Hawk steps away from the Pro Skater series into a new direction. How did it fare?
At the very turn of the century and for the first half of the noughties, we seemed to have a renewed interest in underground sub-cultures, and nothing punched its way out of the subterranean depths harder and faster than skateboarding, and that’s accountable to one man and one company: Tony Hawk and Activision. Sure, skateboarding had come to provenance in America in the 80s thanks to the Z-Boys in Dogtown, comprised of the likes of Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta, but it wasn’t until 1999 when the culture would boom so hard and so loudly again. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater proved to be a revelation, not only a superb and tight simulation of the sport, but also served as a superb way to bridge the gap between the art form and fans it couldn’t reach before. It was a massive, avalanche success among gamers and skateboarders, and suddenly, every kid wanted a ‘board under the Christmas tree, and the X-Games exploded in popularity. What was left for Tony Hawk except to sit back and enjoy the big pile of money with many beautiful ladies? Instead, he went on to helm three astounding sequels, one of which (Pro Skater 3) is heralded as the second-greatest game of all time on Metacritic behind Ocarina of Time. As such, Pro Skater is special in that it defined a generation, and many people hold the original games to their heart very, very tightly. But as the aphorism says, all good things must come to an end.
Tony Hawk’s Underground (or THUG, if you really must) was the 2003 rebrand of the skateboarding series, spurred on by the idea of a shake-up to the formula being best for business. Activision had done superbly with the first four outings, but even they knew that the “collect SKATE, COMBO, high score, get out of there” routine would get old without significant work. Building on the work started by the prequel, THUG has free roam within its levels, the ability to take on missions or “goals” as you please, drivable vehicles, walking, and online play. The idea behind all of these editions was to create a much more diverse world with more to do, and a gameplay experience that would last longer – THPS3 can now be beaten in under four minutes; look at it on YouTube, it’s quite amazing. The question is, do these additions make for the digital equivalent of landing a 1080 revert, or for purists, do they hurt as much as bailing off your skateboard down a flight of stairs?
One of the key selling points for THUG when it came out was its emphasis on a strong narrative – this was pretty symptomatic of gaming at large at the time; after Grand Theft Auto III completely changed the game, every other developer was playing follow the leader, and everything had to have a story, even Barbie’s Horse Adventures, which is admittedly the greatest game ever made. You play as an upstart skating rookie who dreams of following in the tradition of the greats – Hawk, Burnquist, Mullen et al – wanting to ascend to the top of the ladder as they simply live for skateboarding. This takes the player on a whirlwind tour of the globe, starting and ending in the greatest place in the world, New Jersey (I’ve never been – just sucking up to the New Jersey massive here), while you negotiate the pitfalls of fame in the skating world – namely fair-weather friends, scummy managers, and the perils of being stuck in a foreign land far from home when the former two factors start wringing their hands together. By any means, Tony Hawk’s Underground is not a literary epic, nor is it even a Hollywood epic, but the story, while scrappy and rough around the edges, has a charming, “trying-its-best” appeal with its cheesy dialogue and silly voice acting that works in favour of the sophomoric tone of the series – this is the same game that does a “yummy weiners” joke; par for the course, really. As such, the story is both a welcome evolution of the series formula that puts you at the forefront (always a plus) and is fun in the sense that it doesn’t take itself seriously.
How does it actually play, though? In any Pro Skater, you can basically summarise your experience as “stuff happened, but LOOK AT THIS COOL COMBO I DID!” – it’s always been about the gameplay, and I’m more than happy to report that Underground doesn’t stray from that philosophy, bolstering its stronger narrative progression with the evergreen game engine, except now it has a few new parts attached to make the ride even smoother. The game adopts the same flawless engine from – I believe – THPS3 (the first game for sixth-gen consoles) so you’ll breeze around the stages with complete control over your chosen skater, meaning that with a bit of practice, you’ll be doing BS Crooked grinds into an Acid Drop into a revert into a 360 Christ Air in no time. Chaining up combos precisely to your liking is the same heady joy it’s always been, and this is the exact thing, same as the last four iterations, that truly MAKES the game.
