"At first I thought this new feature might be a lame addition compared to the revert, the invert, and the manual. Then I had a chance to get used to it and decided it might not be so bad after all. Unfortunately, by the 'end' of the game I realized I was right the first time. Though it's cool to be able to climb up ladders, or Rambo your way along telephone wires extending over the streets below, the process through which you do so is so clunky that it ends up being more a curse than a blessing."
The problem with any franchise that sees as many releases as the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater one has seen is that eventually, developers run out of new ideas. Sometimes, that's not a crippling blow. Ask any diehard Mega Man fan why he buys each new release when there's not a lot of change from one title to the next, for example, and he's likely to tell you that he does because the formula was so good in the first place.
I feel that way about the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series. The thing is, its developer doesn't. As a result, the series continues to evolve with each new edition. When I played Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, I was disappointed to find that it had taken a slightly new direction I didn't much care for. It was still a good game, but it wasn't fantastic. Well, now Tony Hawk's Underground has arrived. From early reports, I expected it to continue down the path tread by its immediate predecessor, which had me concerned. Just the same, I bought it. And here's the good news: although it continues natural evolution from where Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 left off, Tony Hawk's Underground is a great deal more refined and therefore more enjoyable. There's a new focus and a new gimmick that sometimes hurts the game when it really shouldn't, but the good far outweighs the bad and restores my faith in Neversoft.
By now, most people out there are quite familiar with what Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is all about. If you haven't played a title from the series, know that the games are all about skating through areas like a skateboarding deity, tricking off just about every surface in sight, stringing together new combos, and in general just having a great time. If you get it, the games are some of the most exhilarating experiences on the market today. And if you don't, well, Tony Hawk's Underground is unlikely to change anything. To put it bluntly, the newest in the series is for the fans.
The gimmick I mentioned earlier turns out to be the game's most notable feature. Look at the game's cover and there's one thing that you should notice right away: Tony Hawk is nowhere in sight. This is not an oversight on the part of marketing, but rather a reflection of the direction the game took. Activision is going out of its way to to market Tony Hawk's Underground as the game that stars you, and to a certain extent that's true.
When you begin playing, the first order of business is to set up your custom skater. No, you don't choose from one of the numerous pros in the game (though they are there for the other modes). Instead, what before was just an option I never really took advantage of now becomes the starred attraction. You have more control over the custom skater now than you ever have in the past. I spent several minutes tweaking my appearance, deciding if I wanted a goatee or not, choosing my shades, figuring out how thick my calves and forearms should be, and so forth. It's even possible to totally configure the skater's nose. Also, there are a host of licensed logos to choose from, including one that advertises McDonald's restaurants. About the only thing you don't configure are stats.
Once you have formed and named your skater, it's on to the rest of Story Mode, which is the real change to the series. As the plot opens, you're in your room working on your board. The skater you designed is spliced into each scene, as nothing is pre-rendered but instead uses in-game models. Your friend Eric knocks on the glass to let you know that a famous skater is visiting from out of town, so naturally you want to rush out and meet him. As the story progresses, it will twist and turn through a roller coaster of events, taking you from the lowly streets of Jersey to worldwide destinations in Vancouver, Hawaii, and even Moscow. The plot devices that get you from one place to the next are sometimes silly, but I'll say this for them: they're successful. Somehow, even though it was cheesy, the story got me to caring about who my friends were and who they weren't, and there were a few times when I couldn't help but laugh. Once in a while, this was even because the developers actually intended for me to find the situation humorous.
If such things concern you, though, I should note that this game is easily the most vulgar in the series. It feels like a title that just barely avoided an 'M' rating, with spoken profanity from place to place, sex-related humor, and a rather heavy reliance on drunk partying at some points. Parents who have thought nothing of Tony Hawk's games in the past may well be startled by the content this time around. Odds are, most of the game's target audience will like it more than not.
