The Hawkman cruiseth.
Tony Hawk is 36 years old. He was married for eight years and has three sons. He's an entrepreneur, a cultural icon, a video game pioneer and the greatest skateboarder to ever enter a vert ramp. So why is he running around barfing on cops, flicking boogers at pedestrians and trashing absolutely anything he can get his board on?
Actually, the more likely scenario is that he was talked into it by the folks who made Jackass sidekick and now star of his very own MTV skating show/Dennis the Menace rip-off, Bam Margera, famous. Bam has become synonymous with ridiculous acts of vandalism and parental annoyance, a punk rock martyr for legions of pre-teen skate rats who still think it's really, really funny to fart on your little brother's head. He's a genius, the idiot, and one hell of a stunt man.
He's also one hell of a businessman, having somehow connived his way into Tony Hawk's Underground 2, the latest entry in the vaunted skating series that refuses to die. Not only is it chock full of Bam's brand of hi-jinks and tomfoolery, it's also chock full of the gameplay that has made this series the best on the planet, all wrapped up in a very thorough, fairly smooth and clearly aging loogie of a skateboarding game.
The first Tony Hawk's Underground introduced the concept of Story mode to the series by having you play the role of an up-and-coming skater trying to get a pro deal. THUG 2 promptly dispenses with such a noble dream by dropping you into the middle of Tony and Bam's latest idea, the World Destruction Tour. Two teams led by the superstars embark on a round-the-world skating odyssey in which the team that does the most damage - physically, emotionally and socially - wins. You start off on Team Hawk, although over the course of the plot you'll skate for Bam, too.
Not that it matters who wins or anything, because the Story mode is simply there to get you through the game's eight new levels with at least some sort of rhyme and reason. It's a linear plot and a linear progression, just like in THUG, complete with appearances by other real skaters like Mike Vallely, Bob Burnquist and Rodney Mullen as well as your annoying, fictitious ex-friend, Eric Sparrow.
As before, you don't have to nail all the goals in a level to proceed. THUG 2 expands on this by actually giving you four different skaters for each level, all of whom have their own set of goals. You'll start off as yourself and can pick a pro partner, but you'll eventually find two other skaters to play as, including a zany one (inventor Ben Franklin, an Australian shrimp vendor, a Louisianan jester, etc) and a motorized one (Steve-O on the back of a mechanical bull, for instance).
Each goal for each skater is worth a certain number of points. In a nice twist, it doesn't actually matter which goals you complete so long as you score enough points to open up the next level. If you can't figure out how to nail a particularly nasty combo, you can pass on it and try another goal with someone else altogether. This gives each level a more open feel and helps the replay value, as you might even pass a level without playing as all four potential skaters.
The Story mode is on the short side, easily beatable by vets of the series (are there still Tony Hawk newbies out there?) in under 10 hours. That's actually a blessing, though, because the plot and cut-scenes are pretty lame. Tony Hawk is a cool dad, no doubt, but he's obviously not very comfortable trying to keep up with Bam's over-the-top teen troublemaker image. Some people might find cameos by Wee Man and Bam's fat dad Phil thrilling, but unless you're a die hard Bam fanboy, you'll just want top skip the incessant mischief and retarded dialogue for more good old-fashioned gameplay.
Lucky for you, THUG 2 throws in a completely separate Classic mode. This recalls earlier games in the Pro Skater series by pitting you against traditional challenges. In order to open up levels, you'll have to search out S-K-A-T-E letters, nab the Sick score, collect five of something or other, etc, etc. Purists will dig it, particularly when they open up the six old-school levels that have been recreated for THUG 2. Remember the Airport (THPS 3) or the Downhill Jam (THPS)? You will.
Although to be frank, there's not really enough new stuff going on with the gameplay to warrant yet another ride through these old levels. The most notable addition is the sticker slap, which lets you jump in the air and plant off a wall to keep your combo going. This solves the dilemma of the dead end and makes your huge combos even larger. Otherwise, the new moves are minor tweaks and don't impact the game beyond being requirements in Story mode. The only one worth mentioning is "Focus mode," the Tony Hawk version of bullet-time that makes it a little easier to land tricks cleanly, which sounds more useful than it actually is. If you've mastered any of the five earlier games in the series, you already know the gist of it all.
Even so, it's still a good deal of fun ripping through the big, wacky levels in both Story and Classic modes. Tony Hawk's gameplay might be growing old, but it's proven beyond a doubt that it's the best in the business and doesn't lose any steps here.
The same can be said of THUG 2's customization buffet. There are a ton of "create-a-something" modes, allowing you to build your own skaters, graphics, decks, levels, goals and tricks. The PS2 version of the game reprises the face-mapping feature found in THUG, now with Eyetoy support for better ease of use. Those interested in really making their own game out of THUG 2 will be pleased.
But PS2 owners are the only ones who will enjoy the fruits of Neversoft's online labor, as it's the only one of the three consoles with online support. Though Gamecube owners are missing out, there's still enough depth with the single-player and split-screen multiplayer to offset the lack of online play.
THUG 2 is a fast, smooth game and runs well on all three platforms, although the PS2 and Gamecube are a notch or two behind the tightness of the Xbox. Neversoft has been at this series for six years now, and it shows in the solid texture work and decent framerates. There are still some rough angles on characters and cheesy bitmapped objects from time to time, but by and large the game doesn't suffer too much for it.
The THPS series is eclipsed only by the Grand Theft Auto games in terms of eclectic musical depth [Or possibly Skullmonkeys? ~Ed]. THUG 2 continues this great audio tradition with a mixed assortment of over 50 songs, ranging from great old punk tracks like X's 'Los Angeles' and Fear's 'I Love Livin' in the City' to tunes from Metallica, Joy Division, Rancid and even Frank Sinatra. Good stuff.
Make no mistake: Tony Hawk's Underground 2 is a very solid game and a no-brainer for those who have yet to experience the series. Neversoft has refined the gameplay to the point of it being almost a meditation exercise, letting you grind, manual, revert and flip with a Zen-like calmness. But despite the fact that Tony Hawk's Underground 2 is stuffed to the gills with the gameplay that has made the series a phenomenon, it doesn't actually pull off many new tricks, and like the man himself, is starting to show its age. Flicking boogers at dad might work for Bam, but we expect a little more out of our elder skatesman.