How about the levels, though? Having a top-notch skating engine is all well and good, but if you don’t have the parks to back that up, what’s the point? Memories of Hangar, School II, Canada, and Alcatraz should be burned into any Tony Hawk fans’ memory, and it’s a relief to note that THUG‘s stages are of similar quality. You will travel the world from locales ranging from Tampa, to Hawaii, and even the Australian outback makes an appearance in the game’s hidden stage. All of these levels are bursting with character and are eminently memorable, from the huge bridge for grinding in New Jersey, to the competition halfpipe in the Slam City Jam arena, you’ll be hard-pressed to pick out a favourite among the line up as they are all honestly superb. They’re all packed to the brim with Neversoft’s trademark jokes and japes, from a suspicious rocking car in Tampa, to overzealous national guards in Moscow, so you’ll have a smile on your face as you rack up combo after combo in the incredibly well-realised worlds.
Graphically, the game looks fine. Nothing spectacular, but a huge upgrade from the prequel, which wasn’t using the PS2 Emotion Engine to its full potential. THUG in contrast looks sharper and holds up reasonably well today. However, the look of the game really amounts to zero. Yes, it looks nice, but graphical fidelity, in the context of Tony Hawk’s, will always come second to the gameplay, as you’ll be too busy notching up points to really drink in how good everything looks. That’s perhaps a little spoiled of us, but it’s true – when you’re doing vert tricks on a rooftop HP, the last thing you’re going to do is admire the view. As it stands, THUG is like a beautiful person, but instead of looking at their face, you’ll be looking at the curves of their body, thinking of what kind of combos you could rack up there.
If you had to point to any sort of massive, glaring hole in the game, it is absolutely the driving sections. Admittedly, you have to give this game a bit of slack – Tony Hawk’s is in no way a driving game, and as such, doesn’t deserved to be criticized so strongly for straying out of its comfort zone in a completely disposable part of the game. Okay, now that we’ve applied the slack, I can still say with confidence that the driving absolutely sucks. There’s at least one driving “goal” in the game’s 10-or-so levels, so that’s 10 driving missions out of about 140. The cars float around like a fat cow on ice, and they possess very little weight, either – you never feel like you’re driving a car as the automobiles can be whipped around with unsettling ease. There’s also a weird problem on a few of the cars where the hitbox for smashing into things is on the back of the car – a hilarious oversight. Admittedly, some vehicles are okay for what they are – the first level has a Fast and the Furious-styled street racing car that works well enough in the confines of New Jersey, but the absolute nadirs come with the blimp and the leaf blower. The blimp is shakier than a heroin user on a massive comedown, and the leaf blower tips over so constantly, you’ll think gremlins are trying to bust out of the chassis. I appreciate Neversoft attempting to branch out a little, but the driving’s a total misfire. At the very least, the presence of the driving is so minimal that you need not see a single vehicular mission in the stretch of the game, so it’s unlikely to affect your experience anyhow.
If ever there was a spice to mask the poisoning of the cars (and other assorted nonsense), then the coriander is decisively the soundtrack. I first played this game when I was 10 (I’m sorry, PEGI), and it came as an aural revolution to me and my tiny mind who thought music was all a bit rubbish and disposable. This was 2005, though, so we were living in some dark and troubling times as to what was considered mainstream. THUG features a wide mix of rock and roll, hip-hop, and punk spanning over 100 tracks, including the likes of NOFX, Social Distortion, Kiss, and Bad Religion. A line-up like that is stacked enough, and great enough to get you into the “good music”, but it also boasts a fabulous selection of lesser known artists like Busdriver and Fu Manchu who nearly steal the show themselves. The soundtrack perfectly symbolises and compliments the idea of punk DIY that runs through the skating subculture and the story at large, and as such, it comes together in one wonderful package that deserves total submersion into.
Tony Hawk’s Underground is like an aligning of the stars. Perfect soundtrack, impeccable gameplay, extremely serviceable graphics, a goofy (but cool) story, and some of the most memorable courses to skate on since Venice Beach (which, by the by, is available in this game as an unlockable). It’s a perfect storm and one that more than lives up to the Tony Hawk brand name. This is a special game, and even if you vaguely liked Pro Skater, you should play this without hesitation.
Verdict: Absolutely amazing game, even if you don’t like skateboarding, the punk scene, or good music in the slightest. This game should be like ABBA Gold in that every home should have a copy. Gideon Bible, ABBA Gold, Tony Hawk’s Underground.