Friday, September 4, 2020

Tony Hawk's Underground (PS2)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Tony Hawk's Underground

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 set a precedent for later games in the series to go more open-world, however the next entry, Tony Hawk’s Underground, takes this a few steps further. Rather than playing as one of many professional skaters, this time the game is about you, the player, trying to become a professional skater, even introducing a story mode to the series. Though times have changed since the game’s release in 2003, their first attempt at a story-driven Pro Skater game was handled surprisingly well and still somewhat resonates to this day despite some mechanical flaws.

In New Jersey, the player character skates with his friend Eric Sparrow in order to get the attention of pro skater Chad Muska, who happens to be in town. Chad, impressed by what the protagonist can do, offers him a new skateboard while encouraging his dream to become a pro. At Chad’s suggestion, the player character and Eric start by trying to impress skate shop owner Stacy Peralta enough to become their sponsor.

While this is the first game in the series to feature a story, I thought it took an interesting direction and was overall handled pretty well. The story is generally grounded in reality and largely covers what it takes to become a professional skateboarder (at least circa 2003), however it doesn’t shy away from how difficult the journey can be, from having to land sponsors to make a living to having to work your way up to Am before then working your way to Pro. Obviously, the journey itself is somewhat condensed to work for a video game and there is some mild fantasy to it, along with some mild amount of juvenile humor thrown in (ex. a “deez nuts” joke), however it provides some interesting insight into the Pro lifestyle and by the end affirms that skating is still about having fun with it.

Eric Sparrow, an original invention of the game, is not only designed to be a thoroughly unlikable character, he also shows an example of what it looks like when someone is only into becoming a pro for the fame and glamor, even backstabbing the player character in order to achieve that goal. This comes to a head in the final chapter where Eric challenges the protagonist to a difficult skating challenge in order to retrieve skating footage over which the backstabbing occurred. However, a second playthrough results in a different ending where the player character simply decks Eric to get the footage back, which in my opinion provides a much greater catharsis after what he puts you through.

You will learn to hate this guy. (Pictured: Eric Sparrow)

At one point during the game, you are given a choice between five sponsors, including watching actual videos from said sponsors in order to help you make a choice. The story is not affected by this aside from which sponsor logos appear on banners and shirts, however it also unlocks more customization options, encouraging playing the game five times in order to unlock everything. At the end game, you also have to choose five skaters for a new team you put together, with the reward for this being actual skating footage of the skaters you chose. One additional detail I liked is that, upon booting up the game, you are able to just continue right where you left off in the story, which saves a lot of time from digging through menus.

Building off of previous games, the game introduces new mechanics that increase combo potential. Chief among these new moves are the Boneless, allowing you to jump farther; the Wallplant, letting you hop off of walls; the Acid Drop, in which you can transfer into a quarter-pipe from above; and the Hip Transfer, where you can Spine Transfer between the corners of two ramps. The Manual has also been greatly expanded into a Flatland style of skating, wherein, much like Lip Tricks, you can switch between different stances to extend your combo so long as you maintain balance. There is now also a difficulty select when you start a new game; for the sake of expediency, I chose to play on Beginner, though I have previously played the game enough times to vouch for the other difficulty settings, including that the setting below Beginner, Too Easy, really does live up to its name.

One major, though divisive, innovation is the ability to get off your board, allowing for greater freedom of movement and exploration as well as the ability to hop off the board if you’re about to bail or go directly into a grind without having to aim your board. While I actually like the freedoms this mechanic presents, the only thing that makes this awkward is the fact the game uses an inverted camera that you cannot adjust. As an extension of this awkwardness, the game also has several opportunities in which you can drive other vehicles, however the controls are a bit clunky and make the vehicle difficult to steer at times.

Vehicles can be difficult to steer.

The format presented by Pro Skater 4, in which you complete challenges presented to you by NPCs in more open-world levels, is present here as well, though improved upon in some ways. Due to the presence of a story mode, the challenges are designed more to serve the progression of the plot and their difficulty is tied directly to your choice of game difficulty at the start. Competitions are also present, however they are worked more organically into the game’s narrative rather than as random challenges. Stat points can also be increased by performing certain challenges around different points in the game, which you are able to check up on in the pause menu. One change I particularly liked is that multi-part challenges now, for the most part, feature checkpoints between each part, making them far more manageable and easier to fulfill.

The game also presents a lot more customization options than in preceding iterations. Whereas custom skaters and parks have been a mainstay since Pro Skater 2, you are now given the ability to create your own tricks as well, including the length of the animations. You can also download your own face onto the player character, though I did not explore this feature for this review.

Whereas Pro Skater 4’s environments felt a bit empty in spite of their ambition, here the levels feel livelier with a lot more people thrown in in the right intervals to fill in space. There’s also a lot more attention to detail as well as a lot more hidden areas, allowing the condensed spaces to feel somewhat bigger than they actually are. There was, however, a minor issue where a random background tree was flickering as though the game didn’t know whether to render it, which I was only able to see from a high enough point in part of the San Diego level. Incidentally, while I have been to San Diego multiple times for San Diego Comic-Con, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of its depiction since my knowledge of the area is largely confined to the Gaslamp District.

Aside from the presence of various skate brands, the advertising for Nokia is a bit more overt, even joined this time by brands Butterfinger and McDonald’s. The Manhattan stage even includes a physical McDonald’s location that you can look inside (without being able to enter), including a recreation of their order counter and menu circa 2003. One of the cutscenes and a challenge that formally introduces the Boneless also take place around the McDonald’s in said level, although judging by the chef NPC’s design, I came to the conclusion that it was likely a different kind of eatery before the game received a McDonald’s sponsorship.

Aside from the Pro Skaters who appear more as guests in the story, the overall quality of the voice acting has been improved. Since he features more prominently in the story alongside the player character, Ben Diskin of Codename: Kids Next Door and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure fame does a good job at portraying Eric Sparrow as a very hate-able character. Though this is notably his first video game role and one of his earliest voice acting gigs, he still put a lot of range into Sparrow’s personality that really sells how unlikable of a character he is.

Compared with previous entries, the soundtrack for this game has been greatly expanded to include a total of 79 tracks, including a wide range of rock and hip hop selections, which play at random by default. Of these tracks, the ones that stood out to me more than others were “Armageddon” by Alkaline Trio; “Big Bang” by Bad Religion; “2RAK005” by Bracket; “The Separation of Church and Skate” by NOFX; “New Noise” by Refused; “Like the Angel” by Rise Against; “White Riot” by The Clash; “Embody the Invisible” by In Flames; “God of Thunder”, “Lick It Up” and Rock and Roll All Nite” by Kiss; “Hot Wire” by Lamont”; “Crusher Destroyer” by Mastodon; “Imaginary Places” by Busdriver; and “Positive Contact” by Deltron 3000. The three Kiss songs in the game are also featured prominently in a secret level unlocked by completing the story, Hotter Than Hell, a Kiss concert venue in which you can gather KISS letters to enable a live performance from an in-game representation of the band.

A free Kiss concert is your ultimate reward.

While not without flaws, Tony Hawk’s Underground is one of the best games in the Pro Skater series. The visual and audio presentation are some of the best in the PS2 era of the series, plus many of the new game mechanics and the sheer amount of customization options allows for greater freedom of expression. The story is also good for the series’ first attempt at it, exploring both the reality of the skating scene at the time and the philosophies of the sport. Overall, this is an easier game in the series for me to recommend even if you have no familiarity with the Pro Skater games.

No comments:

Post a Comment