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After four games that have been released on virtually every platform, just about everyone has played at least one version of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. The concept has been pretty much the same through each game: Take a professional skater through a series of levels collecting items, competing in contests, and tricking off of anything and everything along the way. That was all well and good, and the series showed dramatic improvement from one installment to the next so there was not really any reason to change anything. For the fifth game in the series, however, Neversoft decided to try something different.
In Tony Hawk's Underground, the focus is no longer on widely known professional skaters and is instead on taking a custom made character through the trials and tribulations of being a nobody from New Jersey and trying to become a pro skater. The same great gameplay you would expect from a Tony Hawk game is back and better than ever along with a ton of customization options. This is the best game in the series, so fans will love it, but the change of focus in the story mode and wealth of customization options will surely bring in a whole new group of fans as well.
Tony Hawk's Underground starts off with you making a skater. There are lots of options to choose from so you can make your skater, male or female, look pretty much exactly how you want them to. On the PS2 you can even put your face into the game by sending a digital photo to Neversoft and then downloading it into your game via the PS2 Network Adapter after they e-mail you a special code. This is a nice option, and it is pretty easy to do, but there are enough appearance options that you should be able to make a character that looks like you without the hassle of submitting a photo.
Once your skater looks the way you want him or her to, you start out in a suburb in New Jersey with low stats, a junky board, and an annoying friend named Eric Sparrow who tags along on your quest to become a pro skateboarder. I found the story to be fairly interesting as you work to earn sponsorships and join skate teams so you can move up to the amateur and then pro levels. There are a few twists and turns along the way, but the story does a good job of presenting your rise to the top. There are 27 chapters in the story mode with some chapters having eight or nine goals while other chapters don't have any. The first time through the game will take about ten hours, but you have to play through it a couple of times to unlock all of the videos and other hidden goodies, so it doesn't seem too short.
The goals that you will have to complete in order to advance the story are a step above the goals in past games in terms of realism. Everything you do in THUG you do for a reason. Things such as impressing other skaters so you can join their team, delivering snacks to security guards so they'll let you into a building, and one-upping local skaters by learning their secret lines are just some of the goals you'll have to complete. You start goals by finding the people with markers over their head, just like in THPS4, but you can also select any goal you want from the start menu. The goals give you quite a variety of things to do and go a long way towards making you really feel like you are earning your way up the ranks. The only real problem with the story mode and the goals that you complete within it is that they were all written with male skaters in mind. Even when you play through the game as a woman, all of the dialogue still starts with Hey dude¯ or Hey bro¯ and some of the goals such as picking up girls for a party just seem really awkward and out of place. This is sure to alienate some of their audience. Another issue that isn't really a problem but will still bring a tear to THPS veterans' eyes is that the S-K-A-T-E goals are long gone. Other than that, the story mode is satisfying and the goals are fun.
Along the way you will be given the opportunity to make your own custom tricks, and you'll even be able to customize the graphics on your board. Creating tricks is pretty easy and you are allowed to add whatever grabs, flips, and spins you want. The only thing you have to watch out for is being too ambitious and adding so much stuff that you can't complete the trick before you smack into the pavement. Customizing your board is easy as well and you can put a base layer, a graphic design, and then four layers of characters (numbers, letters, etc.) on your board in whatever colors you want. You don't have as much freedom as I would have liked, but it is better than nothing and a good sign of things to come.
The gameplay is as solid as ever and has been improved in a couple of different ways. Along with all of the grabs, grinds, flatland tricks, flips, manuals, reverts, spine transfers, and mid-combo modifications for all of the above we have come to expect, you can now get off of your board and walk or run around the level. This allows you to climb objects to reach new areas of the level or access new combo lines. You can also work this move into combos by, for example, grinding along one line and then jumping off of your board and running over to a new line and continuing your combo. Also new to this game is the ability to perform a wallplant. A wallplant will put you into a 180-degree turn and give you some extra speed so you can continue your combo. Every other aspect of the classic THPS gameplay is back and tighter than ever.
When you first start story mode, your skater has limited stats and it is a struggle to do some of the most basic actions. In THUG the way you increase your stats is by meeting certain criteria such as grinding for seven seconds to raise your rail stat or landing a 10,000 point air to increase your air stat. You can't raise all of your stats to the moon on the first level, though, and you will be given more criteria to raise your stats after you reach the amateur and pro levels. This is an ingenious way of rewarding you for learning how to play the game. By forcing you to match these criteria, you not only make your skater in the game better but you also learn how to become a better player.
THUG also offers a new way to get around each level that has never been seen before in a THPS game. You can now enter vehicles and drive around the levels. This is more than just a sideshow attraction, though, and a handful of goals require you to drive a car to complete them. The only problem with this is that the driving sections absolutely suck. The cars are ugly looking and the driving itself is extremely easy, far too simple, and not all that fun. You usually only have the option of driving just one vehicle in each level. This is a far cry from the GTA Pro Skater¯ a lot of people had hoped for after E3. The driving sections were a nice idea but poorly executed. Next year maybe just let is go back to skating.