Of course, the addition of a story isn't the only change the franchise sees with this outing. Your skater can now get off his board for brief periods to climb up roofs or what have you, and somehow keep a combo going. At first I thought this new feature might be a lame addition compared to the revert, the invert, and the manual. Then I had a chance to get used to it and decided it might not be so bad after all. Unfortunately, by the 'end' of the game I realized I was right the first time. Though it's cool to be able to climb up ladders, or Rambo your way along telephone wires extending over the streets below, the process through which you do so is so clunky that it ends up being more a curse than a blessing. Neversoft is not known for platformers, and here we get to see why. Your skater has no ability to make truly precise jumps, he'll start to pull himself up to a ledge and suddenly drop, and it can be tough to judge distance. As a result, about the only time I found myself leaving my board was when plot forced me to.
Which is another problem. There are moments where the plot forces some pretty stupid stuff. Believe it or not, this game owes a little something to Metal Gear Solid. Personally, I found sneaking around Moscow to avoid guards to be a horribly-implemented diversion, and I felt a tremendous sense of relief when that portion of the game ended. Neversoft also allows you to drive cars around most of the stages, or carts and leaf blowers, as the case may be. These vehicles all control like they have broken axles. If most cars in games can stop on a dime, these vehicles won't stop on even a million bucks. Again, however, there are only a few times you'll ever have a reason to drive them, so it's not such a huge flaw as it could have been.
Another change Neversoft implemented is the ability to gain stats by meeting certain requirements. Rather than finding stat points littering the landscape, you gain boosts by grinding or manualing for a set time, stringing together a certain number of grabs in a combo, or whatever. I really liked this at first, as I thought the game would truly adjust to my playing style and I would eventually be a god of grinding and lip tricks (I use those two in combination almost endlessly). Unfortunately, it turns out that Neversoft didn't change things nearly so drastically. You can still only power up any one category to a certain point, and the plot restricts what upgrades are possible at what point. All in all, what could have been tremendously satisfying felt hollow compared to the system Neversoft ditched from previous games.
That pretty much takes care of the truly new elements, but what about the things you've come to expect in the past? Well, they're back. And, I'm happy to report, they're much better than they were in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4. In that game, I found myself constantly irritated by the fact that I had to skate around awhile to find some guy to talk to, who would then present me with my objective. Though that feature has returned, it isn't nearly so annoying a second time around. People are easily identified by a bright red star you can see a mile away. Again, you don't have to speak to every one of them to clear a level. And better yet, you can just pause the game, view a list of goals, and skip right to your next objective, without the need to skate endlessly to find your next target. This is nice. The unfortunate side of things is that most of the objectives are no longer as fresh as they once were. Neversoft even takes a page from the BMX XXX notebook and includes one stage where you drive around taking out vendors who are competing with a guy who sells nuts. I'll be surprised if Z-Axis doesn't sue. Other objectives are more familiar. You might be asked to skate a particular line, to jump into the air and perform tricks as they are called out, or to score a certain number of points within the time limit.
What makes this redundancy so acceptable is that it's a part of what always made Tony Hawk's Pro Skater so much fun in the first place. It's apparent that Neversoft finally realizes that again. Despite all its new features, Tony Hawk's Underground reminded me a lot of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, my favorite game in the series. The main reason for this is the levels. They are even larger in many cases than those presented in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, but they feel a lot cooler. Instead of being enormous without much reason to interact with anything, they're filled with cars, people, shacks, benches, and so forth. Neversoft finally seems to have stumbled upon that happy medium. Colors are vibrant, there are cooler gaps, and everything just looks much better.
In the end, that's the game's saving grace, and what makes it such a wonderful step up from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4. Even if you don't like all the changes, most of them won't affect you to any extreme. You complete them once and they're out of the way a few minutes later, then it's back to hours of sheer enjoyment. Story mode isn't all there is to the game, and you can still attack your high scores, still design your own skate park (with levels of customization never seen before). In short, just about everything that made the series cool to this point is back and better than ever. The whole experience isn't unlike eating a watermelon: you'll need to spit out a few seeds, but otherwise there's no cooler fruit.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (November 01, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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