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Skater Reviews: Tony Hawk’s Underground | Helicopter McTwists with Eric Sparrow

Today, we’re talking about Tony Hawk’s Underground. A lot of you guys said that this game was your favorite in the series, so I wanted to see if it really holds up.

Underground came out in 2003, and was released to positive reviews. It got a 90 on Metacritic. Which is really good, but it’s on a downward slope. Pro Skater 2 got a 98, and it gets down into the 70s in the next couple games. I picked the Xbox version, which might have been a mistake. The control is just a lot worse. In my gameplay video yesterday, you’ll see me bailing a lot of vert tricks, and that’s because you revert with the trigger, which is also the spin button. So a lot of the time, if your timing isn’t right, you turn sideways right before you land. It’s hard to be perfect because the trigger takes some time to pull, so you’re in for some frustrating moments. Also, you have to hit the black button to get off your board, which is so out of the way that it’s hard to do in a combo. So it’s in 720p and the graphics are a bit better, but this time, I would probably suggest just getting the PS2 version. Maybe the PC version. OK, let’s get into the game itself.

There are a few new game mechanics, and they’re hit-or-miss. First is the pressure flips. Now I like pressure flips. I made a whole video about their history and I think they have a lot of potential. But the way they’re handled in this game is more annoying than anything. Here’s how it works. You tap the trigger once to get into pressure stance, and press it again to go into nollie stance. That means that nollies now take 3 separate button presses instead of two. And that wouldn’t be a problem if you could actually use pressure flips, but there’s pretty much no good reason to ever do one.

But out of the 4 pressure flips in the game – 360 in both directions, a toe flip and a 180 toe flip – 3 of them suck. Imagine you try to do a nollie shove it. If you accidentally end up in pressure stance, a shove it is replaced with a 360 pressure flip, which takes a lot longer. I bailed a lot of times because I needed a quick trick and accidentally did that instead. The 360 the other way is the same thing, although it replaces the impossible, so it’s not as big of a difference.

The other one that sucks is the 180 toe flip. It has a built-in spin animation, which means that you can do it while you’re spinning and spin really fast, or you can spin against it and stop in the air for a second. It’s a lot harder to time these out and land straight, which is a big pain. Eventually you get used to just double tapping right away to go straight to nollie stance. At least you have the full list of tricks there, like double and triple flips if you need them.

Neversoft knew this was a problem, and they changed how the control worked in future games.

The other major new addition is getting off of your board. This was a great idea in theory, but I don’t think it’s used very well in this first game. The control is really awkward, and it’s used to make some challenges that are kind of pointless, like trying to sneak past guards in Moscow. I’ll talk about the challenges more in a bit. But it’s just really awkward to control. You have to hold the ollie button and let go to jump, which makes sense for crouching and jumping while skating, but it feels clunky on your feet. And just trying to steer yourself around and move the camera while you run is just not good.

Aside from that, there are a few smaller refinements in the series. The list of double tap tricks are expanded now. A lot of stuff that would have been a special trick in earlier games is now a double tap move, like darkslides. Now, there are 21 basic grind tricks that you can do without special. That’s a ton of tricks.

Flip tricks and grabs are the same way. But they still left front foot impossibles vert-style with the grab. I’m not sure why. Also, 360 hardflips STILL flip the wrong way. But in general, most of the stuff in the game is right, and with 8 million tricks, a few of them are bound to be a little weird.

Speaking of weird, now you can make your own tricks too. You have to do it twice in the story mode, which means I did it twice. I never did it unless I had to. You have this timeline, and you can stack tricks and combine stuff together. It’s scored based on how much time it takes to finish. I remember when this was new, they sold it as a way to invent new tricks, and I thought there would be a way to actually animate your own flip tricks somehow, like adding a pop shove it and kickflip to ‘make’ a varial flip. But it doesn’t work like that at all. They keep trying to expand this in later games.

The biggest change in this game isn’t game mechanics, it’s actually the whole structure. This is the first Tony Hawk game with a legit story mode. Let’s take a look at it. I’m playing in hard mode like a boss.

You start by creating your own character. I went with this green girl, which will make sense later. I won’t go into a ton of detail with the story, but you’re a local kid working your way up in the skateboarding world. Your friend is this piece of crap named Eric Sparrow, who’s a sleazy turd of a guy who will do everything he can to ruin your life. You meet Chad Muska and get so inspired by his dope 2003 Escalade that you decide to try to get a local shop sponsor – coincidentally run by Stacy Peralta.

