Tony Hawk’s Underground
Before Tony Hawk lent his name to publisher Activision and developer Neversoft for their Pro Skater series, good skateboarding videogames did not exist. If anyone wanted to experience this particular “extreme” sport they either had to settle for Skater or Die on the NES or deal with the often painful scrapes and bruises of real life boarding. Well, luckily Mr. Hawk did lend his name and, perhaps even more luckily, Activision created a game with incredible level designs and a superb trick system. Now, a few years and four sequels later, the Tony Hawk series is up to the same old tricks with Tony Hawk’s Underground.
Same old tricks you say? Yep. First off, that is definitely not a bad thing, as every title in the series has been fantastic whether released for the Xbox, GameBoy Advance or any other system. Secondly, I know Activision is touting Tony Hawk’s Underground (henceforth – Underground) as being a somewhat revolutionary game for the series, what with its new story mode, the ability to get off your skateboard and drive vehicles, but it’s really not that much different from previous Tony Hawk titles. The basic gameplay in Underground is exactly what you would expect from the series: objectives are to be completed, insane combos are to be pulled off and a bucket-load of fun is to be had.
Probably the biggest new feature of the game, when compared to previous iterations in the series, is the beefed up career mode. It used to be that you just picked a real life pro skater and took him/her through a series of levels, gaining stats points, new boards and other unlockables. Now, in Underground, you are given a chance to create a character and guide him/her through a rags-to-riches storyline starting in the slums of New Jersey and ending up in famous locales across the globe. The number options you are given in constructing your custom skater is impressive, so go ahead and create that pink leotard-wearing midget named Chubs, or whatever else your heart desires. The actual plot that unfolds during this new career mode is helped along by numerous in-game cut scenes and appearances from famous professional skaters like Chad Muska and Bob Burnquist, but isn’t terribly exciting or noteworthy (other than being funny at times). Really, the only reason you will want to play through the career mode in its entirety is to unlock new stuff and skate at new more impressive locations.
Many of the objectives in the story mode are the same “grind X amount of feet” or “pull off X points in a combo” type of goals Tony Hawk veterans will feel quite familiar with, but there are some new things thrown into the mix. This time around it is much easier to identify key characters around you, as Neversoft placed obvious red icons over all of their heads. Not only that, if you don’t feel like scouring the surroundings looking for person, you can just press pause, select an objective and the game will automatically send you to the correct location on the map. Also, every so often you are forced to get behind the wheel of a car or some other vehicle to compete a goal, and while this might seem like a great new feature on paper, it is completely ruined by horrible physics and sloppy controls. I’m surprised to see such a sub par gameplay element thrown into a Tony Hawk game; Neversoft should be rightly ashamed of themselves.
Thankfully, the new ability to get off your board is much better implemented into the game than the driving, but it too is not without flaws. First the good news: getting off your skateboard allows you the freedom to explore and climb throughout the expansive environments at a much more leisurely pace than was previously possible. You can also jump off your skateboard for a limited time without ending a combo, adding even more to the already deep Tony Hawk gameplay. The problem that arises with this new feature mostly lies with the unrealistically quick way your character moves while running in conjunction with a clunky camera. Making precise jumps and tight-roping skinny railings seems dang near impossible at times and can lead to bouts of serious frustration. Luckily, you aren’t forced to travel by foot much during the story mode, so 95% of the time you will be moving about via your trusty skateboard.
Underground will definitely keep you busy for some time with its impressive Create-A-Park, Create-A-Deck and all new Create-A-Trick options. It’s very cool to take your newly created boarder (carrying a deck you designed) and pull off insane created tricks in your own personal created park. The sky really is the limit when it comes to customization; it’s hard not to spend hours and hours tinkering with your parks and tricks because of the sheer number of options given. The various multiplayer modes that have graced past Tony Hawk titles, like Tag, Trick Attack, etc, are all there and accounted for, but online play via Xbox Live or split screen co-op through the story mode are nagging omissions.
I find it a bit strange that Tony Hawk 2X is still the best looking game in the series, even though three successors have been released since that title hit the Xbox. All multiplatform Tony Hawk games that Activision has put out so far have obviously been optimized for the PS2 and ported over to the GameCube and Xbox. What this means for Xbox owners is you are getting a good looking game with a steady framerate and clean textures, but special touches like bump-mapping and dynamic lighting are glaringly absent. That’s not to say the game looks bad, but it’s just a shame to see any game not take full advantage of the system it is released for.
That said, the environments in the game are still incredibly well designed and allow for flat out jaw-dropping combos to be performed. With real time automobile and pedestrian traffic and a great draw distance, it often feels like you are in an actual location and not some contrived stage. Also impressive about the environs is the high number of interactive features such as trashcans, bottles and animals among others, that all react as you skate about completing objectives. All boarding animations in the game are very lifelike and fluid, especially for those wicked-looking crash landings. The characters themselves are not comprised of a high number of polygons, but they more than get the job done due to some convincing facial animations. There does seem to be more clipping in Underground than in previous games in the series, but I contribute that mostly to the new driving and “get off your board” gameplay elements.
The song list included in the game is fantastic (it’s nearly 100 tracks!). Whether it’s ska, punk, hip-hop, classic rock, funk, or nearly any other type of music you could ever fancy skateboarding to, the game has what you want. My personal favorite is the Jurassic 5 track “A Day at the Races,” that is played during the creative opening montage. As usual, custom soundtracks are supported, so any music burned to your Xbox’s hard drive is ripe for the playing. Voice acting during the story mode is convincing, though sometimes annoyingly stereotypical – cops and security guards often sound like morons or hicks and many of the boarders sound like they are on mind-altering substances. Underground pulls from the same deep pool of boarding sound effects used by its predecessors, so while it won’t sound like anything you haven’t’ heard before, it still top quality.
Okay, so Underground isn’t a revolutionary Tony Hawk game. So what? It still features the same incredibly tight skateboarding gameplay and awesome level design that keep the series head and shoulders above all other titles in the extreme sport genre. The poor driving mechanics and awkward controls for running and climbing do distract a bit, but not enough to overshadow the fun there is to be had on your skateboard tearing up the expansive environments. I’m not sure how long this series can hold up before needing a serious overhaul, but as for now Mr. Hawk definitely still has game.