Make no mistake about it: 2004 has been a very crummy year for action-sports games. You can literally count on one hand the number of them that have been released this year. Thankfully, Activision and developer Neversoft fill the void with Tony Hawk's Underground 2, the biggest action-sports release of 2004.
PS2 Screens (6)
THUG 2 is clearly bigger and meaner than last year's game, but does it pack a stronger punch? Well, it depends partly on what you think of Bam Margera (of MTV fame), who has "punk'd" the game with his mischievous style and brought Steve-O, Wee Man, and Phil along for the ride. As a result, THUG 2's Story mode tends to play out like a lost episode of Jackass or Viva La Bam. Ardent fans of Activision's skateboarding series need not fret, however, as THUG 2 also includes a "classic" mode, accompanied by a handful of new features and the same addictive gameplay of past Tony Hawk titles.
Presentation/Graphics : 85
To support the new direction of the Story mode, THUG 2 favors a cartoony look over a realistic one. The professional skaters, while still resembling their real-life counterparts, appear more cartoonish than in past games, with over-the-top special moves highlighting each skater's personality. Likewise, the new environments (based on locations around the globe) are bursting with color and activity, and destructible objects are in abundance. Day and night cycles introduce snazzy visual effects, including the best lighting the series has seen. Focus mode goes a step further by applying slick camera work, slow motion, and a heavy dose of blurring and blooming.
Unfortunately, the graphics do exhibit rough spots, perhaps more so than in the original THUG. Most of the animations are silky smooth, but the off-board maneuvers (running, jumping, climbing, shimmying, etc.) still pale in comparison. Textures also vary in quality, and the Pro Skater levels in Classic mode have not aged gracefully, despite Neversoft's attempt to spruce them up. Moreover, a slightly unsteady frame rate and array of graphical faults, such as clipping and screen tearing, put a damper on the visual presentation--and occasionally the gameplay. Those with widescreen televisions may be disheartened to know that some of the aforementioned issues become pronounced in the game's 16:9 mode.
All things considered, THUG 2 looks no worse than previous Tony Hawk games on the PS2, and in fact, the graphics show an improvement overall. A little more fine-tuning, however, would have helped smoothen things out.
Presentation/Audio : 85
As expected, the primary sound effects in THUG 2 (i.e., the skating sounds) remain unchanged from recent Tony Hawk games. Really, there's little reason for Neversoft to tamper with them, since they work well enough. That said, entering Focus mode dramatically alters the audio; the music mutes, sound effects and background noises deaden, and your skater's heartbeat becomes audible. Voice-overs are authentic, with the professional skaters and celebrity guests lending their voices. For the most part, everyone does a decent job delivering his lines, and even Bam's dad, Phil, gives a spirited performance. Conversely, the voices for the pedestrians and auxiliary characters are hit or miss.
Things are bit mixed musically, too. THUG 2's soundtrack is smaller than THUG's, featuring around 50 songs (as opposed to the 70 or so in THUG). Despite having a smaller playlist, THUG 2 actually sports a more diverse musical lineup. Unfortunately, this has the adverse effect of limiting the soundtrack's appeal for someone who prefers a particular style of music. Additionally, while the soundtrack features a respectable mix of rock, punk, and hip-hop tunes, some of the songs seem out of place. Few gamers in THUG 2's target audience likely listen to Frank Sinatra or Johnny Cash, yet those are two of the odd selections on the soundtrack. Of course, you have full control over the playlist, so you can disable the songs and music genres you dislike.
You may decide to mute the soundtrack anyway, mainly because the rich ambient noises in the levels will attract your attention. Whether you're tearing up a city or shredding through the countryside, the aural ambiance of each environment draws you into the virtual surroundings. What's more, Dolby Pro Logic II support heightens immersion with high-quality surround sound.
Interface/Options : 85
Players will know they're in for a wild ride the moment they lay eyes on THUG 2's offbeat menu system. You access different areas of the game by spinning the "Wheel of Loogies," Neversoft's twisted take on Wheel of Fortune. Don't worry--it'll all make sense once you play the Story mode.
Beyond the quirky menu navigation, you won't encounter too many surprises hidden within THUG 2's front end, just a great assortment of options and features, including comprehensive, easy-to-use editors to create your own skaters, parks, tricks, goals, and graphics. It's also worth mentioning that the first stage in the Story mode, a modified version of the warehouse level from the original Pro Skater, serves as a training area. There, newcomers can learn most of the basics and get a handle on the controls, which are still the absolute finest action-sports gaming has to offer.
One important factor to consider about the PS2 version of THUG 2 is it, evidently, suffers from a nasty save bug. A glitch sporadically freezes the game during the saving process, resulting in data corruption and, thus, loss of progress. Upon completing certain goals in the Story mode, you're given the opportunity to save, and this is where the problem seems primarily to occur. Reports from distraught gamers about this issue have cropped up on the Internet, and I have experienced the bug myself.
The exact cause and extent of the bug are currently unknown, and Activision has given no official response at the time of this writing. Your best bet is to save via the main menu instead of during gameplay (select "no" when the game prompts you to save in a level). Also, you may want to back up your THUG 2 files just to be extra cautious. Following these tips doesn't necessarily guarantee you won't experience the bug, but they could help to avoid it or diminish its effects, if indeed the problem exists in all copies of the game.