For the first time in the series, THUG allows you to select a difficulty level when you start the story mode. The difficulty level affects things such as how long you have to complete each goal to how many points you have to score in competitions and other point based goals. On the lowest of the four difficulty levels you don't even have timers for most goals and the score requirements are pathetic. On the highest of the four difficulty levels, the game throws 300,000-point goals at you by the third level and you have literally no time on the clock for most goals and have to spend a lot of time in a manual. For the last couple of competitions on Sick¯ difficulty don't be surprised if you have to score 800,000 points in order to win. I beat the game on the default (third highest) difficulty first and then moved on to Sick difficulty, and I suggest that is what other THPS vets do as well. It lets you learn the levels and figure out the goals on normal before you kick it up to sick and take on the real challenge. The last chapter in story mode plays out slightly differently between the normal and sick difficulties, and it is pretty satisfying to see the way the story plays out. It is easier to get all 129 goals in THUG than it was to get all 190 in THPS4, but Tony Hawk's Underground will still provide a decent challenge. I'm not really too crazy about having multiple difficulties, but I can definitely see how the lower settings will help get more people into the series, so it is something I can learn to live with.
The level designs in THUG are superb and are definitely an improvement over the levels in the last game, which I thought were the weakest part of THPS4. In Tony Hawk's Underground, the levels are bigger than ever and are constructed in a much more realistic way. You won't find rails and ledges and quarterpipes all over the place anymore, but there are several different skate spots within each level that will provide you with plenty of objects to trick off of. Now that you can get off your board and have the ability to jump up and climb on things, you can explore the nooks and crannies and rooftops and find new places to skate that wouldn't have been available otherwise. Even if you don't like a given level as a whole, you will definitely find specific spots within each level that you'll want to come back to again and again and that really is the strength of the levels in THUG.If you think you can produce better levels, the create-a-level feature provides plenty of room to play around in. You can make big, full-sized levels this time around that play more like the story levels and less like your neighborhood skate park. You can also create your own goals for not only our custom levels but the main levels as well. The goals you can create range from score based goals to the S-K-A-T-E goals that are absent from the story mode. You can even write your own custom text for each goal. You can share your custom levels and goals with other people online through your PS2, so now downloading new levels is much more worthwhile than it has been in the past.
Online play has returned in the PS2 version of the game and it is better than ever. All of the modes from THPS4 have returned along with a brand new one. You can do simple graffiti or trick attack games, or you can tackle the fireball mode where you can shoot fireballs at your opponents. THUG also features stat tracking and it keeps track of high scores so you can check out how you stack up against the people you are playing against. The game runs beautifully on even a dialup connection as well and, along with the other THPS games stands as one of the few bright spots for those of us with slow connections that still want to play console games online.
Graphically, not a whole lot has changed since the last game. There is a lot more detail in the level designs, but other than slightly sharper textures it looks just like THPS4. The character models are sort of ugly when you see them up close, but the animation is smoother than ever so the bug-eyed characters can be forgiven. The game runs at a smooth framerate and looks good overall.
The sound in THUG is very good. The sounds of skating are much the same as we have heard before, but now there are new sounds to represent different surfaces. There is also more dialogue in Tony Hawk's Underground than ever before, and most of the voices sound very good. Even the pro-skaters sound pretty good this year after the robotic sound bytes we got from them last year. The only voice that will grate on you is your buddy Eric Sparrow, but you'll get used to it.
Music has always played an important part in the Tony Hawk games and THUG offers the biggest selection of songs yet. There are over 70 songs from rock, hip-hop, and punk and most of the selections are worth listening to. You have the option to remove specific tracks from your play list or turn off an entire genre, which is a nice option. A lot of the hip-hop tracks are actually about THPS, which is also very cool. The sheer amount of music means it will be quite a while before you get too tired of the soundtrack if you are a GC or PS2 owner and don't have the option of making a custom soundtrack like Xbox owners.We say this every year, but only because with each new version of this series it's true: This is the best skateboarding game on the market and the best the Tony Hawk series has to offer. Tony Hawk's Underground has all of the same great gameplay and features that fans of the series expect, but it also introduces a new story mode and shifts the focus onto creating characters, boards, tricks, and levels to make the game your own. If you aren't already a fan of the series, the interesting and decidedly different story mode, more organic way of raising your stats, and the inclusion of selectable difficulty levels should go a long way towards winning you over. This game is a lot of fun and the depth of the customization features and excellent online play ensure that you will be playing the game for months. THUG rocks, plain and simple, and deserves to be played.
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