Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Review
It doesn't feel like it, but the release of Tony Hawk's Underground 2 marks the sixth year of the incredibly successful franchise. Over the years the series has constantly been refined by the team at Neversoft in hopes of keeping the game fresh and sales brisk. The early revisions focused on pushing the aging Playstation hardware and refining the controls until near perfection. The later games have added larger levels, as well as more diverse and interesting gameplay. THUG 2 manages to improve on its predecessors in every way, and while people that haven't played a Tony Hawk game in a while will be impressed, veterans of the series will likely be a little under whelmed.
The Underground series has always focused more on telling a story and creating unique scenarios than the Pro Skater games, which were almost entirely about pulling off huge combos. THUG 2's story mode improves upon last year's weak premise by combining the classic Tony Hawk gameplay with the antics seen on Viva La Bam, the popular show on Mtv starring Bam Magera. Basically it's Tony Hawk and Bam leading a band of misfits (including your created skater) on a worldwide tour of destruction, where accomplishing the level goals, like spraying graffiti, breaking vending machines and smashing aquarium glass, are more important than stringing together monstrous combos. Levels include Barcelona, Boston, Berlin, and many other locales that the series has never visited before.
The game starts you off in a training area, which is nice if you're new to the series, or it's been a while since you played. You'll begin by learning the basics of the game, then move on to combos, and then you'll be taught some of the game's new moves. Most of the new additions to your repertoire aren't used very often, like throwing objects and spray painting, but some of the new moves, like the Natas spin, where you can spin around poles, are both fun and useful. Another handy new move is the "sticker slap" where, as you head up a wall you slap a sticker on it, pushing you away with a little added speed. This move on its own isn't anything great, but when you use it to launch towards the next ramp with added speed, you can pull off some impressive moves.
After your training is complete, you'll head off to Boston, where wreaking havoc is your main objective. Smashing the heads of statues, breaking into a bank, and trashing a ship for your own little Boston tea party, are just a few of the goals you'll have to complete to move on. Each level has an arcade machine that you can activate, which will result in a high score challenge on each level. The goals aren't marked on the level, and there's no compass to point you in the right direction, which makes finding objectives far too difficult. You can pause the game and see a checklist, but even then you have to select the objective and go to yet another screen before you can read about exactly what you need to do.
In addition to using your created skater, you'll also select a pro teammate, who has different tasks to accomplish. There are also various celebrities in the game, including Steve-O, and Jesse James, and instead of skateboards the guest skaters ride everything from a mechanical bull to a souped-up Segway. It's about a million times better than driving a car in THUG, but the new "vehicles" generally control poorly and don't really add anything interesting to the experience. Along the way Ben Franklin and even a matador will try their hand at skating, and since they use normal skateboards, they're fun to use.
If the story mode isn't your cup of tea, Neversoft has included a "Classic" mode which ditches the storyline and kicks it old school. The two minute timer is back, and accomplishing simple tasks while racking up the highest score possible is all you need to worry about. There are some new levels to play, and many levels from previous games have returned. There's nothing wrong with the old levels per se, but pretty much everyone on the planet has played them to death at this point, so unless you're new to the series, they aren't too exciting.
Xbox owners are stuck playing split-screen multi-player, but like last year, PS2 owners get hooked up with some rock solid online play. Many of the play modes have returned, and you can still upload and download new parks as you could in THUG, but a cool scavenger hunt mode and an elimination game are nice new additions. It does take a little while to connect to the network, and adding new players takes a bit too long, but the menus are easy to use, and as far as online gaming on the PS2 goes, it's one of the better experiences.
The Tony Hawk games have always been visually impressive from a technical standpoint, but artistically they've been less than amazing. This year things are different as the game's style has received a facelift, and instead of realistic skaters and levels, everything's got a bit of a cartoony look to it. No, there's no cel-shading, but the colors have been brightened, the animation is a little wackier, and the skaters' bodies are a little disproportionate. The game supports widescreen, but the game's erratic framerate is more of an issue here than when you play with the standard display. Draw-in, which in the past has been hidden by clever level design is also a significant problem, and it's not just buildings popping up but textures as well. The camera which was rock solid when all you did in the game was skate, can get very frustrating when you get off your board. Many of the goals are located up high, or in the case of stringing together specific combos, far apart, and it's just too difficult to get the camera where you need it to figure out what you need to do.
It's no secret that a varied, eclectic soundtrack has been a staple of the series since the first game, and this year THUG 2 continues the tradition in fine fashion. Frank Sinatra, Violent Femmes, Metallica, Sugarhill Gang, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Doors, Rancid, Suicide Machines, and Johnny Cash are just a small slice of the musical pie. All the skaters and celebrities have been voiced by their real-life counterparts, and they are all surprisingly good. The sound effects are the same as they've ever been, but they're good, so a lack of innovation there isn't a bad thing.
Many people felt that last year marked the official beginning of the end for the Hawk series, and Neversoft has responded by improving the game and adding more of everything to keep things fresh. That said, it's difficult to see how Neversoft can continue to keep the series going year after year. Of course they've done it for six years, so don't count them out just yet. If you're growing tired of the series, a year off might do you some good, because the game does feel quite a bit like THUG, but if you haven't played a Tony Hawk game in a year or longer, you'll be pretty impressed with THUG 2.
11/2/2004 Aaron Thomas