For years steered by Activision, the Tony Hawk franchise has grown from an extreme sports product that was released to a niche audience into a mainstream game that most action fans can attest to have tried at least once. And many of them have continued playing the famous skater’s titles. Tony Hawk Underground, published by Jamdat on the mobile platform, is no slouch when compared to its critically appraised console brethren. It is, pound for pound, the same stuff that made the Tony Hawk games transcend the genre it comes from.
In my opinion, the universal appeal to Tony Hawk always rests with the controls. Each edition may introduce new moves, animations and objects to grind or do tricks on. But none of this is useful if there aren’t intuitive controls to let you be precise and enable enough freedom for you to be creative. Tony Hawk Underground in the mobile setting has this. It’s hard to do accurate controls with a cell phone but somehow they’ve pulled it off without sacrificing any ergonomics. I remember one time someone mentioned that they were playing Tiger Woods so much on the N-Gage their finger went sore. When I hear that, I don’t immediately think “That game must be so great.” I think, “That game’s controls must be so poorly designed that that person has a blister.”
Scoring in the game is similar to other Tony Hawk titles. Even if you haven’t played a skateboard game, you may be familiar with the schema from popular snowboarding games (SSX Tricky, Amped). Score is given when you perform a trick. The longer you perform the trick the more score you will get. If you can switch from one trick to another, that is a sequential trick. If you can put together a long combination of sequences, you are rewarded the raw points for all the tricks you perform plus a (combo) multiplier. The risk, however, is that your combo will break if you try to do too much.
To carry these out, Tony Hawk Underground features a full tutorial to help newcomers to the skating game get up to speed. It will walk you through the simplest of grabs and slowly introduce more complex moves. The full game takes place in concrete jungles and urban landscapes around the world. There are wires, ledges and obstacles for you to construct your moves on. Some objectives are plot-driven but others are more traditional in that they challenge you to be creative in combos and style. Never did I find a mundane objective like moving from point A to point B.
My only complaint is the lack of levels. There are only half a dozen. Levels are unlocked by completing objectives in the Story mode. After that, you can revisit a setting without being tied down by the story in Free Skate. Each run through the level will vary slightly since you can use different objects to put your combos together. Unfortunately, once you get to know the levels off by heart, you’ll pretty much know where to get the maximum amount of points. But that will take some time – probably much longer than you’ll assume you’ll get from the price of the game.
However, the lack of real estate is made up by the inclusion of a tutorial and a Story mode that I wouldn’t think a cellular phone would have space for. Kudos to the developers for being so thoughtful. It’s this type of effort that lets Jamdat’s Tony Hawk Underground capture the zeitgeist of the franchise.