Reviewed: February 6, 2004
Released: October 28, 2003
Each year since 1999, Neversoft and Activision have given gamers a gift in the form of a new Tony Hawk title. And each year, it seems, the Tony Hawk series manages to surprise and delight even the most jaded gaming enthusiasts. How can a series based around skateboarding meet with so much success? It’s simple: The Tony Hawk games are highly playable and insanely addictive, and nearly every modern action-sports title draws inspiration from them.
This year’s gift from Neversoft and Activision is Tony Hawk’s Underground, better known as THUG. To put it simply, THUG maintains everything that made previous Hawk games fun while introducing significant new features, including the ability to get off the skateboard. In fact, with the introduction of a plot, THUG pushes the series in a brand-new direction, one that puts the player in the spotlight and gives the pros second billing (thus explaining the removal of the “Pro Skater” moniker).
Accordingly, Activision’s marketing campaign has emphasized the game’s focus on the player. Advertisements for THUG enthusiastically proclaim, “You own the Underground.” With the ability to map your face onto a character (PS2 version only), star in the storyline, and create your own levels, tricks, goals, and boards, the experience is indeed yours. Add in solid gameplay and a strong multiplayer component and you have the greatest skateboarding game available.
One of the wonderful things about the Tony Hawk gameplay is it improves each year. Neversoft has added new trick components to each sequel, and despite this, the controls have not become overly complicated. Granted, those playing THUG without prior Tony Hawk experience will have a great deal to learn (a tutorial is not present), but for those familiar with the series – which is just about everyone – the controls are pretty much dead-on.
To quickly sum up previous games, the first Tony Hawk game laid the foundation, the second added manuals, the third included the revert, and the fourth enabled transfers between adjacent ramps. This year’s addition to the Tony Hawk formula is the ability to get off the skateboard. It seems like a simple concept, yet it adds an entirely new dimension to the gameplay. Apart from enabling you to explore the environments more thoroughly and access previous inaccessible areas, like rooftops, getting off the board lets you stretch combos further.
Taking advantage of this new feature is effortless. At anytime during gameplay, you can press the black or white buttons to get off the skateboard and carry it at your side. Off-board abilities include walking, running, jumping, climbing, and shimmying. For example, you can climb ladders and rooftops, shimmy along ledges, and jump across platforms.
Most importantly, though, you can “caveman” (i.e., run and jump) into tricks and acid-drop onto ramps and into pools to keep your combos going strong. The only catch is, once you step off the skateboard during a combo, you have a limited amount of time to return before your combo expires. Another complication is the control off the skateboard is twitchy and not as tight as it could be.
For most developers, adding one new gameplay feature to a sequel would be good enough, but not for Neversoft. It has added other useful maneuvers, including wallplants, wallpushes, and pressure flips. The wallplant lets you kick off walls, while the wallpush lets you push off them. Other than providing stylish ways to change direction, these moves also come in handy when your combo is in danger of ending near a wall. Lastly, the ability to execute pressure flips (via the left trigger) gives you finer control over your skating. The left trigger button still controls nollies, too, though you now must press it twice.
But wait…there’s more! Since many games nowadays seemingly aspire to be more like the Grand Theft Auto series, it should come as little surprise that THUG lets you drive various vehicles. Unfortunately, the physics and handling are spotty, and driving does not really add anything to the gameplay outside of the Story mode. You cannot drive to places to skate, for instance, as your position automatically resets upon exiting the vehicle. In other words, your skateboard (and feet) handles all the major transportation, whereas vehicles are mostly for joyriding.
Where THUG truly leaves its predecessors in the dust is in the level of customization it affords players. The now-standard character and skatepark editors return – complete with enhancements and new features – accompanied by all-new trick, goal, and deck editors. In short, you can design your own skatepark, fill it with unique goals, and then use your custom skater (male or female) and board to shred the park using tricks you have invented. What’s more, each of the editors is packed with options and has an intuitive interface. We can spend all day rambling on about these neat features, but suffice it to say, they add endless possibilities to the gameplay. The Xbox hard drive is the perfect place to store your custom parks without worrying about filling up expensive memory cards.
