Tony Hawk's Underground Preview
Neversoft's latest skateboarding game takes the focus off the pro skaters and puts you in the starring role. We take a look.
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Though the games have always been grounded in reality, the underlying appeal of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games has always been the fantasy of being a professional skateboarder and tearing up skate spots with extraordinary skill. Neversoft, the developer of the series, has tweaked the formula slightly in each game, but none have changed the structure of the game as significantly as Tony Hawk's Underground will.
One of the most immediately noticeable differences between T.H.U.G. and its predecessors is the structure of the career mode. Instead of stepping into the shoes of Tony Hawk, Bob Burnquist, Bam Margera, or one of the dozen or so different pro skaters from the Tony Hawk games, you'll play as an anonymous skater from New Jersey with aspirations of going pro. The portion of the story mode we had access to took us from the run-down streets of Jersey--where you first get noticed by Chad Muska during a skate demo--to New York City to shoot a skate shop sponsorship demo tape. Then you head down to Tampa for an amateur competition. Multiple runs through this portion of the story mode seem to suggest that the story is fairly linear, but there may be some minor branching later on. Though the focus of the story will be on a no-name skater, all the pros will make significant cameos throughout, sometimes helping you master a new trick and occasionally using their clout to help you advance your career.
How your skater will appear in the game and in cutscenes is entirely up to you and T.H.U.G.'s create-a-skater feature. The past few Tony Hawk games have really beefed up how much control you have over your custom skaters, and T.H.U.G. will take that even further. You can still alter your skater's hairstyle, hair color, basic facial structure, and skin tone. You can also dress your skater in a variety of clothes and accessories and can choose overall height and build. Additionally, you can tweak the size and shape of your skater's head, nose, jaw, chest, waist, biceps, forearms, hands, thighs, calves, and feet. You also have the option of choosing the gender of your skater, which not only alters the wardrobe available to you but changes the voice acting for your skater in the story mode. Though, from what we've seen, the story mode is definitely built with a male character in mind, as much of the dialog is peppered with "man," "dude," and "bro."
Once you get past the exposition, the actual gameplay structure in T.H.U.G. doesn't seem radically different from what we saw in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4. You're initially dropped into a level with unlimited time to skate around and just goof off. As you explore the area, you'll run into pedestrians with special markers over their heads. Approach them, and you'll trigger a mission. The mission objectives we encountered included item collection, point competitions, trick competitions, and most surprisingly, a stealth mission. Though we did notice hidden tapes in each of the levels, the S-K-A-T-E challenges, which have been a staple of the Tony Hawk games, were curiously absent from the early single-player game. You'll apparently be able to create and edit your own challenges in other modes, including the collection of these five infamous letters.
Like the Grand Theft Auto series, T.H.U.G will actually have missions that require you to drive a car. The four car-based missions we encountered seemed pretty straightforward, though they definitely show potential and could turn out to be something really interesting and unique.
Each Tony Hawk game has handled you character's gradual improvement in various skating abilities, like rail balance, manuals, speed, and air time, in a slightly unique fashion, and T.H.U.G. will also feature a new system. Instead of picking up stat points or buying them with skater bucks, performing different feats will earn you increased stats in a specific area. Air transfer for 20 feet and you'll gain an extra air stat point, thus adding extra altitude to your jumps. Grind a rail for five seconds and you'll gain an extra rail stat point, increasing your balance on the rail. The game controls the pace by limiting how much you can increase your stats based on how far you are in the story mode. Of all the different methods of stat building in the Tony Hawk games, this one seems like the most organic so far.
Another new, organic feature that will be featured in T.H.U.G. will be the dismount. You'll actually be able to hop off your skateboard and run around on foot, which can serve a few different purposes. First, being off your board lets you jump and climb your way to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. Each of the levels we played featured at least one hidden area that you could get to by jumping off your deck. Secondly, the off-the-board action introduces the new "caveman" trick.
When you're in the middle of a trick in T.H.U.G., you can jump off your board, at which point a timer will start. If you can get back on your board and seamlessly caveman back into another trick, your combo will continue as though you never got off your board. The off-the-board mechanics took some getting used to, though once we got the hang of it there was no question it had a significant impact on how we approached combos. Once we made our way to Tampa, we were introduced to the wallplant mechanic, which allows you to jump straight into a wall and then propel yourself back in the opposite direction with your foot. While not as significant as the caveman, the wallplant is another nice addition to the already vast arsenal of moves in T.H.U.G.
The Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions of T.H.U.G. we've been playing seem pretty similar, but one of the big differences between the two will be online play--a feature exclusive to the PlayStation 2. Though we haven't been able to try out online play for ourselves, we were able to try out one of the game's other new features: face-mapping. Face-mapping lets you map your own face onto a custom skater. You won't need much in terms of special equipment; all you really need is a clean, forward-facing picture of yourself on your computer. Simply e-mail this picture to an address provided by Neversoft, and you'll receive a response e-mail containing a special code. Punch this code into the game, and your face will automatically be downloaded from the Neversoft servers. Once it's on your PS2, you select four specific points on the picture that help the game graph your face onto the model correctly. While our own results haven't seemed completely photorealistic, it seems that with the vast number of different adjustable values and features, such as skin tone, nose, eye, mouth, and lip size and shape, the game will offer plenty of variety as to how your custom skater will look.
Another significant new feature in Tony Hawk's Underground is the create-a-trick function. It doesn't let you create entirely new animations, but it will let you string together existing tricks (and you can even add in additional revolutions as you see fit, such as a 360 madonna or a 540 kickflip) by using a timing interface not unlike that found in most video editing software. While it may be tempting to add in a huge and spectacular vertical flip trick, you'll have to make sure you find areas that actually let you pull them off--like a huge ramp that will give you enough hangtime to pull off a 900-degree vert or similar trick. Tony Hawk's Underground doesn't limit the customization to your skater, but it will let you define the world you skate in too. The park creator in T.H.U.G. has also been expanded with more items, several different themes, and a larger area to work with.
Not only that, you can now create your own level goals, including S-K-A-T-E, C-O-M-B-O, and high score challenges. Neversoft hopes that this will be a huge new feature that extends the life of the game long after everyone has played through the game's main levels. Basically, you can create your own skate level either by editing existing levels that ship with the game, or using the create-a-park editor to make your own levels, then add up to 10 new goals to each of your own custom levels, and these new goals can include anything from collecting items to high-score challenges to any other goal type in the game. These goals can involve skating, walking, or driving, and you can create as many as you want. You can then swap them with your friends just by trading memory cards, or by posting them online if you have the PS2 version of the game. In fact, it's conceivable that months after the game ships, you may start to see devoted fans turning out an entire game's worth of new levels (or several games' worth) with all-new layouts and customized goals. This powerful new mode will make Tony Hawk's Underground the most customizable game in the series, and possibly one of the most customizable games ever.
Tony Hawk's Underground is indisputably the best-looking game in the series so far, and it features larger and more-detailed levels than any previous game. The look of the skaters has remained largely unchanged, though their faces during the in-engine story sequences are fully articulated. The animations still look as smooth as ever, and the new animations blend in naturally with those carried over from past games. Looking at the two versions side by side, the Xbox and PS2 versions of the game seem quite similar, though the Xbox version seems to have a slightly more consistent frame rate as well as less-pronounced aliasing.
Everyone might have their own favorite Tony Hawk soundtrack, but there's little question that each has been of a pretty consistent level of quality. Though Neversoft has not yet finalized the soundtrack, what's currently in the game is an excellent blend of punk, hip-hop, and rock tracks from bands you know, bands you don't know, and bands you should know. Suffice it to say, T.H.U.G.'s soundtrack is really good and will likely become someone's favorite. The game will also feature voice acting from many of the pro skaters featured in the game as well as some recognizable skating icons, adding an extra level of authenticity to the proceedings.
Though we've been able to try out only the first three levels of Tony Hawk's Underground, we like what we've seen, and we're eager to get our hands on a more-finished version of the game. The story mode seems like a really smart way of getting players more emotionally invested in the game and will likely resonate deeply with young skaters who may have their own pro skating aspirations--though even armchair skate pros whose primary experience with skateboarding has been through video games should find it to be engaging. The game is scheduled for release in October. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more future details on Tony Hawk's Underground.