Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Review
Tony Hawk's Underground 2 is the sixth in Neversoft's impressive series of skateboarding games in as many years. Every time, Neversoft manages to throw enough new stuff in to make long-time fans of the series go ahead and try the new game. A full set of new levels, crazier new goals, and new moves are what Tony Hawk fans have come to expect every year. Yes, they've delivered an entirely new game (with some striking similar gameplay mechanics, granted) for the sixth year in a row with THUG2.
While we haven't really seen any major engine enhancements since Tony Hawk 4 two years ago, Neversoft continues to push the envelope with more and more detail and even larger levels. Beenox is the company who did the PC version of this game, and they've done an excellent job keeping up the same smooth gameplay as you can get on the consoles.
The obvious difference when comparing the PC and console versions of THUG2 is the game's resolution. Playing this game at 1280x1024 does make the game seem more impressive than playing it on a console, but at the same time, the need to use a gamepad that works for the PC and the benefit of having a large TV on a console mean that the PC version - to me - isn't really much better at all.
The nice thing is that almost all of the features in the console versions of the game work on the PC version. This includes online play with the new game modes, putting your own face on the skater, and all the gameplay. I say this because the last PC port of a Tony Hawk game, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 by Gearbox, was a barebones version of the game that lacked the PS2 version's online play.
The most important basic thing you'll need for a game like this is a good control setup. It's pretty much a given that a console version will be fine here, but on the PC it's not so straightforward. Using the keyboard for any Tony Hawk game is an exercise in frustration, so a gamepad is a must. My weapon of choice is a standard PlayStation 2 controller plugged in with a USB adapter, and it did everything I needed it to for THUG2. The game uses a standardized controller interface that allows you to configure every button how you want, and anything that Windows detects as a normal game controller should work. The one thing you may lack is the right number of buttons - the game uses up to 11 buttons as well as four axes if you've got 'em. Not all of these buttons are crucial, but about eight of them pretty much are.
Otherwise, the game's interface is decent. The save system is a little too much like the console versions for me, and I do wish there was a quicksave or something. The menus are all tricked out in the graffiti-coated "THUG" style, and most of the options you'd expect to be there are right there. THUG2 does include quite a few customization features for both your character and for skatepark creation; some of these have been seen in previous games, and others are either totally redone or all new.
As in all the previous Tony Hawk titles, you'll travel the globe and hit classic skate spots - this time around, you'll see Spain, Germany, Australia, Boston, New Orleans, and more. Each map is highly detailed, but the best part about it is that every object was placed there for a reason, and you can skate on or over just about everything in a level. It's the combination of serious attention to gameplay details while still making each level unique and impressive that really makes the game that good.
Many of the skaters seen in this game have been seen a bunch of times before, but Neversoft went ahead and re-drew most of the game's content anyway. A bunch of the old animations are here, but this is by no means an "upgrade" game like so many sports titles turn out to be. The character models are improved, the classic levels were re-lit and retextured, and it just overall feels like a completely new game rather than a rehash with a fresh coat of paint.
As far as special effects go, this game falls quite a bit behind the competition on the PC. There aren't any decent DirectX 9 or pixel shader effects to speak of, and some of the fire effects and whatnot are pretty rudimentary. At the same time, I can't really fault them for this, as style and gameplay are the obvious focal points in the Tony Hawk games.
Neversoft keeps delivering a brand new experience every year, and I was probably the most skeptical about their ability to do it this year. I was pleasantly surprised to find a fully fleshed out game this year, though. Not only is there a full host of new levels, but some classic levels have been reworked and added, as well as multiple gameplay modes. The new story mode is a little like the first THUG where you're an unknown skater making it big with the pros. This time, though, Tony Hawk himself gets a bigger role, as well as pro skater and MTV "Jackass" star Bam Margera.
The inclusion of a lot more Bam Margera means quite a lot more juvenile in-your-face kind of stuff that's a little "Jackass" and a little, well, Tony Hawk I guess. The story is actually worse than the first THUG in my opinion, but that's just not too big a deal since it's all about the skating goals, lines to discover, and big scoring. Every year Neversoft winds up having to add at least a couple of major moves to the game to keep players interested. By now, there are a ton of options you can do to score points, and they have found a couple of new ways to keep your combos going even after all these years. Sticker slaps allow you to turn a dead-run into a wall into a continued combo, while "focus" mode allows you to take your skater into slow motion in order to nail the tougher parts of combos. Some of the skaters are on their own vehicles, and these allow you to do tricks unlike THUG1's cars and trucks. It sound stupid to do tricks as Steve-O while riding a big mechanical bull, but damn was it just stupid fun.
In addition to the usual set of goals, you now have four skaters to use and unlock for each level. There's your own skater, a pro skater you can choose to team with, a secret character (for each level!), and a guest character. Each has their own set of goals, although you can complete other characters' goals with someone else if you want. The number of goals for each level have been increased by quite a bit, and some of them are pretty complicated. At the same time, they ramp up in difficulty nicely without becoming insanely frustrating to finish.
The best new addition, in my opinion, to THUG2 is the "classic" mode. This essentially makes a new game out of the old levels, with the older Tony Hawk rules - you have a certain number of goals, and you have two minutes to do as many as you can. As before, you only have to do one per two-minute run if you want, and they do include the old-school goals like collecting the letters S-K-A-T-E or collecting the letters C-O-M-B-O while in a single combo.
Online play works pretty well in THUG2, and the new modes are somewhat decent little additions that are fun for a while. I never was big on playing the Tony Hawk games online, but there are plenty of people out there who love it, and the PC version shouldn't disappoint. The other customization modes, like create-a-skater and the options to create your own goals and skateparks, are all here and as full-featured as any Tony Hawk veteran would expect. Much like the online play, they didn't do much for me, but how many games outside of first person shooters include an editor of any kind nowadays?
Tony Hawk's Underground 2 includes plenty of voice acting from all the licensed skaters, although most of it is pretty silly. Even then, the delivery seems to come out wrong sometimes, so in general it's only decent at best. The sound effects, however, are better than ever, with many more variations in the tone and pitch of the sounds while skateboarding around.
It's clear that Activision and Neversoft really wanted to broaden the musical range this time around, and to that end there's a larger range of musicians on the soundtrack. There's still your usual punk, rock, and rap, but there's also Johnny Cash and even a Frank Sinatra song. It's a little weird, but I'm finding this to be one of the better Tony Hawk soundtracks in a couple of years now.
The only real complaint I have is that the game does not support custom soundtracks like the Xbox version does. Why I can't point it to a directory of MP3s (like the recent PC versions of the Grand Theft Auto games), I have no idea, but it'd have been really nice. It's the only feature that went into a console version that didn't make it (in any form) onto the PC.
Beenox, Activision, and Neversoft have delivered an almost entirely new experience for the sixth year in a row with Tony Hawk's Underground 2. The new gameplay modes, massive new levels, customizability, and online play all work together to really make this year's game something special on the PC.