Tony Hawk’s nickname is The Birdman, but it might as well be Superman for his consistent level of dominance throughout the years. Synonymous with the sport of professional skateboarding, Tony’s invented many of the tricks commonly used including the stale fish, nose grind and varial 540. His company, Birdhouse Projects, has grown in 11 years to be one of the largest skateboard companies in the world, selling decks, gear and videos among other things. Most recently, he announced his retirement from competition at the 2003 Summer X games with a bang, taking the gold in the Best Trick event with his signature move, the 900.
This supremacy has also extended to video games, with his blockbuster Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series. Initially forecasted to be a modest seller, the series became a runaway hit, redefining the concept of extreme sports on gaming consoles. While keeping an accessible and solid control scheme for beginners, Pro Skater also featured a degree of depth and replayability that advanced skaters were totally jazzed about. What was also very cool was the expansiveness of levels and sheer amount of hidden items and characters found in each title. Rounding these advantages out was the inclusion of online play (starting with THPS 3) and the switch in focus from playing as a pro skater (in the first title) to earning the respect of pro skaters, which is appealing for any skate fan. Well, the latest game in the series, Tony Hawk’s Underground (or T.H.U.G. for short), improves on all of these features, even adding in the first ever story mode for an extreme game. Simply put, Tony’s done it again, primarily by placing the focus on letting players create the kind of game they want to play.
The story mode is easily one of the most creative twists on the create-a-player mode commonly found within most sports games, especially since you’re forced to create a new skater before leaping into this innovative feature. Most gamers are accustomed to creating a model for a sport, changing basic features like body shape, hair and facial details. T.H.U.G. practically overpowers similar modes in other games with its number of options, literally making the differences as visually apparent as the discrepancies between Pong and Halo. First of all, players are given the option to email and download from Activision a picture of themselves, which are then digitally mapped to a character model, allowing for completely unique characters for any gamer. It may initially sound like a gimmick, but watching yourself bust a sick line is unbelievably satisfying. Players can also virtually recreate themselves with the huge number of options available in the create-a-player. Everything from tattoos and hairstyles to body shape and riding gear can be manipulated. (I don’t know about you, but when you can specifically tweak the color and look of your skater’s socks for each leg, you know you’re dealing with a powerful editor.)
Regardless of the character you design, story mode starts in a rundown neighborhood in the shadow of a nuclear power plant in New Jersey. Drug dealers and street racing gangs are your neighbors, and police barricades have been set up in an obvious attempt to restrict resident’s access to parts of the metropolitan area. While this seems bleak, your character’s sole joy comes from jumping on a board and skating the trouble away, dreaming of making it on the professional level. Along with your best friend (and trouble magnet), Eric Sparrow, you ride through the streets, pulling tricks and setting up new lines to test your skills. T.H.U.G. features a very open-ended format which allows you to explore your current area freely without constantly having to undertake missions (or even complete every task on a level), although many of the opening tasks provide an easy way to brush up on some of the basic skating maneuvers necessary for more complex tricks. In a creative RPG-like spin within story mode, practicing or accomplishing remarkable feats will result in increases to your skater’s personal stats, enabling them to balance on rails longer or leap higher.
While I won’t spoil the plot for the story mode, which spans 27 chapters and is very engaging, I will go over two major plot points that happen early in the game. First, just because you’ll play a created character doesn’t mean that you won’t run into professional skaters. In fact, early on in the game, you’ll run into Mike Vallely, a New Jersey local skating through the neighborhood returning to his roots, and Chad Muska performing a skate demo at a local playground. Much more than a simple cameo, these skaters will often become mentors to your character, teaching new tricks and skills throughout different levels. For example, after performing a series of stunts in front of Muska, he’ll provide you with a new skateboard to replace your thrashed one. Secondly, you’ll enter competitions around the country, attempting to gain new equipment, fame and sponsorships. One of the earliest ones comes from legendary skater Stacey Peralta, who only agrees to sponsor you after seeing a tape of tricks you put together (the most dramatic section of which is performing over a burning taxi).
