Review: Tony Hawk’s Underground (PS2)

Tony Hawk’s Underground
Genre: Extreme Sports (Skating)
Platform: Playstation 2
ESRB Rating: Teen (Blood, Mild Violence, Strong Language)
Developer: Neversoft
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: 10/27/03
Official Home Page: THUGonline

When people think of professional skateboarders, they typically think of one man: Tony Hawk. And when people think of extreme sports games, they think of one man: Tony Hawk. What do these two men have in common? Nothing, really, since one is a real person, and the other is a digital person. But in all seriousness, there is no other extreme sports game that comes even close to matching the popularity of the Tony Hawk franchise, and the only game that comes even close in quality is Aggressive Inline, which explains why Activision bought the development studio that made it.

I’ve greatly enjoyed the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series starting back with the Dreamcast. I played the hell out of THPS on the Dreamcast demo disc, and when I got so good at that one stage, I had to get the game. It was only $20 at the time, so it was a sure bet. And I was hooked for life. The stages and goals were awesome, and never before have I had that much fun on a sports game. I never played THPS2, though I was going to get it when I got my Xbox, which has yet to happen. I rented and played the hell out of THPS3 for the PS2, and greatly enjoyed it. The stage design was improved, and the game itself was much harder, but not impossible, and it forced me to improve as well. And there was great satisfaction in finding the best lines and winning the game with the title character. The fact that it had Darth Maul and Wolverine as hidden characters made it that much sweeter.

Then along came THPS4, which took the game in a whole new direction. Rather than having a timed stage in every location, you could skate around freely and talk to people to get goals. While this was a nice change, the levels were uninspired, and many of the challenges in the later stages were nigh impossible without cheating. And even so, I think Aggressive Inline, which came out before and had many of the same elements, such as un-timed stages and meeting people to get goals, was a better game overall. Despite that, it did have Jango Fett as a hidden character, and there where a ton of goals to complete, so it wasn’t a bad title, just not the best in the series.

So then it was announced: the fifth game in the Tony Hawk series. They would be taking the series to a whole new level with this title, and would be adding in new features and such, with innovation that we have come to expect from the franchise. How does it stack up to the past? And what does it mean for the future? So let’s take a look at the newest Tony Hawk title:

TONY HAWK’S
UNDERGROUND

Story
With this title, they took some of the gameplay elements a step further than THPS4. For one thing, rather than a career mode, they actually call it a story mode. In addition, rather than using a pro skater, you MUST create a custom skater (or use one of their premade skaters, which include some silly ones like a pimp, and Daisy, one of the hidden characters in THPS4.

The story goes like this: you’re a total newbie on the skating scene, but you think you’re pretty good. Your buddy Eric comes over to your house one day and tells you to get your board, because Chad Muska is in town doing a skating demo. When you go watch him, Eric convinces you to try to impress Chad, and when you do, it starts you on your journey to become a pro skater. Now you must get a sponsor, and work your way to the top.

Unlike with THPS4, every stage gives you a big goal, and to accomplish it, you must accomplish smaller goals. You start out in your hometown in Jersey, and you need to first do a few small tutorial missions before Chad shows up. Then you impress him, which earns you advice and a new board. Before you can get a sponsorship, you need to impress more skaters, which in turn will impress the sponsor. But before he actually will sponsor you, you must make him a demo video, but it can’t be in Jersey. So you and Eric (who is being chased by drug dealers because he’s a dumbass) go to Manhattan and start making the video.

The story doesn’t have a great amount of depth or anything, but the fact that there IS a story and the fact that it works, makes up for the story itself. The game is broken up into 27 or so chapters, and each Chapter gives you 5 or so goals to accomplish. Each location has 3 or so chapters, and it all really goes together well. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d like the new story mode, since I’ve always liked playing as the pros (or hidden characters) more than a created skater, but I was pleasantly surprised with how well they did this.
Rating: 7.5

Graphics
For the most part, the graphics are the same as THPS4. That’s not to say that they aren’t good, but they haven’t improved much. The characters still are modeled really well, and the textures they are given are good as well. So everything is good all around in this area.

What they DID improve, however, is the level design. To me, the levels in THPS4 were dull and some (like the shipyard) where a painful experience to skate on. They really kicked it up a notch here, because the levels are VERY well designed. Not only do they feel like real places, but they’re also fun to skate on as well. Granted, since it’s more realistic, there may not seem like there are as many places to trick off of, they’re just better integrated into the environment. There seems to be a lot more places to grind than before, and fewer ramps, but I think it looks a lot better this way.

Another nice thing to note here is that the game allows you to change the way the interface looks. Much like a program like Winamp, there are certain themes that you can choose from that will change the menu interface, which is a good thing, because the default theme is ugly.

