Review: Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 (XB)

If someone were to quiz me on my five favorite video game series of all time, the list would go like this: Dance Dance Revolution, Lunar, Pokemon, Sonic The Hedgehog and Tony Hawk Pro Skater. Yes, amongst the cult favorites and childhood standbys, I do hold a “mainstream” game series close to my heart.

I really don’t know how I got so hooked on this game. When the first game came out, it hardly registered as a blip on my radar. When the second one came out, and when it was plastered over every video gaming website on the planet, I quickly got sick of hearing about it. I was never into skateboarding to begin with, and the talk on the game quickly bored me. I never played it before, and didn’t have the desire at that time.

It wasn’t until a good 2-3 months before the release of THPS3 that I finally broke down and purchased THPS2 on the PS1. It was $18 in the bargain bin of my local EB, so I figured I’d give it a shot. You know, just to see why this series became the darling of the Internet gaming community all of the sudden. I popped the disc in, and played it…and played it…and played it…and…and…

Well, to make a long story short, it was because of Tony Hawk Pro Skater and ONLY Tony Hawk Pro Skater that prompted me to buy an XBox. I needed to skate to my own music, dammit!

The games are addicting as hell. The concept is oh so simple, and the controls (while getting more complex in later versions) are as intuitive as they come. The tricks you can do are cool to watch, and the combos done to link these tricks together has evolved into a work of art. The games have also shown a steady progress of evolution over the years. Each version offers us something new and inviting, yet retaining most everything that made the last version so enjoyable. It may be mainstream, but its one of the few mainstream titles that is fully deserving of its press.

So now we come to Tony Hawk’s Underground 2. Last year’s offering gave us a full-fledged story mode that as actually a bit deep in some levels. So what has Activision done in order to top that? Read on and find out…


STORY/MODES

Believe it or not, you can play the game two ways this time. One involves a story, and one doesn’t. So, lets look at them separately…

The game once again comes equipped with a “Story Mode”. But if you’re looking for the same sort of “skater newbie turning pro and learning many of life’s lessons” deal, that ain’t here. Instead, you get something a HELL of a lot more lowbrow.

One day, you’re skating in you home town, minding your own business, when all of the sudden, a bunch of guys in masks knock you out and kidnap you and your pro friends. When you wake up, you’re all tied up and at the mercy of these goons. But wait! It’s all just a gag! It’s really just Tony Hawk and Bam Magera inviting you to take part in the “World Destruction Tour.” And, well, you’re all for it, after thinking you’re going to die at the hands of masked lunatics and threatening you with a chainsaw at some point.

So anyway, the World Destruction Tour pits two teams of skaters in some sort of loose competition that involves traveling to exotic locations and performing various acts of vandalism, destruction of property, and generally pissing of the locals. Doing so nets you points, and the one with the most points wins. The losers have to pay for the entire trip.

Tony Hawk and Bam Magera are team captains, and lead off in picking skaters ala “elementary school recess kickball game” style. And of course, you’re picked last. (The foulmouthed kid with a full body cast in a wheelchair got picked before you, by the way. Feel special.) And you end up on Tony’s team by default. That kinda disappointed me at first, as I wanted a choice between the two teams, but there’s a reason for this that I won’t get into.


Now, the premise of this mode is a LARGE departure from last year’s game. Last year’s story offered something pretty cool and substantial to the table. This year goes directly towards dick and fart jokes for cheap laughs, and humor reminiscent of recent episodes of Jackass and Viva La Bam. Funny, yes. But it kinda left me feeling a bit empty. Also, can you imagine multi-millionaire Tony Hawk actively taking part in kidnapping people and scaring the piss out of them for his own amusement? Even IF Bam Magera was palling around with him? Well, can you?!?

AND DO WE HAVE TO SEE PHIL MAGERA IN HIS UNDERWEAR AT EVERY GIVEN OPPORTUNITY? IS THIS A PREREQUISITE OF STORY MODE OR WHAT?

(Ahem) Sorry about that…

The gameplay differs a bit from last year’s Story Mode as well. You begin each level with a list of eight goals, each with a different point value. Completing these goals will net you the points, and they’ll accumulate as you go along. Now you can also switch off with a partner of your choice, who also has a list of eight goals, but harder than the initial list. Completing these goals will eventually give you access to two hidden characters in each level. The first is a generic character (such as a matador, a jester, a Ben Franklin impersonator) on a skateboard with four goals. The second character takes control of a completely different vehicle (which acts very similar to a skateboard) with four goals of his own. So you have 24 goals in each stage, each totaling 1,000 points, and you can choose to move to the next area after gaining 500 or more.

Stats increases are obtained the same way as the last game: by performing certain objectives relating to different stat categories. Tasks will be harder or easier depending on what difficulty you play in, but if you’re good enough, you can almost max out your stats in the first area of the game. To gain new special trick slots, all you need to do is find the generic characters. Nothing fancy, but it gets the job done, eh?

