Tony Hawk's Underground Impressions

The next Tony Hawk game is nearing completion and we've taken a look at its new story mode.

Year after year, the new games in the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series have made significant improvements on their predecessors. While some of the changes may not seem that major at first, mastering each game requires you to learn its new tweaks and combo linkers to truly succeed. The developers at Neversoft have done a fine job of changing things up without breaking anything that worked in the previous games, but this year the developer has its largest challenge ahead of it. By essentially tearing the series' standard structure apart and putting it back together again to form an all-new story mode for the latest installment--Tony Hawk's Underground, or THUG for short--Neversoft seems to be implementing its most ambitious upgrade yet.

The cities in THUG offer far more trick opportunities now.

The key to THUG is that you won't play as one of the series' long list of professional skaters in the game's main mode. The story mode, which will have four different difficulty settings to appease the wide range of players expected to play the game, requires you to create your own skater using a beefed-up version of the create-a-skater mode that has been in the series for years. The most noticeable addition to the creation aspect of the game manifests itself only in the PlayStation 2 version of the game. This mode will allow you to use your own face textures in the game, essentially allowing you to create yourself--or anyone you can get a nice, clear head shot of. The option requires you to get your PlayStation 2 online, but you can't do it with your PS2 alone. Instead, you'll need to e-mail a head shot to a special e-mail address. Once it has been processed--a procedure that Activision representatives claim takes only a second or two now, but may take longer once more people have the game and start hitting the servers all at once--you'll be given a password. Entering that password will let you download the texture from the Neversoft servers and into the game for use with your created skater. You'll also be able to add facial hair, tattoos, clothes, and all the other stuff that comes with the create-a-skater mode.

Don't try this at home.

Once you have a skater, the story mode can begin. It opens in a suburban section of New Jersey. In the opening cutscene, your good buddy Eric raps on your window and lets you know that pro skater Chad Muska is in town to put on a skate demo. Once that cutscene is out of the way, you're off and running. The game's early goals teach you about a couple of the new additions to the standard Tony Hawk control scheme. The first is that you can get off your skateboard and run around at will. A meter that counts down when you're off your board lets you work this into combos. Aside from just running around a level, you can also climb ladders or jump up and catch onto wires and awnings. Once hanging, you can pull yourself up or make like Lara Croft and shimmy sideways. The game will also let you drive cars. The first car goal is a simple lap around the level, passing through cones as you go. Each of the game's environments will feature at least one driving section.

We haven't seen many of the game's goals yet, but one of them has you following Muska's SUV around town, performing tricks when you're close enough for Chad to see you. Once he's seen enough, he stops and tells you to keep at it, giving you a new board to replace your beat-up deck in the process. The game will be broken up by chapters. As you complete one chapter's goals, you'll see an in-engine cutscene that advances the story. You'll eventually get sponsored by your local skate shop, and your fame grows from there. While Activision wasn't ready to give out any details on how the story will progress, it sounds like you'll face off against skate rivals as you go, and the game may have multiple endings. You'll even get to steal a cop car. Goals like that are part of the reason why the developer has moved away from having the player play as real-life professional skaters, since grand theft auto isn't exactly a crime that a role model like Tony Hawk (or his publicity department) would want to be associated with.

You'll be able to catch air in all kinds of new ways in THUG.

You'll still be able to play as the professionals in the game's other modes, which include the standard free ride and multiplayer modes you expect from the series. The game also has a lot more user-editable items. The level creation has been enhanced quite a bit, and now you'll be able to create your own goals in existing or created levels. Create-a-trick lets you put together your own tricks using all the game's existing animations. You can tweak the way the animations play, alter the time they take to execute, add flips and spins, and give the trick a name. The game assigns a point score to the trick based on how difficult it is to land. You can also create your own deck graphics using a collection of decals built into the game. The PlayStation 2 version of the game features online multiplayer for up to eight players. It will also have a repository for created content, so you'll be able to download levels, goals, tricks, and so on.

The trick editor is a very cool new addition.

We've seen the game running on the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, and both versions of the game are looking pretty sharp. The levels we saw were nicely detailed, and the game's pro skaters have been head-scanned for the game, resulting in a more-realistic look. Activision hasn't made any announcements regarding the game's soundtrack yet, but we caught songs by Jurassic 5 and KISS in the version we were shown. The game's audio was on par with what you'd expect from the series, and it sounds like it includes many of the same effects as previous installments in the series.

The story mode portion of THUG looks like it'll be a pretty cool new take on the expanded career mode found in last year's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, and all the customizable portions of the game have a lot of potential, too. Look for Tony Hawk's Underground to come to the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube during the last week of October.

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Jeff Gerstmann has been professionally covering the video game industry since 1994.

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