With the launch of the first Tony Hawk Pro Skater title in 1999 on the PlayStation, Overlord Hawk was well on his way. Since then, the series has caused an explosion of extreme sports brands on home consoles – even Disney has hopped onto the bandwagon with their new Disney’s Extreme Skate Adventure game. Despite fierce competition, Neversoft’s Tony Hawk series has consistently remained at the head of the pack thanks to a wealth of new tricks, environments and gameplay features, but this year marks the series most drastic revision yet – you don’t play as Tony Hawk!
Gameplay - Ok, ok – calm down, you skateboarding punks. You can still play as the esteemed Mr. Hawk, Lord of the 900, in everything BUT the Story Mode, which is new this year. In this mode, gamers are thrown into the shoes of a loser from Jersey who wants to hit the big time. This loser can be whoever you want: a guy, a girl, a fat clown with an afro and bellbottoms – the sky’s the limit in the Create-a-Skater menu. Gamers jump onto their crappy starter board, head out into the environments, and start completing goals to gain notoriety.
For example, in the first level you want to become noticed by a famous skater who happens to be in the neighborhood. To manage that, you need to reach a points goal by performing tricks where he can see you. Sounds easy, and to those who’ve played the previous Hawk games – it is. The controls have stayed the same from the previous games, with the addition of several new tricks, and two new major gameplay tweaks.
The first change is that you can finally leave your board behind. A quick button tap, and gamers pick up their boards and run around the level to their heart’s content. You can even jump up onto objects, pull yourselves up onto ledges and roofs, and perform other moves normally reserved for action/adventure titles. Running around is also used to link moves, providing you get back on the board quickly. It’s possible to jump off a rail, run quickly to the next, then leap into the air and set the board down for a grind to continue the combo. It’s possible to string together extremely lengthy combinations that way, making it all too simple to shatter point records from previous games. Collision detection off the board is pretty sketchy though, and it’s sometimes impossible to find the right spot to scale a building that you climbed only a minute ago. Those problems are compounded by animations for running, jumping and climbing that are nowhere near as refined as the skating ones, making the ability to run around seem rushed and not well developed.
The second major gameplay change is the addition of vehicles other than the skateboard. Some missions, even one of the first ones encountered in the game, require gamers to get behind the wheel of cars. Sloppy controls and even sloppier collision detection make this less fun than it could have been, and it’s unfortunate the developers didn’t take more time on one of the major gameplay changes.
Aside from Story mode, there are the standard assortment of Tony Hawk single and multiplayer modes: Trick Attack, Score Challenge, Combo Mambo, Slap!, King of the Hill, Graffiti, Firefight, Horse, and Freeskate are all included. Firefight is likely the best of the multiplayer modes, where combos cause fireballs…it needs to be experienced to be understood. There’s also a Create-A-Trick and Create-A-Park mode, both of which will fill some time. Since the game doesn’t support Xbox Live, there’s no online play – though it does support System Link, so tunneling is, once again, an option. That doesn’t help with transferring parks or tricks to other players, but maybe by next year’s release things will be different.
Graphics - THUG has the best graphics out of the Tony Hawk line, but that’s not saying much in this day and age. The series has never been a graphics showcase, and it’s beginning to look more and more dated with each release.
The environments are, for the most part, a decent size, but seem bland aside from the skate-related objects, with little extraneous detail. The texturing, aside from some of the character models, is downright pathetic, and, while the character models are typically better textured, they aren’t well modeled and end up looking a bit weird both in-game and in cut-scenes. Taken as a whole, the environments still look like they were lifted off the PlayStation and converted for play here – dark and grainy, with jagged edges everywhere.
As expected, the animations for boarding still top anything else out there, but the newly added running is weak, and the car racing sequences have such shoddy gameplay and animations that they aren’t worth playing more than once. The game makes little to no use of the Xbox hardware’s power in anything related to graphics.
Sound - Where the developer did bother to spend some Xbox-centric time was on the soundtrack. Gamers can either listen to the standard audio, a huge mix of great skating tunes including Kiss, NOFX, Sublime, and Social Distortion, or use a custom soundtrack. The game also uses Dolby 5.1 sound, which helps make the sound effects seem a bit more powerful this year. Bailing from the board and listening to the squish of head hitting pavement and the snap of bones breaking has never been as wince-inducing. The voice work is plentiful; far more so than in past games in the series, but it’s not going to win any awards.
Overall Value - I can remember when everyone wanted to be like Mike, now everyone wants to be like Tony. Unfortunately, that’s resulted in a genre that’s overcrowded, and lacking in real innovation. Tony Hawk’s Underground tries to shake things up, but the additions are weak and underdeveloped. The ability to roam the level on foot or in a vehicle were great ideas for moving the series forward, but shoddy animations and lousy collision detection make it not worth the effort and wind up dragging down the otherwise stellar gameplay and controls. If you didn’t buy last year’s version, it’s definitely worth a look, but otherwise I’d recommend giving it a rental first.