I would have given this area a better score, but I didn’t for one main reason. The game clips almost as bad as Grand Theft Auto at times. Seriously. I can’t count how many times I’ve tried to jump off of something and end up inside an object. I’ve always been able to jump out, but it just seems that the collision detection is very bad.
Rating: 8.0

Sound
This area is really a mixed bag. Well, actually, it’s really good for the most part with a few things that are irritating. First off is the voice acting. I shouldn’t say it’s bad, considering how most of the people in the game are playing themselves. It just seems like they don’t have much emotion, but that’s hard to get out of someone who isn’t all that experienced in voice acting, so I don’t fault them for that. The voice actor for Eric is ok, and the voice actor for the main character (as a male, I haven’t tried the female or any of the premade ones yet) is pretty good though. Far and away the best voice in the game is Bam Margera because he has all the emotion and silly aggression he has in real life, or at least when we see him on Jackass or Viva La Bam (great show, by the way).

The other area in here is the music, which is very overwhelming. There are over 75 different songs, and encompasses three genres: rock, hip hop and punk. Here’s where I’m going to be honest and say that I haven’t heard most of these songs. That doesn’t mean they are bad or anything, but there are just so many that none of them become classics. Past THPS games had much more limited soundtracks, and they functioned much like the soundtrack in Gran Turismo. It serves as background music, but after hearing a song 5 or more times, it starts to grow on you (or get on your nerves). With this title, however, there are so many songs that the likelihood of hearing them that many times is pretty slim. Off the top of my head, I can’t name a single song in the game. After cheating and looking on the website, I can say that there are songs from KISS, Jane’s Addiction, Nas, NOFX, and Sublime. The good thing about this is that you can turn off any song you want, and you can even select a genre that you want to listen to. So it’s great that you are given this many songs, and also the options to choose which ones you want and don’t want to hear.
Rating: 8.0

Control
The basic controls for this series haven’t drastically changed over the years, but as always, there are a few new things about it. Despite that, I’ll start at the beginning for total newcomers.

Obviously, you control a skater and the premise of the game is to do tricks and such. You can do all sorts of tricks, like Grabs, Flips, Lip and Grind tricks. These are all executed by the face buttons. The default layout is Circle for Grab tricks, Square for Flip tricks, and Triangle for Lip and Grind tricks. If you hit Triangle on a lip when you come at it perpendicularly, you’ll hit a Lip trick, but at any other angle, you’ll grind the lip. With the Flip and Grab tricks, you’ll get many more points for rotation, which is primarily done using the R1 and L1 buttons, which determines the direction you rotate. Oh, and you jump using the X button. This forms the basis of your repertoire, and has been around since the inception of the series.

Since then, many new concepts have been added to improve your combos, or how many tricks you do in succession. THPS2 added the revert (R2), which is switching your stance upon landing a trick on a quarter pipe. To take the combos to the ultimate level, they added Manuals (Up+Down, or Down+Up) in THPS2, which allows you to continue on a combo even when there are no pipes to jump or rails to grind. It dramatically slows you down though. In THPS4, they added new features like Skitchin’ (holding on to the back of a car as it moves), Flatland tricks, and the spine transfer.

In Tony Hawk’s Underground, they have added even more abilities, but these are less useful than previous ones. First of all, you now have the ability to hop off your board and run around on your own two legs (L1+R1). This may not seem useful at all, but it can help you continue a combo that may have otherwise been ruined. In addition, you have the ability to jump and climb up on roofs and ledges and the like. And the final addition is the ability to drive, which may seem completely pointless, but it is important for a reason I’ll get to in the miscellaneous section.

Throughout the entire series of Tony Hawk games, one thing has remained constant above all else, and that’s control. The controls aren’t difficult to learn, yet they are so powerful. It really becomes second nature after playing the game for a few hours. And the great thing is that the basic controls have remained EXACTLY as they were in the very beginning. They didn’t fix anything, because everything is excellent, and nothing needed fixing, yet they keep adding new and more interesting features every single installment.

Now, I was torn on what to rate this. I could have rated it a perfect 10, and I was seriously considering it, simply because never before has the controls for a game come as easily as this one, considering how much you can do, but also because they have kept it constant over every edition. Someone could master the original THPS, and still do relatively well in this one. For those who have played the series over the years, it will be second nature before they play the game. The only reason I’ve counted off at all is because the driving controls are clunky, and that aspect didn’t feel completed.
Rating: 9.5

Replayability
Every Tony Hawk title typically throws in extra features to keep you playing it for a very long time. The primary extras you’ll come across are hidden characters, secret levels and bonus videos. The hidden characters are gained by winning the game on different difficulties. If you win on Beginner difficulty, you’ll only gain the first character, but if you win the game on Sick difficulty to begin with, you’ll actually get all 3 hidden characters. I won’t say what the characters are, but I will say that they have continued the tradition of including a Marvel comics character. Overall, the hidden characters were better than THPS4, but not by much, and it doesn’t even come close to the amount and quality of the ones in THPS3.

