have the opportunity to impress Muska by skating in front of him and reaching a certain score. Since the game has four different difficulty levels, you'll know pretty quickly what level you should be playing at. If you're getting enough points to impress Muska in a few seconds, you can bump up the difficulty a notch or two, but if it's your first time playing a Tony Hawk game you can start at the bottom. The easiest setting is not only more forgiving with time limits, but it also makes it a lot easier to keep your balance and land tricks. If you've played and of the previous Hawks before there's no need to play it on easy. But it's certainly a welcome addition and makes the game less intimidating.
After you've impressed Chad, the game opens up and you can start talking to various townspeople so you can accomplish whatever challenge they have for you. These challenges often don't make a whole lot of sense, and a lot of times they are vague and difficult to figure out, but they do fit into the game better than collecting S-K-A-T-E for the thousandth time in the series. The biggest addition to the game is that you can now get off your skateboard, either to continue a combo, or to climb to somewhere you couldn't reach while on your board. Allowing you to get off your board allows you to create combos in almost every way you can imagine. Whether it's grinding a rail, then picking up your board to another grind spot or running to a ramp, the possibilities for major points are near endless. However, you can't run forever and continue a combo, as a meter pops up and will run out if you don't get back on your board within a few seconds. If you were to stop looking at the game's new additions here, you'd have what would look like a normal upgrade to the series, but, there are a few other things that have been added that don't work out so well.
The ability to get off your board is cool when you use it to skate more creatively, but Neversoft has added some goals in the game that can only be accomplished on foot. The first one you come across is trying to get back some stolen property from the local drug dealers, who are all over the neighborhood. The game takes away your board, and forces you to climb onto porch roofs and even shimmy across power lines to accomplish your goal. It's really lame, the controls are poor, and it feels really out of place in the game. The second addition is the ability to drive a car, and quite simply put, it's a disaster. The cars control horribly and the levels aren't particularly conducive to driving. It's great that the developers will take such big chances with an established franchise, but this idea doesn't seem like it was very well thought out.
THUG is an impressive looking game, especially considering its large scope. The levels are bigger than ever before, and the level of detail is quite good. Almost anywhere you think you can go, you can, and there are tons of ambient details that bring each level to life. Now more than ever, it seems that the levels were designed a little more realistically than in the past, and it's up to you to find the best skate spots. The character models are still lacking when compared to current games, but the gameplay is so tight, little problems like that can be overlooked. The game's framerate is, for the most part consistent, and only chugs when the action gets a little hectic. 16x9 display is also supported, and the game not only looks really nice on a widescreen television, but you can use the extra screen area to help judge jumps and landings.
One of the biggest trademarks of a Tony Hawk game is a huge, varied soundtrack, and THUG is no exception. KISS, Jane's Addiction, Nas, Jurassic 5, Bad Religion, Sublime, and The Clash are just a few of the bigger names on the soundtrack, though it's mostly lesser known bands that provide a majority of the tunes. You can also add or delete genres that you like or dislike, so you'll never have to hear a song that you can't stand. The game's voice acting isn't too bad, but the script is rather corny at times. The story's not really one that can be taken too seriously, so it's not that much of a big deal. The game's ambient sounds don't seem too different from the last few games, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Neversoft has done an admirable job of keeping the Tony Hawk series fresh, though it seems like they finally may be running out of ideas. The car driving marks a first time in the series that a new idea simply falls flat on its face, and the ability to get off your board, when used improperly, does the same. That being said, the online mode, which allows you to download and upload created parks, and take on people from all over the country in a variety of events, might be an indication of what's in store for future incarnations of the game. The online content is solid, and then menus are easy to use, making it clear that the PS2 version of the game is the one to purchase if you have the option. If you're a fan of the series, then there is enough new here to keep your interest, but if you're growing a little tired of the games, then a rental might suffice.
1/20/2004 Aaron Thomas