The Birdman goes back underground for his sixth foray into video games, this direct sequel to 2003's RPG-style on-board adventure. As in the original Tony Hawk's Underground, THUG 2 centers on a player-created character, who must work his or her way up from suburban obscurity to extreme sport stardom. As in the previous game, players create their characters from scratch, assigning skill points and choosing from the widest array of appearance options yet offered in the series. Once created, the player's character is picked by Mr. Hawk himself, to lead a team of skaters against a rival gang in the game's "World Destruction Tour" competition, which plays out in famous cities around the globe.
The rival team in question is "Team Bam," and it's lead by extreme sports bad boy Bam Margera against the player's own "Team Hawk." Challenges are diverse, with goals that range from claiming turf with graffiti and stickers to more mischievously destructive objectives. Players can now annoy local pedestrians, by pelting them with projectiles, but they'll want to keep an eye out for new talent. There are over 20 different skater characters in the game (often found going about their non-skater business) who may be persuaded to join up and strengthen the player's team. Gamers can switch between teammate characters on the fly, allowing them to use the strengths of different skaters as different situations call for them.
In addition to the extensive character creation tools it offers, THUG 2 also lets players design their own tricks, skate parks, and even custom graffiti "tags." For old-school Pro Skater fans, THUG 2 also features a "Classic" mode, with a play style more similar to that of earlier entries in the franchise. Here, virtual skaters will race to complete familiar goals such as collecting letters to spell the word "SKATE," finding the secret video tape, and earning top scores in timed runs.
I love the Tony Hawk series. When your games of choice are usually brain-busting strategy titles and time-intensive RPGs, you need something like Tony Hawk in your life if only to cleanse your gaming palate, shut off your brain for a while, and give your fingers a workout. Even the series' diversion into story-driven gameplay in Tony Hawk's Underground only enhanced the game's basic appeal, the continual drive to jump ever higher and squeeze in that one extra trick on your plank without bashing your brains out on the concrete. Tony Hawk's Underground 2 (which, despite the name, is actually the sixth game in the series) doesn't veer too far off that line, merely adding a few new tricks to an already full bag. The resulting package is so good that not even the nightmarish presence of Bam Margera and his merry band of sociopathic masochists can bring it down.
The biggest difference between THUG 2 and its predecessor is the somewhat darker turn the game's story mode has taken. This is due entirely to the addition of "guest stars" Bam Margera and the rest of the idiot-boy brigade from MTV's Jackass (minus Johnny Knoxville). I know there will be many who disagree with me, but I've always found the juvenile and cruel antics of Jackass to be totally unfunny, degrading, and moronic. Quite frankly, a 1920's carnival freak show has more class and dignity than Margera and Steve-O. It's not surprising, therefore, that unlike the previous game's clichéd-but-still-fun story of a skater working his way up the ladder of success, THUG 2 instead follows the story of a "World Destruction Tour," a competition between two teams (led by Margera and Hawk) to see who can do more damage in five different locations around the world.
This misanthropic tone is reflected in the game's goals. Unlike the first title, where you did things like rescue a buddy from criminals, THUG 2's skate goals mostly revolve around vandalism, destruction, and injuring other people. The Barcelona level, for example, asks the player to do things like bean five passers-by with tomatoes, let an insane bull loose to run through the streets, knock over trash cans, and do a grab trick off a pile of dung. It's amazing to me that Tony Hawk, who's made a name for himself by lifting the perception of skateboarding as something only done by street punks into a semi-respectable sport, would lower himself to providing the voiceovers for an opening cutscene in which Hawk and Margera threaten to kidnap victims with chainsaws until they urinate themselves.
It's fortunate, then, that once you get past the moral vacuum of the game's storyline, that THUG 2's gameplay is as much fun as it ever was. As in the previous game, players make their way across the globe attempting to cross off a laundry list of skating goals by using their own skater, a pro, or one of the two special characters hidden in each level. The system for receiving goals has changed a bit from last time. Now, instead of skating up to people and getting assignments, you'll be able to access your list at any time and take the challenges in any order you see fit. This is both good and bad. It's good in that it makes the world feel more open and cohesive. Players having difficulty with one goal can skate around and try one of the others, perhaps coming back when they've improved their skills. It's bad in that it can be difficult to find the location where all of those goals need to be accomplished. There is an available list of everything you have to do, including tips and clues, but that means a lot of pausing and reading, which can pull you out of the game for a long time.
The Tony Hawk series has always been biased a bit in favor of the PlayStation 2 controller. This sometimes caused problems when the game was ported to other consoles with different controller configurations. Those problems only multiply when ported to the PC, and THUG 2 is certainly no exception to this rule. The game sports a keyboard/mouse control scheme, but only somebody certifiably insane would even think of using it. Fortunately, the game has extensive controller support and can be played with almost any commercially available 10-button PC gamepad. I would recommend, though, going with one that mimics the button layout of the PS2 pad. I used a Logitech Dual Action controller, and once properly configured to match the PS2's setup, I found the controls almost as smooth and responsive as the PlayStation 2 THUG 2 I've been playing at home.
The bad news about the controls, however, is that they get awful once you get off the skateboard. The ability to hop off your board and walk around was introduced in the last THUG, and while it adds some welcome new gameplay possibilities, the silky-smooth control players get while on the board seem to turn into mush when you use it. The camera angles are really bad and never seem to swing around properly to give you the angle you need to pull off jumps or catch ledges. The player's avatar also seems to run or walk randomly without much regard to where the analog stick is placed. Again, this isn't a crippling flaw, since you won't be spending much time on your feet in this game, but completing some of the goals in story mode require you to walk and hang from ledges. The poor controls here make it tougher than it has to be.