Perhaps the biggest change THUG makes to the series concerns its replacement of the Career mode with a Story mode. Like the Career modes before it, THUG’s Story mode consists of levels and goals, only instead of playing as a professional skater, you play as yourself (you can play as the pros in the other modes). Plus, you improve your skills through experience, à la Aggressive Inline, rather than by collecting or purchasing stat points.
Essentially, the storyline boils down to you and your friend Eric’s quest for skateboarding superstardom and the trials and tribulations involved therein. The story is fairly decent – for an action-sports game, anyway – and there are a few twists along the way. Skateboarding fans will enjoy seeing the legendary Stacy Peralta among the cast of characters. He acts as your mentor, while the pro skaters you meet teach you new tricks.
Most of the goals in Story mode gel with the plot, so just about everything you do serves a purposes (i.e., no more collecting “skate” letters). Not all goals involve skateboarding – some test your driving, stealth, and platform skills – but most of them are variations on ones from the past. Like in Tony Hawk 4, levels are untimed, letting you undertake goals at your convenience – albeit most challenges have a time limit.
Story mode offers several levels of difficulty, ranging from very easy to very challenging. The lowest difficulty greatly simplifies the goals and tailors the physics and stat building to accommodate inexperienced players. On the other hand, the highest difficulty has the most complex goals, with the biggest scores to earn and strictest time limits to overcome. Tony Hawk vets will definitely want to play on the highest difficulty setting, since the default difficulty will surely prove to be too easy.
Ultimately, not everyone will enjoy the concept of playing through a storyline in a skateboarding game. Some Tony Hawk fans may even scoff at the idea and choose to stick to the other portions of the game. That’s perfectly fine, because there is plenty to do outside the Story mode.
Along with the customization features outlined earlier, THUG allows for two players on one machine or up to eight using a system link cable. All the multiplayer modes from previous games (Graffiti, Slap, King of the Hill, Trick Attack, etc.) are here. I have no idea why Xbox Live was not supported. Hopefully Activision isn't following EA's poor choice in system support. While the lack of true online gaming won't affect a lot of the gaming public, it is certainly worth mentioning and unfortunately puts the PS2 ahead of the Xbox in overall gameplay content and value, especially since Xbox skaters will not be able to download any of the new content that is supposed to be available online.
While the graphics in the Tony Hawk games have never been the most technically sophisticated, they have always delivered smooth animations, solid character models, and detailed environments. THUG largely follows suit, and even though it’s not the best-looking game out there, it is the most visually impressive in the Hawk series.
Skaters have a high level of detail, and facial texturing is a cut above that of Tony Hawk 4. This means the pros in the game look even more like their real-life counterparts than before. Since the Xbox is unable to map your own face onto the characters you will appreciate the extensive character editor that lets you create skaters that look as real or as imaginary as you want. And thanks to reasonably accurate lip-syncing, characters appear further lifelike when speaking.
Clothes make the skater, and the clothing and accessories in THUG are very sharp (and peculiar, in certain cases), as are the graphics on the skateboards. Naturally, characters skate as fluidly as ever, with new trick and bail animations in their arsenal. The off-board animations (running, jumping, climbing, etc.), however, are not quite as fluid and tend to be a little sketchy.
None of that really matters, because with so much to see in the levels, your eyes will usually be fixed on the lovely, spacious environments. Each of the eight main levels is loosely based on a real place, including New Jersey, Manhattan, San Diego, Tampa, Hawaii, Vancouver, and Moscow. Buildings and textures in THUG are more detailed than those in previous games, and there is a lot more going on in every level. In addition to containing animated pedestrians, skaters, and vehicles, most levels have recognizable landmarks and famous skate spots, not to mention a plethora of destructible objects.
