Tony Hawk’s Underground

My visiting of different versions of the Tony Hawk’s series continues, following my review of American Sk8land. In a continuing quest to play as much Tony Hawk’s as possible because the series was and still is absolutely brilliant, I’ve also been playing the Xbox port of Tony Hawk’s Underground.

Tony Hawk’s Underground has long been my favourite in the series that I followed from the start. The fifth main game in the series and the first to feature walking, the first to give you a cohesive story with a villain and missions that tied into it rather than being a vague way of progressing (THPS), scoring points (THUG2), obtaining park pieces (THAW) or joining an elite skating event (THP8), as well as the first in many other ways, the first Underground breathed new life into a series many saw as in danger of becoming routine, bringing the series into the then-modern era while also keeping everything that everyone loved about the series.

I’ve not played THUG in a long time, so here’s what I think of it now. It is not very fun on Xbox. (Skip a few paragraphs if you’re not interested in blether about this.)

It runs great, it looks fine, but you can tell that the game was built around the PlayStation controller from the word go, and so many things on the Xbox version are absurdly awkward. The lack of a decent d-pad on its controller makes it difficult to differentiate the eight directions you can use to choose which trick you pull off – and many missions require lightning-quick combinations of strings of tricks. Even worse is that Tony Hawk’s Underground made a lot of extra use of the four shoulder buttons, and because Xbox controllers only have two (and they’re triggers, which hurts the game even more – nothing in the game requires analogue button input), there are some compromises that make the game very awkward.

Sin #1: the walk button is assigned, instead of L1+R1, to Black. L1+R1, for anyone playing a Tony Hawk’s game, are immediately accessible, and in Underground, that’s necessary – it has a slew of missions that require quick swapping from walking to skating and vice versa. Having to reach for Black on the fly is awkward (note: I played on the smaller controller – the Duke may partially resolve this problem.) Sin #2: many functions such as Spine Transfer and Acid Drop are now done by pushing in both triggers on Xbox, rather than PS2’s single button. Again often being called upon in a pinch, having to squish two triggers in to perform it is horrible. And it’s made worse by how the triggers are also used for rotations when airborne. Spine transferring and acid dropping are both functions you also use when airborne, so unless you push the triggers in and out in perfect sync, I found myself more often than not rotating myself 90 degrees, landing sideways and bailing.

These all combine with some minor annoyances on the Xbox version which I am unsure if they’re the game’s fault or the console’s – such as the fact that the game starts off about a thousand shades too dark and you have to fiddle with individual Red, Green and Blue gamma values to fix that (does anyone actually have a TV that is so far off colour that they rely on a game’s colour balancing options?!). Camera rotation also feels really poor on this version – American Wasteland on Xbox 360 is absolutely incredible, and I’ve tried the same game on original Xbox to the same poor effect as THUG has.

So port issues out of the way, the game is very good. Maybe not my favourite any more, though.

The game sees you, a rookie skateboarder in a miniaturised New Jersey, getting some skateboarding down with your friend Eric Sparrow. Through a chance encounter with Chad Muska, the first of many real-life professional skateboarder that the Tony Hawk’s series is known for featuring, your career is kicked off and you travel to various places becoming sponsored as an amateur and later a professional skateboarder. And anyone that’s already played the game, even if not for a decade, will probably remember the name Eric Sparrow for various reasons – without spoiling the events of Underground 1, its sequel’s first scene (which features a neat throwback to New Jersey from THUG1) is Bam Margera scaring Sparrow so hard he wets himself.

The base game controls well. Skateboarding is slicker than the four Pro Skater games it succeeds thanks to a handful of new abilities that meld well with everything else. Walking is also fantastic, in theory being useful for climbing ladders and ascending steps to reach vantage points to start skating from. The game somehow nails the addition of walking far more successfully than Skate 2, another excellent boarding game released six years later, did.

However, a fairly big issue, and one I’d forgotten, is that Underground is far too focused on dealing you missions that don’t require any skateboarding. One of the first has you jumping across rooftops collecting skateboard parts, which is already fairly awkward thanks to the game’s primitive implementation of parkour moves that THUG thinks is better than it is. Before you can even get to level 2, two more horrible non-skating missions cross your path – one which sees you use possibly the worst driving in a modern-era game I’ve ever felt (no other Tony Hawk’s game to date has included vehicle driving, and that is a blessing), and one where you have to reach an area of the map without being spotted by enemies. They’re not difficult, but they’re also not fun, and a number of others scattered across the game really water down the game’s quality and do it a massive disservice – I don’t want to drive around a minuscule rendition of San Diego in a springy, awful golf cart “picking up hotties” for a party. Call me back when I can Natas Spin on their heads to impress them.

