Although the game carries the number two behind it, Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 is actually the sixth entry in Neversoft’s long-running franchise. What started out as a relatively obscure phenomenon on the PlayStation One ballooned into what is best described as the
gaming revolution of the next generation. The franchise crafted a genre and continued to revolutionize it with each and every successive iteration. Last year’s game added in a plethora of new goodies including a story mode which give players a peek into the life of professional skating. This time around the game takes a decidedly different turn by adding mayhem and carnage into the mix. The end result plays more like an episode of MTV’s Jackass, but the innovative blend of intuitive controls and addictive gameplay still remain to form one of the year’s best games.
As strange as this sounds, THUG 1
actually had a pretty decent storyline. It chronicled the skating careers of two teenaged friends; one who skated for the love of it and the other who was in it for the fame. As the story progressed players were able to gain some insight into the world of skating and the reasons why someone is willing to risk life and limb to taste success. THUG 2 tosses all of this out the window and instead, turns the game into an interactive version of the MTV Hit show “Jackass”. Forget about fulfilling a punk kid’s dream of becoming a professional skater, it’s all about engaging in random acts of tomfoolery and off-beat chicanery. It’s Team Bam vs. Team Hawk in a race to see who can cause the most mayhem and destruction across the globe. It’s a decent change of pace in the franchise but the game starts to spread itself a little thin at times. It seems like the game tries to do too much when it should really just be about skating.
Since the objective of THUG 2 is to cause mayhem on a global scale, you’ll be given the opportunity to shred up some of the world’s most beautiful locales. You’ll start ‘Stateside in Boston but soon you’ll move up to the likes of Spain, Germany and Australia. As has been the case with each entry in the franchise, the further you get in the game the better and bigger the levels get. I’m not quite sure why the designers keep deciding to do this but at least it keeps me motivated to make headway into the game. Each year Neversoft keeps topping itself by creating larger levels with a seemingly infinite number of scoring lines, this year’s game manages to somehow improve upon this. It’s easy to be intimidated by the sheer size of these levels; some of them are so massive that they have warp points (in the form of subways) which will allow you to move effortlessly from one side of the map to another. The crazy thing about this is that the developers never fully show their hand from the start. While the levels look massive from the outside there are plenty of hidden areas just waiting to be discovered. Even the rehash of the Warehouse level from the first THPS has been modified to be bigger and better.
To add more depth to each stage the game requires you to control multiple characters in a quest to accomplish their tasks. In addition to your created skater you’ll be able to take control of a Pro Skater of your choosing, a guest star and a special character hidden within the stages. This could have turned out poorly for the fear of redundancy, but the designers did a great job of adding variety to each character’s goals. All of the guest stars are interesting too if not for their pop cultural status and their quirky rides. In an early stage you’ll encounter Jesse James (from Discovery Channel’s Monster Garage
) and his souped up scooter. If you choose to switch to him you’ll encounter a whole new set of goals which can only be accomplished by James.While the game consistently tosses a wide variety of goals at you it falters when it comes to the quality of the goals. Call me silly but I like to skate in a skating game, not toss tomatoes at pedestrians and ram into runaway bulls. When THUG 2 asks you to skate you’ll have a blast; when it asks you to perform a number of nonsensical goals you’ll cry out in frustration. The problem is that the game spends too much time masquerading as some kind of adventure and not enough time living as a skating game. There are a lot of problems when it comes to the actual structures of the goals as well. Often times you’ll feel lost because the developers never offer up enough guidance. They give you something to do, show you a poorly framed picture of it and expect you to be able to accomplish it without really mentioning any specifics. It’s like being told to bake a cake from scratch just by looking at a picture from a cook book. The final product is there but the means and methods of how to get there are missing.
Luckily the game makes up for this by introducing Classic Mode, a take on the timed-runs of the original Tony Hawk games. It operates much like the old THPS in that you’ll have to accomplish a series of goals before the clock runs out. All of the goals will immediately be familiar to longtime fans; things like high score totals and S-K-A-T-E reemerge here in full force. This is an excellent feature, it’s just a shame that Neversoft decided to let it play second fiddle to the world tour mode. It's nice to be able to do more skating and less running around town and puking on security guards. Perhaps Neversoft realized this because they’ve also included a Create-A-Goal mode which allows you to insert your own goals into the level. It sounds like a lame idea but it’s actually pretty fun to create your own goals and watch your friends struggle to accomplish them.