Crisp lighting, rich colors, cool special effects (steam, fire, rain, etc.), and HDTV 720p support apply the final touches to the graphics. The frame rate generally keeps things running smoothly, much more smoothly than the PS2 version whose framerate stumbled nearly as often as my skater. The Xbox also managed to clean up other the minor and major distractions of the PS2 include some clipping, tearing, and aliasing issues. The Xbox version makes great use of FSAA to smooth the jaggies and the lighting engine and texture details are greatly improved. Overall, though, THUG is the best looking game in the Tony Hawk series and the Xbox version is the best looking format for this title.
The sound effects in the Tony Hawk games have always been first-rate, mixing authentic skating and surface sounds with arcade-like auxiliary sounds. So, unsurprisingly, THUG reuses most of the sound effects from previous games, but it also incorporates new ones. Among these is the sound of footsteps when walking/running, as well as a clock that ticks amid off-board combos. Also, you can attach unique sounds to tricks by using the create-a-trick feature.
Beyond all that, you will hear a host of ambient sounds. For instance, flies buzz noisily around dumpsters in the Jersey level, while bells chime loudly in Moscow. If you have an audio setup that properly supports Dolby Digital decoding, things will sound even better. THUG’s audio is mixed well enough to enable you to hear sounds, such as automobile engines and voices from pedestrians, from multiple angles.
Pedestrians in THUG are not extremely chatty, but they do provide instructions for goals and occasionally dish out compliments and insults. The professional skaters you encounter in Story mode are voiced by the skaters themselves, and for the most part, they have done an excellent job. On the other hand, a few of the supporting characters can be annoying. The voice work for your character is adequate, though some may find the delivery to be a little too contrived.
Each new Tony Hawk title has brought with it a bigger and more diverse set of tunes. THUG easily has the largest soundtrack of the series, supplying more than 75 songs. Music consists primarily of hip-hop (Jurassic 5, Nas), rock (KISS, Jane's Addiction), and punk (Bad Religion, The Clash). You can disable individual songs and styles of music, as well as adjust the sound levels to your liking. Not everyone will enjoy all the tunes, but with a fully customizable playlist comprised of nearly 80 tracks, there is little to complain about., plus you have full support for Xbox custom soundtracks.
When purchasing a Tony Hawk game, you receive the satisfaction of knowing it will entertain you for a long time. Neversoft has taken replay value to the next level by making almost every major facet of THUG customizable, from the character you play as in the Story mode to the tricks that make up your repertoire. Although the Story mode ends relatively quickly (most gamers should be able to finish the storyline in less than 10 hours, regardless of the difficulty setting), it takes additional time to complete all 129 goals, clear every gap, and discover all the secrets. You’ll even need to play through it more than once to unlock an alternate ending.
THUG has something else to offer besides unlockable goodies: depth. As with previous Hawk titles, the deep gameplay and highly interactive environments inspire and encourage you to experiment, find new combo lines, and improve as a player. Thus, THUG’s long-term value lies in its Free Skate and multiplayer modes, where countless hours of experimentation, competition, and enjoyment await. When you become bored with the levels, goals, tricks, skaters, and decks included, simply create your own or trade with friends.
I was shocked and disappointed when I learned what was missing from the Xbox version, namely the online play and the face-mapping feature, but at the end of the day (or in this case a month of solid gaming) I really can't say I missed it. THUG is designed as a solitary game, almost a "GTA on a skateboard" and when it comes times to play some of those multiplayer games I'll probably miss the online feature but I won't lose any sleep over it. As for the face-mapping, the create-a-skater composite program is so advanced that I am sure if I worked long enough I could recreate my own face using the built-in features. Again, no sleep lost. I'll trade in better sound and graphics and smoother gameplay any day over a few features.
Developing a new installment for the number one skateboarding series would seem rather easy when there isn’t much in the way of competition. But Neversoft is not one to rest on its laurels, as the finely crafted Tony Hawk’s Underground clearly demonstrates. It’s a game every bit worth owning if you’re a fan of the series and still worth checking out if you’re not. Leave humanity behind and escape to the Underground!