Skating missions, thankfully, are generally wonderfully done, although even in that aspect there are some pretty poor ones. One sees you, in Tampa, impress Bam Margera and a crowd of people on a small boat with a smaller halfpipe doing a long string of called-out flip and grab tricks. Unfortunately, by the nature of the game and how left and right rotate you, any move that requires you push right, such as the Melon on right+B, will ever so slightly misalign you – not enough to bail outright, but enough to launch you off the boat and into the water. The only way I found to reliably complete it was to stay still dead in the middle of the halfpipe, and from a standstill, jump, do one of the moves, land, and hold down until I was sure I was still – and then repeat for the 20 or so tricks the mission has you do. Other missions were fine on PS2 but are exacerbated on the Xbox version, such as one that has you do moves while spine transferring over a statue – and due to the aforementioned inability to spine transfer without rotating on Xbox, you have to continuously, and hastily, realign yourself for each subsequent move or you’ll pretty much spine transfer to your death.

I still love Tony Hawk’s Underground, it has cracking levels that mix the tightness of a skatepark with the broadness of a city to create a collection of memorable locations that are fun to trick in and to explore in equal measure, but I now far more appreciate how, in spite of Underground 2, American Wasteland and even Project 8’s stories being generalised where Underground has more thought put into it, those other games’ missions are a lot more fun to actually play. And they don’t have that watered down element (sponsor pun) to them. The stupid new stuff, such as the quirkily controlled characters in THUG2 or the bicycle and more advanced parkour in THAW, are executed far better in those games and used with far more self-control too, making them feel like extras in skateboarding games and not the walky-drivy segments in a skateboardy-walky-drivy game.

Oh, but the soundtrack in THUG is second to none. And the track editor is boss. And the character creation is great, plus it’s nice to hear them talk and interact with people during the story. And tarting around is as good as in anything else. And the racing is kind of funny despite being so stupid and worthless.

I still love Tony Hawk’s Underground.

ADDENDUM

I have since played, and this time to completion, Underground 1 on PS2. Although the DualShock 2 is a fairly clunky controller by modern standards, its precise Dpad and its L2/R2 buttons (as well as the fact all of its shoulder buttons are precise, not squidgy) vastly improves the experience of Underground.

It does not, however, excuse some of the game’s other flaws. Mission variety is still weak, there are still far too many “collect this and that” and “do this list of randomly generated tricks” (although the latter are now more fun), vehicle driving remains miserable – especially the blimp driving one in Slam City Jam – and the final mission in which you take down Eric is torture:

It involves following Eric through 40 or so checkpoints he generates throughout New Jersey on your return to it from Moscow, all the while with him laying fiery traps. It’s not the worst thing in the world, except for the point just under halfway through the line where you have to jump from an electrical cable suspended way above the ground, onto the level’s bridge, and then back onto another cable on the other side of it. The latter jump, as far as I could tell, is as good as impossible.

You can stop grinding the bridge and perform a high-jump Boneless off it, with Special active, and full stats, and you just don’t reach it. The only way I could finish the mission, after an hour of frustration, was to jump off the bridge to the ground, take a left into a halfpipe graveyard area, throw myself to the left while getting off the board and grab the cable with R1, shimmying across it as fast as I could to hit the checkpoint before dropping and hightailing to the next, thankfully floored, one. And all that for an unsatisfying conclusion where you walk away, smug, with your Hawaii McTwist tape, while Eric has a bit of a mild tantrum. I wanted to run the bastard over, even if it meant experiencing the game’s ropey driving mechanics one final time.

Plus side though, you do get to wind down afterwards in a fairly excellent KISS concert level which I had completely forgotten existed. You can even watch them perform.

Still a good game in spite of all that, although it is hugely trumped by its two successors, Underground 2 (which I intend on also reviewing at some point) and American Wasteland.

NAL

NAL likes creepy faces.

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