Now, in an interesting twist, all your goals are given to you immediately to complete. You DON’T need to talk to anyone to activate them. If you find a goal, you can complete it immediately if you know where to go. Luckily, the game will give you clues if you highlight any given goal in your list, offering some kind of guidance. It’s up to you to peace everything together, though.

Now aside from this mode, you have what the game calls “Classic Mode” that takes the game back to its roots: two-minute rounds, ten goals to complete, S-K-A-T-E letters, and all the things you remember from THPS 1-3. In other words, THPS veterans can finally come home.

The mode is set up a lot like THPS3 was. Ten goals a level, all incomplete goals displayed before you start a stage, and stat points are gained by collecting icons hidden in the stages. Each shares seven of these goals: High Score, Pro Score, Sick Score, High Combo, S-K-A-T-E letters, C-O-M-B-O letters, and the infamous secret tape. The other three goals are unique to each stage. I’m a little disappointed that so few goals are different in between the stages, but the following makes up for it.

Each of the stages found in Story Mode can be found here, albeit in a different order. Also included are several stages found in past Tony Hawk titles. Remember the Airport from THPS3? And Philadelphia from THPS2? Or how about the Downhill level from the original game? Well, they’re back. Not only that, but they all contain NEW goals to accomplish. C-O-M-B-O letters can be found in each stage, as well as new goals never seen before. This is much better than past games, where older stages were included, yet without anything to do in them other than skate.

And like the original games, you can pick your character from a multitude of pro skaters outside of your created one. But, the amount of skaters included has seemingly been cut a bit to include other…um…interesting characters such as Weeman. Again, the fact that its way is probably due to the fact that the game wants to appeal to the skate punk in each of us. But the game never really did appeal to “skate punks” in the first place, so I’m pretty confused by this decision.

All in all, the modes are very fun to go through. The story tied to them, however, left me very empty. Especially after the story in the last game was pretty fleshed out.

Story/Modes: 7/10


GRAPHICS

Not much improvement in the graphics department this time around. The environments are once again very large, with plenty of places to go and skate in, yet they are around the same size as THUG1. And I’d peg the overall quality as about the same, with maybe a LITTLE more detail. It’s pretty much the same graphics engine we’re working with this time around.

Character models, on the other hand, seem to look a little LESS detailed than they were in the last game. I don’t know if it’s me, my TV, or whatever else, but every person rendered here seem to have somewhat less proportioned bodies. Heads look like they’ve gotten larger, and torsos look a tiny bit smaller than before. Everyone animates the same way, and I have to say the facial expressions are a bit better, but still, the character models look…I dunno…different than what I’m used to. But I will give props to the new crashing animations. For example, when you fall off your board, a brand new skateboard will fly into your hands from off screen, rather than the same board reappearing under your feet awkwardly. Nice touch, there.

Perhaps the best portion of this category would have to go to the cut scenes found in Story Mode. Last year, cut scenes were pretty tame and static. But with the new “extreme” nature the game is taking, there are many more camera shots and angles. I will give them credit for improving the cut scenes, but other than that, THUG2 is pretty much THUG1, but with a different theme.

Graphics: 7/10


SOUND

It wouldn’t be a Tony Hawk game without a crapload of rap/rock/industrial music, now would it? Well, once again, there are plenty of licensed goodies for you to listen to while performing your ollies, wallies, and nollies. The complete list clocks in around the 50-song mark, which is about 20 less than last year’s game. To be honest, I’m pretty glad about this. There was too much music in the last game to go through and listen to, and could only pluck a few favorites from it. While 50 songs is STILL a bit much for this soundtrack, it definitely reduces the problem presented last year. And there are some very interesting choices offered as well. The lead theme is by THE DOORS of all people, with “Break On Through”. Another interesting song included comes from the late Johnny Cash with “Ring of Fire”. The rest of the list is your basic music found in the Tony Hawk franchise.

Voices in this game have been taken up a notch. You’ll find this in Story Mode, where the dialogue actually sounds natural coming out of Bam and Tony’s mouths, rather than forced. Well, all except for your create-a-characters, anyway. These voices need to be tweaked, and tweaked badly.

Sound: 8/10


CONTROLS/GAMEPLAY

Every Tony Hawk sequel put out always adds something new and innovative to the mix in terms of what you can do to lengthen your combos. First came the Manual, than the Revert, the Spine Transfer, and then the Caveman. For THUG2, there’s…the Freak Out?

Probably the single-greatest addition to this game is the ability to “freak out” when you mess up a combo. Sometimes when you screw up, an on-screen “freak out” bar will appear, prompting you to press Y repeatedly until it goes away. You’ll then get an animation of you getting mad and trashing your board in the process. After that, you’ll have a “FREAKOUT” bonus that will stay with you until you start a new combo. Just another opportunity to get points, though.