There is one actual secret level, and 3 old skool levels, which were seen in other THPS games. The secret level is gained by winning the game on any difficulty, and the old skool levels are gained by picking up little icons hidden in a few different levels. And to get the videos, you just pick up the hidden tapes that have returned. Three tapes equals one video, including the ever popular Bails videos.

In addition, this game has the well-known Tony Hawk Create a Park and Create a Skater features, which becomes more and more complex with each iteration. But they’ve also added several other features, including Create a Trick, where you can create the sickest tricks possible by combining other tricks, and Create a Deck, where you can use their predefined images and patterns together to make a wicked board. Though obviously limited, both of these features add a lot to the game. And finally, as part of the story mode, you can join a sponsor, which unlocks new decks and interfaces. And how could we forget the gaps that you can try to complete?
Rating: 8.0

Balance
I’ll say it right up front: this game is pretty easy. I’m not the best player in the world, but I am pretty good, and for 90% of the game, I didn’t have any problem completing any goals, and in fact, most were downright EASY. I kept joking that the missions were for me to sleep. But then near the end, the goals become EXTREMELY difficult. It goes from like a 2 or 3 straight to a 9 or 10. And even sick difficulty doesn’t change it that much, unfortunately. Despite that, I give it credit because there aren’t so many prohibitively difficult challenges as there were in THPS4.
Rating: 5.0

Originality
Let’s face it: the original THPS created this genre, and no other series in the genre has been even remotely as popular. And each and every installment has been innovative without destroying the formula that makes it popular. In addition to the create a deck and create a trick modes, just the new features (including the ability to get off your board and jump on roofs, as well as driving) means that they don’t want to sit still and let the series stagnate. But the most original thing they’ve done is allowing you to put your face on the characters. All you do is email your picture to them, they upload it to a website and give you a code, you go online in the game and put the code in and it downloads your pictures. It seems that they’re still working the kinks out of the system, because it’s not quite working all that well yet.
Rating: 8.0

Addictiveness
Out of all the games in the world, this series has always been so very addictive to me. Once you start playing, it’s hard to put it down. And when you do put it down, say if your wife wants to play a game or something, you’ll still want to play. The goals are all fun to do and it’s more satisfaction doing them because it all goes with the story. And you can upgrade your stats by doing certain tricks as well, and finding all the gaps. Winning the game on Normal takes about 8 hours or so, and that’s without getting the gaps and such, and takes somewhat longer on Sick, so it’ll definitely be a time consuming process.
Rating: 9.0

Appeal Factor
By now, everyone knows who Tony Hawk is, and a lot of the other skaters are becoming better known as well. There are also many fans of Bam Margera from his shows on MTV. And any fan of extreme sports will probably like the game as well. But it’s the people who don’t have any sort of connection that they really have the potential to draw in. The soundtrack alone is something that will draw some people. In addition, the route the game is taking as far as gameplay style will appeal to many people.
Rating: 8.0

Miscellaneous
Here is where I’d go over the online aspects of the game, but I don’t have a broadband adapter, and I’m not really in to multiplayer games anyway, so that is nixed. Since there isn’t really any more to talk about, I’ll discuss the direction the game appears to be headed, and why I think it’s a good thing.

First off, I want to tell you a little anecdote. Whenever GTA3 and THPS3 had come out, I played the two games at around the same time. Whenever I was playing GTA3, I would continuously see areas and say, “You know, that would make a great area to skate in. Then I came up with the most brilliant idea (or so I thought, anyway). They should combine the two games and make Tony Hawk’s Grand Theft Auto! Something of the sort anyway. And with the new freeform gameplay and the ability to run around and drive cars, it appears that they are doing just that.

Grand Theft Auto was popular not because you could shoot people, but because it was like you were actually in a city. You could take a car and drive around for hours and not really do anything with the story. And I think that is definitely the route that the Tony Hawk series is now taking. If not, it should be. The missions in this game are very much based on the story, which makes it the most unique of the Tony Hawk games. And really, they don’t need the Tony Hawk name anymore, because it isn’t quite so much about only skating, but about much more. Tony Hawk is just their name recognition. So I’m not saying that the skaters need to carry around guns and kill people, but I definitely like the direction that the series is headed, and I think it will help them continue to innovate in their own way.
Rating: 9.0

Ratings Summary

Story: 7.5
Graphics: 8.0
Sound: 8.0
Control: 9.5
Replayability: 8.0
Balance: 5.0
Originality: 8.0
Addictiveness: 9.0
Appeal Factor: 8.0
Miscellaneous: 9.0

Average: 8.0

Short Attention Span Summary
To sum it up, this is a very good game. For any fan of the Tony Hawk series, it’s a must own, because quite frankly, it’s heads and tails above THPS4. And it’s also a good starting point in the series, because it goes at a very easy pace for the majority of the game. The only reason that I didn’t score it much higher is that it feels incomplete. There is a vast amount of clipping, much more than I’ve seen in any THPS game before it, and that’s inexcusable. In some places, it just feels like the game was rushed. But despite that, it is a very enjoyable series, and deserves a rent at the very least.