Tony Hawk's Underground
For each of the last four years, the Tony Hawk series has given us the best action-sports games on the planet. But amidst the acclaim have been mutterings of its formula growing stale. If fans are gonna lay down 50 beans each year, they want more. Well, Neversoft has made some strides by putting old-man Hawk on the sidelines in favor of you. By either incorporating your digital mug into the game (PS2 version only) or using the more-than-adequate Create-a-Skater mode, you star in THUG'S impressive Story mode. The idea of a narrative in a skating game may seem odd, but it works well here. You start as a no-name skateboarder from New Jersey with aspirations of one day becoming a pro. By catching the eyes of pros, joining a team, and getting sponsored, you see your dream come to fruition. It's quite compelling and a welcome change. But two things keep THUG'S score down. First, besides Hawaii, none of the levels stand out as overly memorable. Second, while THUG offers some innovation, it remains fundamentally the same game. So, if you're sick of grinding a bench, manuring into a half-pipe, and then pulling off a McTwist, this won't bring you back. But if that's not the case, don't hesitate to head underground.
Even a 9.0 feels low for a Tony Hawk game. This franchise's life-affirming combo system, thrilling levels, and bulletproof gameplay continue to dazzle, year after year. THUG'S newfangled Story mode is truly compelling (my skater really looks like me!). I also enjoyed getting off my deck to reach new heights--literally, and figuratively with all the new combo possibilities. Plus, cool multiplayer modes--especially the new Firefight--will keep you on your little bruised toes online. So why ain't I lettin' the platinum love flow? Fundamentally, Hawk hasn't evolved enough. It's still basically a laundry list of goals, and the levels, though well designed and fun, feel recycled; they just don't take my breath away like last year's. And am I the only one who thinks the 'extreme' ambience (once so very iibercool) is getting a tad passe?
The thing that makes THUG so damn good is that it allows for infinite customization, all of which is uploadable to Neversoft's servers (on the must-have PS2 version). What this means is that if you should ever grow tired of making your own skaters, moves, parks, and events, you can always download everyone else's creations. Since the control is as tight as ever and the graphics the best the series has seen yet, I can't wait to gleam the cube in Greg's Boston Brewery Theme Park. And should Greg lose interest in playing as himself, he can download SkateMilky (complete with exclusive, face-melting guitar-solo moves) and the New York 4Ever park and see what it's like to really grind. If that isn't awesome, I don't know what is.