Another new feature added in is “tagging”. While you’re off your skateboard, you can go up to a wall and spray paint it using the White button. Doing it quick enough while doing a Caveman will add points to your combo as well, but this is mostly served for certain tasks in Story Mode.

The game also modified the “Wall Plant” maneuver by changing it into the “Sticker Slap” move. It’s still performed and acts the same way, but it will also put a sticker on the wall you planted off of. More mischief, please!

Now I’m not going to call the above tricks as revolutionary as the manuals and reverts that came before it. Not by any means. However, none of these tricks mess with the basic layout of the controls. In fact, they are just as smooth and intuitive as the past five games. Even on the XBox controller, you’ll be able to pull off combos and lines as easily as you’ve done before. It’s still one of the great things about the Tony Hawk series, and its awesome that the controls have stayed so easy to learn for all these years.

Controls/Gameplay: 8/10


REPLAY VALUE

As usual, there’s plenty of stuff to keep you coming back to the game. The Story Mode has three levels of difficulty, and Classic Mode has two. Beating each mode on each difficulty will net you a different set of playable skaters, and clearing each mode once will unlock secret stages for you to muck around in. So in essence, you have to go through the game five times in order to receive everything the game has to offer.

The good of this is that you don’t have to go through the game with every single character in the game to unlock everything. The bad is that you might as well go through every mode with your create-a-skater, because for example, there are no specific goals for specific characters in Classic Mode to complete. Going though the game with ONE CHARACTER will fill out the stats off all the other characters. This has always bugged me, as the focus is stripped away from the main skaters, and thrust on your no-name creation. THPS4 had kinda the same set-up, but each skater had a special challenge that tailored to his/her real life achievements. No such luck here.

Long story short, you’ll still come back for the fun stuff, as well as being able to play through your favorite classic stages with new goals and all your new moves. I know I did.

Replay Value: 7/10


BALANCE

Tony Hawk games have always been well balanced, and this game is no different. The controls are easy to pick up for newbies and veterans alike. The stages follow an excellent progression of easy goals to harder goals. You might be able to complete all the goals in two of the easiest stages, but you’ll end up DYING on the later ones if your stats aren’t up to snuff. The same goes for both modes.

And speaking of stats, once again, stats are increased in Story Mode by performing certain tasks. Stats in Classic Mode are increased manually by finding stat point icons. I really prefer the Story Mode way of increasing stats, only because the designers felt it necessary to HIDE those Classic Mode icons like they’ve never been hid before! I swear, right now, my Classic Mode characters are incredibly weak right now. Still, the balance factor in the game is better than most.

Balance: 8/10


ORIGINALITY

Now despite all the fun that people will have with this game, I can’t help but think that I was experiencing “more of the same” while going through both Story and Classic modes. Yes, the Story Mode received a major makeover. Yes, the Classic Mode contains brand new goals to accomplish. But the core of the game remains the same: skate around the city and complete goals on a list. After six games, you start to notice that while wrapped in different clothing, the game’s core is exactly the same. So while it contains a few random elements of originality, the main game remains the same.

Originality: 6/10


ADDICTIVENESS

This game really doesn’t have that “can’t put the controller down” addiction level that previous installments had. I guess this relates back to the “more of the same” feeling I mentioned earlier. I go through the stages more and more, and I think to myself “I’ve done all this before!” Thus it becomes easier for me to detach myself from the game and play others instead. So, for this particular version, I’ll come back to it every few days, rather than play it every day.

Addictiveness: 7/10


APPEAL FACTOR

Neversoft decided that this year, they would cater to the lowest common denominator with THUG2. This game has a ton of stuff within it that will cause cheap laughs in all gamers. You have guys peeing their pants, a guy in a full body cast hitting on women and getting slapped, plenty of cussing, Phil Magera in his underwear, lighting birds on fire, performing tricks off of bull poop, vandalizing public property, and a host of other things that the developers through in there for you to giggle like a little school girl to.

Needless to say, it’s going to appeal to a TON of people.

Appeal Factor: 8/10


MISCELLANEOUS

Perhaps the biggest flaw I see in this game is the fact that it lacks substance. Not substance as in gameplay, as there is plenty of that. But I’ve noticed that key areas of the game are missing that “special something” included in previous versions that make these games the darling of the Internet world they’ve become.


The Story Mode is funny, and contains creative tasks to complete, but completely lacks the thoughtfulness and interesting twists the story in THUG1 contained. The Classic Mode brought back the original gameplay found in the first three games. But again, things were missing. There are no “competition” levels to go through. There are only three “unique” goals per stage. And the stat icons are incredibly difficult to find, making goals in the latter stages that much harder to complete. The gameplay additions here are nowhere near as momentous as previous additions. They focus MUCH less on the techniques and tricks, and focus more on shock value. The direction taken leaves out much of the substance the older games contained, and make this game less “complete”.

Miscellaneous: 5/10