How do you get sponsored? By completing challenges, of course! You’ll be doing tricks people call out, and all kinds of familiar types of stuff. One good upgrade is that you don’t always have to do every single challenge. A lot of the time, you only have to do 3, and there might be 5 options. Once you do enough things, it’ll trigger a cutscene and the story will continue. You’ll either be in a different time, like advancing to night or dusk, or you’ll end up in a new area. You can always go back and do those challenges later, and you’ll need to to unlock everything. But it helps keep the game moving.

Let’s talk about what you’ll be doing. There’s a lot of similar stuff, like collecting combo letters and things like that. There’s a lot of finding and collecting things, which you should be used to now.

But one thing that the game is really starting to push is the driving challenges. You have to commit insurance fraud by making this car overheat and then ditching it. You have to pick up girls for a party, and all kinds of other miscellaneous vehicle challenges. These can be hit-or-miss. I don’t hate them, but some of these are just boring. Like driving this lawn mower around to suck up the leaf piles. It just goes on and on.

The other issue is the spotty difficulty. That lawn mower one was easy, but escaping the cops in Tampa requires a perfect run with zero mistakes. And the levels aren’t necessarily designed for cars, so it’s easy to get stuck in stuff when you get off track.

The on-foot challenges are not fun. Look at this one in Hawaii. You have to climb up to the top of this building. In typical Tony Hawk style, you’re put on a timer for no reason. All the timer does is make it annoying because you might get almost to the top and then run out of time, and have to redo it, even though you already figured it out. I spent a lot of time in this game restarting challenges because of time management, not because of something being difficult. But anyway, that’s beside the point. You can tell how awkward and difficult this is to do. You have to run against the wall to try to squeeze past the narrow parts, or you can easily have the camera move on you, which makes you turn and fall off the building. There are a couple of times you have to climb this building, and both of them suck.

One of the other examples is this one, where you have to sneak past all the Russian cops so your sketchy friend can sneak you out of the country. It’s not fun. You have to basically rely on trial and error and just figure out a path. It’s not as bad in 720p widescreen because you can see more, but on a standard def TV back in the day, it was torture.

Anyway, back to the story. Stacy sends you to New York to film some stuff to prove you’re worth sponsoring. There are some pretty lame challenges here, like riding near someone who’s skating, which is the easiest thing you can do in a Tony Hawk game. You have to bribe security guards with peanuts, and you also have to go to McDonald’s.

If you missed my review of Disney’s Extreme Skate Adventure, you need to check that out. They go all-in on this McDonald’s sponsorship stuff. It has a huge presence in that game, and it’s hilarious. The main Tony Hawk series probably had enough clout that they could get away with being a little more subtle. You meet to fine chef at the local McDonald’s, and he wants you to learn old school tricks and mix them in with new stuff. That’s inspired by his bold reimaginings of classic dishes. It’s a really weird way to shoehorn McDonald’s in there, and it feels a little racist too, but it’s quick and easy and you’re done with it in a minute.

When Stacy sees your fresh footage, he sponsors you, and you decide to go to Tampa Am. Eric causes some problems with cops and steals your spot in the contest, so you have to do more challenges to get in. But when you finish the contest, you get all kinds of deck sponsor offers. Once you pick one, you’re off on tour. The on screen graphics change color scheme and the logo will be on screen, which is kind of cool. I thought it would change how the story went the first time I played it – like the team manager would be different, and the pros you talk to would be from the team you picked. But it really doesn’t matter. You still meet Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk in Moscow, who just so happen to be there at the same time as your team. But it does unlock that brand’s decks, which is cool.

So you have some drunken parties and you have to wake people up, you do a demo. It’s here that I finally realized how the stats work. I could barely do a 540 at this point in the game. This new system is a really big step up in the game, and I like how it’s handled. So, instead of finding or buying stats, you have to complete mini challenges. You have to manual and grind a certain number of seconds, get a certain amount of transfer distance on vert, and all kinds of other stuff. These are designed in a way that they’re REALLY HARD at the amount of stats you have. Luckily, some of them are easier, like doing a certain trick a few times in a combo. Those are freebies and help you progress.

Later, you end up in Hawaii. This is where the big event of the game happens. After climbing the building that I talked about earlier, you get the crazy idea to do this impossibly gigantic roof gap. A helicopter comes, and you do a McTwist over it.

It’s the best thing ever filmed on a skateboard in all of history. And Eric steals the footage.

Later, your team premieres the video at Slam City Jam. You’re stoked to see your footage, but you end up not even having a part because Eric stole your tapes. This is why I made myself a green woman, it just makes it even more ridiculous that he would try to pass me off as him. But you’re actually not the only person who uses your footage. You also have to film a bunch of flatground nollies for a guy who’s too drunk. He says he won’t film your face… but come on. My whole body is green!

