Written By Shaun McCracken

It's funny. In 2003, it seems like a lot of the major franchises have gone "underground". I guess that's what you call an installment of a long-running series that makes a pretty bold change in it's design. Like the Need For Speed series, for example. In the past, the franchise was about racing only the most exotic and priciest sports cars in the world. Now, in NFS Underground, you drive more accessible sports sedans with some heavy modifications. So, what does "underground" mean for the Tony Hawk franchise? Opulent levels of bling? Ride as such billionaires as Oprah Winfrey or Donald Trump? Modify your boards with side-skirts and spoilers? Well all of that sounds asinine (well, except for riding as Oprah, that would be funny). No, the THPS franchise sees a change with a much more open-ended experience than previous games. The main career mode is tied together by a story and sequence of events, and the stages are more connected together rather than seen as individual stages. There are quite a few changes in the game that actually finally evolves the series without really destroying it. And we shall talk about those changes now.

If you've ever played a THPS game, you're pretty familiar on how things play out. You choose a pro-boarder (or one you've created) to start a career, you complete objectives stage by stage, and encounter some pro-events along the way. It's not that way anymore. This time, you start your career from scratch, right down to the character you play as. You'll first have to start things of by creating your own skater. No more using professional skaters off the bat. Why? Because the game actually has a storyline in the career mode. It's pretty much all about how you go from an amateur street skater to a professional one, and encounter various challenges and competitions along the way. To some, that may sound like a bad thing, because it sounds like the story would just get in the way of skating. It actually doesn't, because the addition of a plot of you clawing up the ranks helps the game flow better, and get you a little more involved with the game.

The game design is almost similar to THPS 4, as far as the "stages" are concerned. You're given an area to skate around, and you'll have to find people in certain places to play certain challenges and objectives. But the objectives seem to be more varied than before. Sure, you have the score, trick, combo line challenges, but there's also ones that you may have to get into a car, or collect items, or be tossed into select locations and accomplish a goal. It's a lot more varied than before. And the way you progress through stages is better. Rather than competing a handful of challenges to move on to the next stage, the game is broken into chapters. You may be in the same place for a few chapters, but it will be in different times of day, and the challenges will change. You will move on to new locations, but you will also be going back into previously played areas later in the game. The stages feel more connected to each other than before, rather than a "list" of places you have to go to.

This installment gets even better with the trick system, which has seen some big improvements. One of the biggest and newest additions is that you can now walk. Now, it may not seem like much, but walking actually opens the game up a whole lot more. You're able to climb ladders, engage in some platform-like elements, and pretty much reach places that you couldn't by just skating. But walking just doesn't help your overall manuverabillity, it can really save combos. You may have had moments in the past where you're pulling a trick in mid air, and suddenly your alignment is off. You know you're going to hit the ground sideways, and lose what you've made. But now many air tricks can be saved by quickly pressing the Z-button, which enables the walking mode. On top of that, walking can link combos together (the trick is called a "caveman"), which is an added bonus to saving some lost points.

But the tricks get even better with something that I have waited for quite some time. You can now actually CREATE your own tricks. Granted, creating a trick is made up of moves already made, but the sequence you put them together in really does create something new. It's a great addition, because you can now create and name your own tricks, which is much better than picking pre-made moves off a list. The only downside of this option is that you can only create air-tricks, you can't create your own flatland or grind tricks. That may happen in the next game, so we'll have to wait and see. But still, having the ability to create your own trick, even if it's just an air one, is something I (and others) have been waiting for.

If you think that this game is just made up of a career mode, you're wrong. You can still play in "single sessions" for high scores, and even play as the professional skaters in that mode. Also, the park creator mode returns, and is actually more fun to use with the new additions made to the game. I have a great time creating just platforming like stages that involve walking and collecting letters, like an old-school platformer. You can even make a stunt course for collecting the letters with a vehicle. New possibillites really open up that's beyond skating in this installment. A lot of what's offered here opens up replay value.

The visuals are about on par with THPS 4. Textures look a bit sharper, but the stage designs seem a little messier. The frame rate is also a little better than last year's version. The character model that is created for the career mode looks horribly bruised on the face. I'm not sure why, perhaps Neversoft really needs to work on facial mapping a little better than they usually do. The rest of the characters kind of have that beaten-up look in some cases as well. It's like someone came into the game and smacked everyone in the face with a 2x4. The overall look isn't bad, but it really doesn't look terribly different from last year's game.

The audio is also kind of the same story. The sound effects are good, and the character voices are good (and even funny), but the soundtrack is still a miss. The only song I recognize is the one Kiss song, which still doesn't make the soundtrack any better. It's not terrible, I just really can't find anything I like. When you compare this soundtrack, to say, SSX3's, SSX3 wins hands down, because the majority of songs are likable and even recognizable. Here, it's the same story. But, there is a big plus this year in the audio. Activision and Neversoft FINALLY ditched the crappy Bink Video format, which made the audio sound tinny, in favor for the new DiVX format by Factor 5. While the video quality is decent, the audio is preserved, and it doesn't sound like crap. I really hope more developers use the DiVX format in Gamecube titles, because it really does save the audio quality.

Final Thought

Tony Hawk's Underground finally brings and gives some much needed changes to the series. The game feels a lot more open in the career mode than it used to, and the addition of a story (as by-the-numbers as it may be) really hold the game together. Plus, the addition of walking and creating your own tricks is something whose time has finally come. The create-a-trick option alone is worth checking out, and just adds to a very solid and well put together game. It still has it's flaws, like some dodgy collision detection while walking, the lack of rail or flatland tricks that can be created, a better soundtrack and character models that look like they just came from an UFC tournament, but as far as extreme sports titles go, the only thing better is SSX3. This is pretty much the best THPS game yet, and really opens up some new possibillites in future installments.






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Much-needed changes and improvements make this the best skater to date.

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2003-2006 SPM

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