Naturally, it wouldn't be a Tony Hawk game without a bunch of new tricks. This, unfortunately, is one of the game's biggest disappointments. Players will be able to learn a couple of new stunts; unfortunately, most of them aren't terribly useful outside of the specific story mode circumstances that have been deliberately constructed for them. The most useful new trick is a sticker plant that allows players to jump up against a wall, slap a sticker on it, and reverse direction. This comes in handy during long combos since it allows players to reverse direction quickly and get in another long grind. It's also a cool way to reach higher areas. The Natas Spin, which lets players spin around on fire hydrants or light poles, though, just isn't all that useful except in story mode where doing it is part of certain goals, since it tends to throw you off in a random direction making using it anywhere besides the end of a long skate line impossible. There's also a Freak Out function that can be used after a fall. This lets your skater take out his frustrations onscreen and is amusing for a while, but soon enough you'll find that the extra time a Freak Out takes just isn't with a few extra points. Finally, the focus ability will slow down time when the "special" meter is filled. This makes it easier to perform tricks and combos for newbies, but Tony Hawk veterans will probably never use it.
The best "new" addition, though, is actually an old feature. Old-school Tony Hawk Pro Skater fans will be thrilled to find out that classic mode returns the game to the old THPS style. That's right! The two-minute clock is back, along with the myriad goals that will be quite familiar to old fans. You'll have to grab all the letters to spell out the word "SKATE" or "COMBO," find the secret tape, and get certain point totals to pass the levels. The game also has a couple of older levels from earlier Tony Hawk games that people can play, although they may find that some of the tricks that weren't available when those levels were created (like manuals and walking) might make them too easy because they weren't designed with those future features in mind.
Graphically, the game is a pretty direct port of the Xbox version of the game, which means they're nice for a console game, but sorta bland for a PC title. The game's buildings, levels, and character models are fairly crude, although the animation system is excellent. On the other hand, the game's graphics are serviceable enough and don't really hurt the game all that much. Put simply, you're not going to have much time to appreciate the beauty of an Iberian sunset while you're trying to maintain your balance while grinding across skylift cables.
The game's audio, on the other hand, is a real standout. The voiceovers (and even Margera) are uniformly excellent, and the soundtrack is simply awesome. The game contains 50 tracks that run the gamut from hip-hop to heavy metal, and even includes a couple of surprises like a Frank Sinatra song and an old standard from Johnny Cash. You can, of course, alter the playlist to your own specifications, but there's no real need; the variety and superior quality make sure you'll never be bored with what's playing onscreen.
The real reason to get this game on PC, though, as opposed to the Xbox or GameCube versions, is its online component. Put simply, as good as the single-player game is, THUG 2's multiplayer modes kick butt. All of the online modes that were available in the first THUG are available here, and they're just as much fun as they ever were. Indeed, some of the game's new levels seem tailor-made for certain types of multiplayer modes. You haven't really played "Graffiti" for example, until you've fought over the park in "Boston." Of the two new modes, "Scavenger Hunt" and "Elimiskate," the latter is the stronger, a competition consisting of timed rounds in which the lowest scorer gets eliminated. Players who have mastered sick combos and solid landings and are going to dominate in this one and will really appreciate the multiplayer test of skill.
Dovetailing with the game's online capabilities is the game's beefed-up "create-a-mode." Returning this year are the standard create-a-park and create-a-trick, along with create-a-skater. Create-a-skater is as useful as before, able to produce a wide variety of good-looking -- or at least fun -- avatars, such as my pirate skater. Unique to the PC version, however, is the ease with which players can use the game's face mapping system to plaster their own mug onto a model. This capability is available on the PS2 using the EyeToy or via a cumbersome system of e-mailing digital files to Neversoft. On PC, however, it's much simpler. Anyone with access to a decent digital camera and possibly some public domain image manipulation software can easily save a 128x128 image on their hard drive and use it in the game. Getting the proportions and placement just right is a little tricky, but anyone who can use a computer should have no problem customizing their skater.
Tying the whole thing together, though, is the "create-a-goal" system that lets you take your customized creations and essentially create entirely new game levels from scratch. Level makers can put people in various locations, set goal requirements, alter the text, and even create customized reward messages. While the PS2 version shares this capability, the ability to easily upload and download levels to Neversoft's level vault and incorporate them into your copy of the game definitely gives the PC version an edge when it comes to ease of use. Put simply, this new feature gives players access to an essentially unlimited supply of brand-new levels and story-style quests.
If you enjoyed previous versions of the Tony Hawk games, you're definitely going to enjoy the latest iteration of the series. While PC Tony Hawk fans are probably outnumbered by PS2 Tony Hawk fans, the multiplayer PC lobbies for THUG 2 have been filling up since the game was released, meaning that PC players shouldn't be hurting for online skate rats to challenge. While the game isn't terribly groundbreaking in terms of new additions, when a game is this good, "more of the same" is good enough. And, while Bam Margera and his boys may have somehow oozed their way into the game, that still shouldn't deter anyone who enjoys catching some sick air from picking up a copy of Tony Hawk's Underground 2.
People who downloaded Tony Hawk's Underground 2 have also downloaded:
Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, Need for Speed Underground 2, Need for Speed: Underground, Simpsons, The: Hit & Run, Need for Speed: Most Wanted
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