Gamers who've played through Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and its three sequels probably found themselves asking, "where the hell can this series go from here without being run into the ground?" In fact, almost anyone who wrote-up previews and reviews for the game joked that Activision append each title with the year it's released, like any other standard professional sports game. And that would have made sense, given the fact that developer Neversoft has been amazingly efficient at finishing a significantly upgraded release every single year since the series originated. Perhaps all the talk of Tony Hawk becoming a "mainstay of traditional sports titles" made the folks at Neversoft and Activision think twice before announcing a completely expected THPS 5 title.
After all, Tony Hawk has been in the top ten best-selling North American games four years in a row. If the series ain't broke, why fix it? Flying in the face of that adage, and sporting an uncanny amount of foresight, both the developer and the publisher realized that releasing a fifth title with more boards, skaters, parks, and missions would have exposed the aging model of the game. The second game expanded upon and perfected what Neversoft had going with the original. The third game got away with general upgrades, because it also featured shiny new next-gen graphics. The fourth game brought all new areas and got rid of the limiting 2-minute time constraint per session, but failed to keep the attention of even hardcore THPS fans as long as the first three games did.
Enter Tony Hawk's Underground. Activision's response to this "aging model" is to take a number of the rules the THPS series followed and defy them with new features and game modes. Breaking the rules is what THUG is all about:
Rule #1: Play as
This is Tony Hawk's best-selling game franchise, after all, so shouldn't gamers who buy it expect to be playing as Tony Hawk or perhaps another professional skater? While that still seems like sound reasoning, letting gamers play through each game as Tony Hawk out the gate limited the direction the series could realistically take. Sure, they could add a story mode with Hawk as the protagonist, but the developer would probably spend most of its time making the story realistic and avoiding over-the-top cheesy Saturday morning cartoon anecdotal elements.
Instead, you play as you. And the way you play as you is a bit revolutionary. When the game was first announced, both publisher and press figured that the import-a-face feature would only be available for the PS2 with Sony's new EyeToy, given that the other consoles didn't have licensed camera peripherals. But in the months to follow, the developers came up with an impressive way to allow every gamer to get their face in the game. All any gamer has to do is upload their picture to THUG's website from their home computer, then Activision will send them an e-mail that will contain a special code to be used in-game that contains instructions for how your face should look.
While you're playing through the game, you can choose to skate along-side pro skaters like Tony Hawk and Bob Burnquist. The story and its objectives will unfold based on where you go, whom you skate with, and what you want to do. If Grand Theft Auto taught developers anything, it was probably that gamers like to be able to feel like they can do whatever they want.
Rule #2: Sports Games Do
It's clear that the powers that be weren't comfortable creating a "do whatever you want" game world without a game to go with it. THUG's story is said to be expansive, with some form of a branching story arc (we'll have to see how that works when we get a review copy). It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to figure what it would be like to turn a skateboarding game into a free-roam adventure game, but applying a remotely interesting story to it was probably a large hurdle to clear in the game's development. We look forward to seeing how the game's story plays out, as it is meant to associate each story generally enough so you associate yourself with it (since this game is about "YOU"), but specific enough that it's interesting and more than just a justification of collecting S-K-A-T-E for the fortieth time.
Rule #3: Stay on Your Board… or Run, or Climb, or Shimmy, or Drive
One obvious gameplay restraint of any gamer's Tony Hawk experience to date has been the fact that 99% of the gameplay takes place on a skateboard. While skateboards provide for great gaming fun, the THPS engine wasn't great at handling small and meticulous movements. Minute movements like positioning yourself just right at the edge of a killer ramp you found was far more difficult than everyone knew it would be in real life, as you could just as well walk there.
Neversoft acknowledged that particular fallout with reality, which became painstakingly obvious at times during THPS 4, where there was no longer a time limit). The frantic pace of the game was hard to curb even without a time limit, because the gamer had to spend all his time standing on a board with wheels on it. It made the game have a slight artificial feel, one where the player felt like he wasn't in complete control of his character, and he really only had full control of what was going on when he was pulling off tricks.
THUG's answer to the problem is to let you get off your board and link up combos by running from location to location. THPS 2 instituted the manual, which made it possible to link tricks by balancing another skate trick. But given the more complex city environments the developers wanted to tackle, the player had to be given more freedom in moving around to set up the best set of tricks possible. For that reason, the player can run for a limited amount of time and maintain his trick combo.
But running is just the beginning of the new feature, as players can climb ladders and obstacles, commandeer vehicles, and shuffle across roofs while hanging off the ledges of buildings. Trick points aside, this offers several times the gameplay situations. This will prove rich in opportunity, not just for typical adventure-style exploring of the complex environments, but in the possibility for dozens of all new story mode objectives (e.g. to pull off a Crazy Taxi-esque jump over these buildings while drifting off that ramp).
Rule #4: Play the Game
Tony Hawk has always been about customization, but it used to be limited to creating static parks or characters that were only stat-point deep. THUG is setting out to expand upon every existing "create-a" option, while offering a few cool new ones. New things you can do include creating your own face you can map to your character's polygonal face. Even though a special key from Activision's website can't maintain all the detail of most digital photographs, the feature does look remarkably smooth and clean judging from video demonstrations.
Players will be able to build much larger skate parks, with a new interface that will hopefully be helpful in creating environments as detailed as the game's nine worlds. Aside from a new editor and a slew of new items to use, fans of the series will rejoice to see that they can even assign mission objectives to their skate park, making it every bit as complete as developer-made missions from previous games in the series. The GameCube lacks any online functionality, so unfortunately the Cube version won't support sharing player-made parks online. (Although one remedy would be to purchase a USB adapter and download saved game parks to your memory card from a computer.)
All new to the series is the Create-a-Trick feature, which will allow players to put together any vertical trick (and presumably others) one could imagine, by adding either bits and pieces, or entire sequences of other tricks. Of course, you can name your trick and add it to your character's trick list as soon as you're finished designing and trying it out.
I had absolutely no anticipation of this title when it was first announced, after being extremely disappointed by the "same old" feeling of THPS 4. But after talking around and reviewing the press materials released for the game, I've been converted; the game has the makings of a massive hit with reviewers and gamers alike. Not just because it makes the greatest skating game in history better, but because Tony Hawk's Underground finishes the series' transition from objective-based gameplay to a free-roaming game world. Lush with new options that only a long-winded preview like this could outline, and driven by a largely mysterious story mode that will make or break one of the most, if nothing else, ridiculously ambitious sequels ever seen in the industry. THUG is a clear answer to all the Tony Hawk copycats that have emerged in the past few years, be them BMX-based or inline skating, by offering even more of everything along with an entirely new game model. If you can even stand to play a title with skateboards in it, this game should be considered serious pre-order material, as it's without a doubt going to be one of the season's biggest hits.
word on the street
press release notes