You've got the whole board in your hands.
What do candy bars, free drinks and Beatles songs have in common? You never get sick of them. You might take a break for fear of diabetes, a wicked hangover or impure thoughts of Yoko, but after a day or so it's like someone hit the reset button and you're good to go again.
You might as well add Tony Hawk games to that list, at least according to the phenomenal sales figures of a series that has produced a winner every single year since its inception back in 1999 and bought several summer homes for the Hawkman himself. There has been a Tony Hawk game on a whopping 10 systems (if you count the N-Gauge) thus far and it doesn't look to be slowing down much.
Still, you have to wonder if Neversoft has much gas left in the tank. How many times will gamers want to flip, grind and manual using the same control scheme? Is there no end in sight?
If the excellent Tony Hawk's Underground is any indication, no, there is not. While it won't really win any new fans, THUG gives vets of the series more than they ever had, from unprecedented customizability to a brand new Story mode. This is a big, big game with a lot to do'even though you've done much of it before.
The Story is probably the biggest change, effectively linking together what used to be disconnected level progress in the earlier games. Rather than toss you in as a pro, THUG lets you create a skater from the outset, who then becomes the lead in the Story. Taking you from a no-name Jersey rat to a skateboarding star, the Story is about your adventures through the world of amateur and pro boarding alongside your irritating friend Eric. You'll meet up with plenty of skate icons, including all the guys in the other games plus new faces like Arto Saari and Mike Vallely. Cut-scenes help keep the lighthearted plot about 'soul skating' versus 'fame skating' moving, though it isn't a particularly good one. It's like North Shore meets Gleaming the Cube.
Silly plot notwithstanding, the story concept actually works well by giving the levels some sort of flow, which helps the gameplay by spacing out the use of key features, such as creating a deck or learning some of the advanced moves. The classic Tony Hawk "goal' lists are still here, but you don't have to accomplish every one to continue the plot. Get stuck on a nasty grind requirement and you can just skip it for something more up your alley. The goals still tend to be of the garden variety " collect all the things oddly scattered around the level, perform the tricks I call out, score this many points in a combo, etc. " but the ability to skip the ones you dislike helps ease the redundancy a bit.
The gameplay, however, is pretty much exactly what you've been doing for the past four years. The only real new move is the ability to get off your board and run around, which can be linked into tricking or just used to explore the environment more carefully. You'll love the ability to find new high spots without constantly having to string together huge ramp and grind combos to get there.
But you'll hate the sluggish, imprecise off-board control. Hop off your board and hop into the mud, like you suddenly weigh 500 pounds. This makes it a little awkward for trick linking, as the manual just works way better. The Story mode also includes the ability to drive a few cars, which unfortunately is not what this engine was meant to do. Cars control poorly and feel very out of place on levels littered with rails, ramps and pools.
Neversoft were the ones who put good level design on the map, and thankfully no quality is missing here. The levels cover a nice range of environments, including the run-down streets of Jersey, the classic hot spots of New York and a fantastic version of Moscow. Lines aren't quite as obvious as they used to be, though gaps are plentiful and you'll sniff out the good grind spots quick enough.
For the most part, expect tons of manuals, reverts, flips and grabs, the same kind of thing you did in THPS 4'which was similar to THPS 3'etc, etc. You can't really fault Neversoft for not adding some insane new moves since the control scheme is so good, but the fact is that vets will play this game much like they played the other ones. At times, your hands just sort of move by themselves and you're instantly kicking much ass. I suppose that's a good thing, but I also wish they would have changed something, if only to throw off gamers like me who mastered THPS a long time ago.
Yet even if you've never played any of the Tony Hawk games, you shouldn't feel daunted by Underground as it's also the first one to include three difficulty settings. These mainly change the goal requirements, although the easiest mode also tweaks the physics so that you never really fall. I hate it, but your little brother might love it.
There's much, much more to Underground than just the Story mode, however. You can create pretty much everything " your own board, your own levels and even your own goals. The Park Editor has one great new addition that simply links together parts of the park with a rail. Smart and sweet.
The best Create-a-Thingie of all is the Trick Creator. This gives you some insight into the scoring mechanism and allows you to mold wildly acrobatic twirls and flips that would make Cirque Du Soleil jealous. Go ahead and make a 1200 FS Kickflip with a Sacktap. Now go try to land it.
In what might be the most touted feature of the PS2 version, you can actually download your own face for use with created skaters. It works simply enough: take a digital photo of yourself and e-mail it to Neversoft as an attachment. Twenty seconds later, you're sent a return e-mail with a code. Now log onto Underground online and download the face, which you then tweak to match the model's head. I was surprised by how smoothly the whole process went, although I never really got my face to match the skin color of the model. It looks more like my guy is wearing a Ben Silverman mask. Freaky.
It's also a PS2 exclusive feature, as is playing Underground online at all. There is no Xbox Live support, which is a bummer since Xbox Live tends to work really well. Meanwhile, PS2 owners will gleefully hop online to play nearly a dozen multiplayer games like HORSE, Graffiti and the new Firefight, in which your shoot fireballs out of your board. It's more fun than it sounds.
Plus, a new ranking system will keep track of stats, which also makes it easier to play against people of your skill level as opposed to constantly getting wiped out by some nerd who spends all day perfecting two-million point combos. You can upload your own stuff " created skaters, parks and boards " or even download other people's stuff. There's just tons and tons to do here and it's all handled well, provided you have a PS2.
Still, the Xbox and Gamecube outshine the PS2's graphics with better textures, a smoother framerate and fewer anti-aliasing problems. None of these games will win any awards for visuals, but they get the job done adequately considering how much stuff is packed onto the game disk.
Take the soundtrack...all 80 tracks of it. Xbox owners can customize their own, but this is one of the few games that features a wide enough range of music to please just about anyone. Punk, rock, rap " it's all here and the choices are good, mostly smaller acts (aside from KISS, I guess) that you won't hear endlessly on MTV.
So what's not to like about Underground? Well, for one thing, you've probably played this game before, just not in this uber-customizable form. The new Story mode and wealth of options are great, but that doesn't change the gameplay mechanics at all. You still go from level to level beating goals to move on, staying up late trying to nail a certain requirement, and occasionally throwing your controller out the window when you can't. No matter what kind of new mode you want to cover it in, the incessant goal system is getting stale.
THUG is a great game, but it's been a great game for years so if you didn't like it before, you won't like it now. But if you're already a fan, you can't ask for much more. It's a massive, exceptional product that expands every aspect of its predecessors without sacrificing much, though it's a better game on the PS2 than the Xbox or Gamecube thanks to its great online functionality. The Hawkman keeps on rising.