Each year the franchise gets one new feature that enhances the experience; this year is the lone exception. That’s not to say that there aren’t any additions, they’re here but they don’t really make an impact on the overall game. The focus feature can be activated by pressing the L3 button when your SPECIAL meter is filled. After triggering it, the camera will zoom in on your skater and time will be slowed down, giving you the impression that you’re “in the zone.” It’s supposed to make things easier by giving you more time to react but I found that it throws your timing off and makes things more difficult. You’ve probably seen skaters freak out and toss their board out of frustration after repeatedly missing up a trick. You now activate the Freak Out feature by rapidly pressing the triangle button after falling down. If you’re successful your character will freak out and break his board, rewarding you with a special and adding a multiplier to your combo. The only addition that will make an impact is the ability to perform inversions in the air. By double tapping in a direction you can perform a front flip, a back flip or a sideways roll. Success in the game isn’t derived from your ability to pull off these inversions but it very well could be the difference in the online realm.
Neversoft’s franchise has never been at the forefront of graphical technology, but it’s always been pleasing to behold. The same holds true for this entry in that it won’t dazzle you but it’ll always keep you entranced. All of the skater animations still look superb although they look kind of weird when you witness the other skaters in the level. I like the level design and the sheer amount of detail that fills each level is truly amazing. Where the game falters a bit is in the texture work, so while the world features plenty of variety in the architecture, it’s often burdened by sub-par texture work that’s not really all that appealing. Other than that the game looks superb and all of the skaters look like their real-life counterparts. This game has more skating lines than ever so there are more objects than ever before. THUG 2 is the first game in the franchise that really seems plausible in the real world. You’ll trick off of rails and benches instead of mysteriously placed picnic tables in the middle of a bull ring. All of the special effects that populated the rest of the Tony Hawk games are here as well and they still hold up quite well. As is the case with most multi-platform titles the Xbox version looks the cleanest while the PS2 and GameCube versions are of comparable quality.I’ve always enjoyed the soundtrack in this series of games and THUG 2 pretty much maintains the status quo. There’s an eclectic blend of infectious hip-hop, punk, hard rock and other various genres of music. There aren’t as many mainstream tracks as you might be used to and it has the possibility of turning you off to the experience. That’s not to say that there aren’t any recognizable names; groups like The Doors, Metallica make contributions as do Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash. There’s an excellent mix of music here and there’s a good chance that you’ll find a small handful of tracks to your liking. As for the actual sounds in the game, you’ve heard them all before. Nearly everything was recycled from THUG 1 which was essentially rehashed from THPS 4. The effects were fine to begin with so you can’t really blame the sound designers for cutting corners. They did an excellent job from the start and thus they were rightfully rewarded.
The same advantages and disadvantages from last year’s franchises remain. If you get the Xbox version you’ll have better visuals and custom soundtracks, but you’ll have to suffer from poorer controls and the lack of online play. The PS2 version has online play and the best controls but it lacks custom soundtracks and features the worst visuals of the bunch. It lacks the soundtrack feature of the Xbox version but the online aspect more than makes up for that deficiency. In addition to the online mode you’ll once again be able to map your face onto your skater. Instead of relying solely on the network adaptor, Neversoft did the smart thing and incorporated support for Eye Toy owners. So instead of taking a picture with a digital camera, uploading to the Neversoft server, checking your email for a passcode and then downloading it with the PS2 network adaptor, you can bypass this by hooking up the Eye Toy and taking the picture directly onto your PS2. It’s nice to see that developers are finally realizing the potential of the Eye Toy. Additionally, you can plug in any USB keyboard so that you can spend less time inputting your name and more time shredding up the levels. As for all you GameCube owners… well the GameCube version frankly has very little going for it. It lacks the online, lacks the custom soundtracks and features the poorest controls of the bunch. Who the hell made the GameCube controller anyway? Fisher Price? It’s not a bad game, but when compared with the superior versions there’s very little reason to own the game on this platform. If you’re fortunate enough to own multiple platforms make sure to place the PS2 version on the top and the GameCube version at a distant third.
Multiplayer has always been a huge part of the franchise from the start and in recent years, Neversoft took it to new heights with the online aspect. Like before the online is limited to only PS2 owners with network adaptors and like before, it’s fun and addictive. New modes have been thrown into the fray but don’t challenge the competitiveness brought forth by the high score and graffiti modes. I’d like to say that I wished Neversoft could have improved upon the online aspect but it was excellent to begin with. Voice over IP compatibility would have been nice but it’s not a necessity. Seriously, I get enough of geeks breathing into the mic over Xbox Live; I don’t need it polluting my PS2 experience.
If you’ve grown tired of the Tony Hawk franchise this won’t be the game to reel you back in. It’s designed for people who still are addicted to the franchise and are searching for more ways to unleash their destructive nature. I’m not sure how they do it, but the guys at Neversoft keep pummeling us over the head with a new Tony Hawk game each year. And year after year we fall in love with the franchise all over again. THUG 2 won’t revolutionize the genre like the earlier entries did, but it’s still a worthy successor to the Tony Hawk throne. If you’ve ever been a fan of the franchise you owe it to yourself to at least rent it. What starts out as a weekend rental just might turn into your next yearlong obsession.