Did I mention the fact that what the player wants to do is the focus of the game? Aside from the deep play found within the story mode, gamers also have access to a large number of creation modes. Here, the absolute size and depth of each mode is limited merely by the player’s imagination and the amount of space on a memory card. Park designers can choose from any one of 5 pre-existing themes, or mix and match rails, ramps and other design pieces, amongst other selectable features. Once the park is completely built, gamers can then decide if they want to leave it as a free skate area or create their own goals and missions to challenge other players. These can range from collecting Skate Letters within a certain time limit to performing combos or gap tricks over a certain course.
After tweaking and manipulating this stage to the designer’s wishes, these levels can be traded to other players online thanks to a new online vault created by Activision for T.H.U.G., establishing a huge mod community for console players. Here, players will be able to download new tricks, face scans and other features thanks to a new compression scheme that should save space on player’s memory cards (or Xbox hard drives) whenever they go online. Even if you’re not interested in modding T.H.U.G., you can still hop online and get a number of multiplayer matches. T.H.U.G. features 11 multiplayer modes, including Horse and Capture the Flag, as well as newer modes like Firefight, where players will be able to shoot fireballs from their skateboard at opponents.
If you’re looking for a graphically impressive game, T.H.U.G. delivers a solid experience. Not only are the character models impressive because of the huge amount of options available to tailor a skater to a player’s wishes, but the face modeling software is one of the most powerful tools ever offered to allow a gamer to “actually” be in a game. This also extends to perfect lip-synching in time to spoken dialogue no matter how extreme your player is designed, which is incredible. Huge props have to go out to Activision for giving every player their wish. Character animations, especially wipeouts, have been tweaked dramatically as well, making crashes so much more painful to watch, especially if you see yourself writhing around in pain. However, having your ankle virtually broken or falling on your head is somewhat balanced by beautifully landing an insanely difficult combo. Background animation is slick and impressive, making the cities and areas you skate in seem much more realistic, and particle effects seem to have been sharpened up dramatically, especially with sparks and flames from objects. If there is any issue with T.H.U.G.’s graphics, it’s that the camera can at times be a little clunky, shifting into your stomach or a wall during moments that it decides to zoom in for a close up, primarily when you caveman off your board. Considering that a majority of the time players often have absolute control over the camera and it works better than many cameras in other games, this is a minor complaint, but it is rather glaring and at times disorienting when it happens.
T.H.U.G. also sounds as great as it looks, with great voice acting and contributions from all the pro skaters for their in-game personas. The secondary characters within story mode perform an admirable job as well, and this really isn’t a game that you’ll be annoyed by the amount of dialogue found in the game. The aural star, however, has to be the soundtrack, which features 72 rock, punk and hip-hip tracks from a ton of groups, including Jurassic 5, Bad Religion and Queens of the Stone Age. This would be an awesome multi-disc compilation for any gamer, and really gets your blood pumping when you’re ripping up courses. Personally, I know that I cranked up my speakers when I heard KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Night” playing in the background.
T.H.U.G. is an amazingly well designed game, but there are a few minor issues that prevent this game from being near perfect. First of all, the ability to skitch, or hitch a ride on passing vehicles, seems to be way too easy to perform inadvertently, especially if you’re in the middle of a sequence of grabs. This can be a problem when you’re trying to weave around a passing car during a tight time deadline only to find your character grabbing the back bumper when you don’t want them to. Secondly, the caveman feature, which allows skaters to dismount off their board to either access unreachable areas or string together obscenely complex combos, could’ve been implemented a little bit better control wise, especially when it comes to trying to latch onto ledges. Here, you’ll have to get accustomed to constantly trying and retrying your jumps until you manage to grab hold of the area you want to get to. Finally, while they’re somewhat spread out between levels in the story mode, the driving missions featured in T.H.U.G. seem to be way too gimmicky and not necessary to the gameplay itself. The rest of the action seriously could stand on its own without the use of these tasks, and while it doesn’t harm the story, it’s a device that feels a little clunky.
Minor issues aside, T.H.U.G. is easily one of the better titles that’s come out in the past few weeks and easily upholds the greatness of the Tony Hawk series. With an enormous amount of customizable options, absorbing story mode and large mod community, T.H.U.G. provides just about anything a gamer could want in a skateboarding title without grabbing a board and hitting the streets. Combine that with the ability to “place” yourself into the game with the face mapping feature, and you have a product that could easily be considered one of the best games of the year.