So I think the implication is that Eric stole your footage, but not the helicopter shot, for whatever reason. I’m not really sure. It seems like he used it, but then it said it was lost… and he gives it back to you at the end. I don’t think it’s worth trying to find plot holes in a Tony Hawk game.

Eric gets turned pro and is invited to Moscow. You enter yourself as a pro and force your team to turn you pro too. You get to design a board. I didn’t spend a lot of time on this, but it’s there if it’s something that interests you. You don’t make the cut to go to Moscow, but if you can hurry up and find a shoe sponsor, they might send you. This part is really weird. The game has some messed up ideas about how the skate industry works. If you can prove to the Circa rep that you can spell, he’ll buy you a ticket to Moscow? Also, the camera guy for your team seems like a local news cameraman, and not a skater at all. I don’t know, it just seems like, with so much access to real life pros, they could have gotten enough info to make some of this stuff a bit more authentic. It doesn’t really matter though.

You go to Moscow and do some stuff. Eric gets drunk and crashes a tank and you get stuck in jail. Your team bails on you and you’re on your own to get home. You do this by doing spy stuff and sneaking around. This part of the game is really slow and boring, so I’m going to skip most of it, except this challenge.

Most of the challenges are optional, because you only have to do a certain number of them and you can always skip ones you don’t like. But sometimes they’re built into the story and you don’t have a choice. This is one of those. You have to collect a bunch of hangover cures in this big line that takes you all over the level. There’s this one jump that’s basically impossible, at least with the place my stats were at at the time. I had to find another way to get up on to the building, and it took me forever. This kind of thing happens way too often. You just have to learn as you go. You get an item, then you have to figure out where the next one is. It’s not like you can see them all in advance and plan it out. You just have to have fast enough reflexes to do it all as you go. This happens again at the end of the game too.

After all of this happens to you, you get jaded on the industry and go back home. You decide to start a company with Peralta. Once you can prove that you’re legit, the pros come knocking to join your team, and you get to choose. It’s funny – the idea of your brand is that it’s REAL, and it’s authentic and honest and you cut through all the crap. But one of the reasons Eric is such a doucher is because he wanted to be like Chad Muska, and he eventually becomes him. And Muska wants to join your team. I get it from a game design standpoint, but in the story, it’s a little weird.

Pick your team, and then you shoot a video. This part is really cool. You have to finish these challenges, and you use your pros. Some of these challenges are lame, like having to collect 60 of these things in New York. Hey, look at these NPCs. They’re stuck in the default 3D modeling pose and they don’t do anything. That’s a weird glitch.

Anyway, I didn’t like that challenge because this one gap doesn’t seem to work right, but that’s ok. I had a bunch of other ones to choose from. These are all pretty tough challenges, but it’s a cool way to end the game. Once everyone on your team films something, you get the video, which the game generates out of the video parts of the skaters you picked. Pretty cool!

After that, there’s one more thing. Eric comes and wants to prove that he’s been better than you all along, so you have to copy his signature line around town. He drops… fireballs? Or something(?) when he’s skating to make it harder for you. This one is a lot like the Moscow challenge where you have to do everything in a line. I was stuck on this one for a while so I had to max out my stats and, even then, some of the gaps you have to do are really hard. But I beat it, Eric has a hissy fit, and the game’s over.

You unlock some bonus characters, like Iron Man and Gene Simmons, and a pointless level called Hotter Than Hell, which is a KISS concert venue. There’s nothing to do here, and it’s not good.

After that, there’s still a lot to do. You can collect the secret tapes to unlock videos, you can finish all the challenges you skipped, and you can find secrets, like hidden Tony Hawk 2 levels. This is the first time that nostalgia for the original games started to pop up in the series. And Tony Hawk 2 was only 3 years old at the time.

OK, Tony Hawk’s Underground. Is it worth playing? You know, I had a lot of fun with it. I felt like I had to rush through it for the channel because it’s so big, but if you have the time to really sit back and play it, I think there’s a lot of fun to be had. Is it the best Tony Hawk game ever made? I could understand the argument for that. I like the formatting of Underground 2 a bit better, which I’ll talk about soon, but the story and progression of this one are a bit better. It’s not my personal favorite, but it’s definitely one of the high points in the series. The PS2, or probably PC, version might be the one to get, but you’ll have a good time with this one no matter what.

What were your experiences with this game? Is it your favorite? If you’ve played it recently, do you think it holds up? Let me know in the comments. Also, I want to start getting into the handheld skateboarding games from back in the day, so let me know which of those are your favorites as well.

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