Tony Hawk's Underground
The Birdman's latest brings new features to the table, but will you care? Read on to find out.
PS2, Xbox, GCN
In 1989, a young skateboarder, let's call him Alex, was having fun with his friends on a sunny Saturday afternoon at a local school. Avoiding the janitor they lovingly referred to as Skeletor, thanks to his horridly emaciated visage, they focused their attention on the fun at hand, until disaster struck. An attempted descent down a flight of stairs ended with an ankle wrapping around the nose of the boy's board, resulting in several torn ligaments, one fractured ankle, and a serious case of the blues. Being stuck in a cast when all you want to do is hit the streets is hell. Had the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series been around back then, my sanity might well have been saved.
Despite its past image as an activity for vandals and ne'er-do-wells, skateboarding has featured prominently in videogames for decades. Who can forget the thrill of simply pulling off a backside air in California Games, or hitting that grey tarmac course in Skate or Die? But it was the arrival of the Tony Hawk's eponymous series from the fine folks at Neversoft out of California in 1999 that really opened the sticker-bedecked doors to extreme sports. With an instalment in each year following that, several have accused the series of stagnation, and not without due cause. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 introduced little to the formula save the spine transition move, which did not have nearly the effect of the manual or revert introduced in previous chapters. So, Neversoft went back to the drawing board yet again, and they've come back with Tony Hawk's Underground, a skateboarding game that thinks it's an action-RPG/platformer, and not necessarily to good effect.
The titular shift is the result of a change in focus of the setup of the game. No longer does the game revolve around the increasingly well-paid pros that litter the rosters of previous entries. Instead, the star of this game is you, or whoever you describe in the game's pitiful character customization engine. For a game that is based on the premise of immersing yourself in the experience of rising through the ranks of skateboardingdom, Neversoft should be embarrassed at releasing such a shoddy, unhelpful, woefully inadequate system. While the limited options on hand might have been acceptable in earlier games, the shift in focus and the introduction of outstanding character creation systems in other titles (see EA's new Game Face system, for example) means that the engine presented is a bitter disappointment. Forget creating an avatar that looks even close to you. When you're offered several times as many options for stupid-looking hats as you are face shapes, you know that something's gone awry.
My second major gripe with the game is the very basis of the series' new direction. To be quite honest, the story elements suck! In THUG, you'll spend a large part of the game chatting with skaters, cops, crazed hotdog vendors and normal, everyday folk as they pose nonsensical, vapid tasks, such as scoring hot peanuts for rent-a-cops so that you can gain access to buildings. So, it'll be the introduction of the fetch quest into skateboarding then, right Neversoft?
Finding yourself stuck in a going-nowhere New Jersey burg at the onset of the game, you're shoved onto the road to the pros in a meaningless series of triggered events that take you across North America as you try to impress would be sponsors, wanna-be gangsters and countless other characters that do nothing but hinder your progress through the parts of the game that matter.
A fair deal of attention has been given to the new, off-board sections of THUG by both the press and Neversoft themselves, no doubt due to the lack of any new fun stuff to do. Not only will you now be able to jump off your board to run, climb, jump, etc., but you'll also get the opportunity to drive vehicles! Neversoft were quick to assuage fears that they were merely ripping off the Grand Theft Auto series, and they were right. Whereas in the GTA games you usually enjoy being behind the wheel, replicating the action in THUG is an exercise in frustration that'll have you cursing the developers. The fact that you're forced to partake in them is even more of a slap in the face. Wanting decent controls for a throw-in feature such as this might be asking a bit much, but if it's not going to be done properly, why do it at all?
Just in case you think I'm being overly negative, let me state for the record that the core of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater gameplay experience is still intact. The Xbox version does seem to play a tad too fast, which can be quite an annoyance at times, but by and large this is the same game that you've been playing since 1999. The problem is that this is basically the same game that you've been playing since 1999. The meat and potatoes of the game still offers one of the most enjoyable experiences out there, but this feat is sullied by pointless alterations that smack of a company desperate to update a franchise, yet with no concrete idea of how to go about it.
The cries of the self-professed hardcore console devotees aside, it's fair to state categorically that the Xbox is substantially more powerful than the PlayStation 2, but when it comes to multiplatform games such as this, this plus point is becoming an albatross that is starting to weigh ever more heavily on Microsoft. Xbox owners now-accustomed to the pristine graphics offered by recent high-profile releases will be dismayed to see the poor quality of THUG's visuals. The character models are looking worse and worse with each iteration, although the levels are well done. There are a few new bail animations, but for the most part this still looks very much like last year's game. The game also heralds the return of one of the series' least-loved features, that being the abominable clipping that makes you wonder just why aspects like this haven't been eradicated yet.
The audio front shows a bit more progress, with a large number of suitably genred songs comprising the soundtrack. There's something for everyone in the copious set-list, with plenty of rock/pop and hip-hop from popular and up-and-coming bands. And of course, once you tire of these, which you will, you'll be able to get stuck into your personal collection of ripped tunes on the Xbox hard drive. The cut-scenes that supposedly flesh out the story are voiced in suitably poor fashion, and it's not long before you'll be making up wacky SoCal surfer-speak accents of your own while poking fun at the game. Still entertaining, but hardly the desired effect.
Outside of story mode, there's still a lot left on the platter, provided that you're willing to put some serious design time into the game. Free Skate allows you to muck about on all your unlocked levels, while multiplayer hijinks are provided by 2-to-4 player split-screen and 2-to-8 player system link-up. Sorry, no online play for Xbox owners, as Neversoft has opted to impart this feature only on PlayStation 2 owners. Sandbox-types will love the create-a-skater, create-a-trick, create-a-deck and create-a-park features, all of which provide enough depth to sap a large amount of your board-time.
In the end, Tony Hawk's Underground is a difficult game to tally up. Series newcomers might feel a tad overwhelmed by all the features on offer, underwhelmed by the presentation, and awed by the excellent gameplay. Thing is, it's hard to imagine that there are all that many gamers out there though that have yet to sample the fruit of Tony Hawk's legacy, and for the rest of us, T.H.U.G. will feel like just another update. There's enough to keep you happy for a while, but at the same time there's that acrid taste of familiarity in your mouth that lets you know that you've just dropped a fair amount of cash on an ill-conceived upgrade. I guess at the end of the day the best advice is that sage old adage: buyer beware.