Gameplay : 85
Every new Tony Hawk game thus far has introduced at least one significant gameplay element. Last year, THUG let players get off the skateboard to explore the environments and lengthen combos. THUG 2 expands on that by giving you more stuff to do off the skateboard, such as tagging. You can also toss objects, throw tantrums, and apply stickers (the sticker slap replaces the wallplant). In terms of actual skating, though, the game merely features a couple of minor upgrades rather than anything truly earthshaking.
Accordingly, the gameplay additions implemented in THUG 2 do not drastically evolve the series, since most of them serve a limited purpose. Tagging, for instance, is something you'll be doing a lot of in the Story mode, but outside it, there's little reason to bother. Projectiles, too, are rather pointless, as tossing stuff at pedestrians is just plain silly, though perfectly suitable in the Story mode. Granted, incorporating tagging and projectiles into combos will help you score more points, but the payoff is not as great as doing regular skating moves.
Speaking of moves, new skating features include the Natas Spin, rolls and flips, and the Matrix-like Focus mode. The Natas Spin, named after wicked old-school skater Natas Kaupas, lets you spin atop narrow elevated objects, like poles and fire hydrants. It's a cool and somewhat useful trick that, unfortunately, not everyone will fully utilize. Also, rolls and flips can be performed in midair by double tapping in a direction, but again, they're maneuvers that limitedly impact the gameplay.
Focus mode is an addition that makes the game easier and more accessible, though it's debatable whether that's a good thing. Upon fully juicing the special meter, you can depress the left analog stick to enter Focus mode, a sort of bullet-time-like state. Once triggered, the action slows and the camera pulls in close, thus enabling you to balance and land tricks more easily. Even though its use is finite, Focus mode works nearly as well as a cheat code, letting even beginners score big. Now just imagine the insane scores skilled players will rack up as a result...
Beginners and experts alike will enjoy throwing tantrums in the game. Bailing amid a combo is no longer the end of the line now that you can "freak out" by madly pressing the grind button. Doing so affords you a small point bonus that carries over to your next combo. The amount of the bonus depends on the severity of the tantrum--the bigger, the better.
Besides the new stuff mentioned above, THUG 2 receives an updated Story mode, starring none other than...you. Just like in the first THUG, you are the star of the game, even though Bam Margera ends up hogging much of the spotlight. Using the game's face-mapping option (you can use the EyeToy to upload your mug) and expansive create-a-skater feature, you can design your virtual skater to look exactly like you. In addition, you can create the graphics for your board, graffiti tags, and clothes.
Basically, the storyline picks up where the last game left off, with Bam and Tony kidnapping you at your New Jersey residence and taking you on a worldwide tour of skating destruction. Skating initially for Tony's team, your main job is to wreak as much havoc as possible in the six destinations comprising the tour. Completing tasks earns your team points, and you'll need to amass a set amount before you can advance to the next stage.
Before you take to the streets, you must choose a teammate (in the form of a professional skater), who comes equipped with individual goals. To skate as him and obtain access to his goals, you must first find him in the level. You must also seek out and skate as level-specific hidden characters, each of whom has unique goals and special moves. Some hidden characters even furnish unique vehicles. For example, Steve-O straddles a mechanical bull, while Jesse James rides a high-powered scooter. The great part is you can perform tricks with these alternate modes of transportation--something you obviously could not do with the vehicles in THUG.
Most of what you'll be doing in Story mode involve some form of misconduct, but there are traditional skating goals as well. The only hitch is, sometimes it's unclear how you're supposed to accomplish certain tasks (the descriptions of the goals do not always point you in the right direction). Pedestrians who assign goals in the levels are not clearly marked, either, unlike in previous games. But with no time limit in place, you can take your sweet time exploring the large, destructible environments.
In the end, THUG 2's Story mode will not engage everyone. Although there are multiple difficulties and dozens of goals, it's easier and quicker to complete than it was last year. The story may please those seeking senseless mayhem, but it will perturb anyone after a more authentic and low-key skating experience.
Luckily, this is where THUG 2's Classic mode comes into play. Classic mode is independent of the Story mode, meaning you must unlock new levels and improve your skater's stats once again. The levels that make up the Classic mode include those from the Story mode, as well as several from the Pro Skater series. A two-minute timer is present in each level, with goals that challenge you to meet high scores, collect things, and perform special tasks.
In case you were wondering, the goals in the Pro Skater levels are different from the ones in the actual Pro Skater games. Tony Hawk vets will still have the upper hand, though, since the layouts of the old levels remain mostly unchanged. Essentially, playing Classic mode is like playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, only with different levels and more moves in your repertoire (you can disable certain moves to remain true to the old levels). It's not overly challenging--nor particularly exciting--but it serves as a nice diversion and provides a fix for nostalgic Tony Hawk fans.
Replay Value : 90
What's left to do after conquering the Story and Classic modes? Well, you can design your own parks, goals, and tricks using the same terrific editors available in the last game. Or you can strut your stuff online or off in the multiplayer modes, including the two new ones, Elimiskate (an online elimination contest) and Scavenger Hunt (be the one to find the most hidden coins). If you're like most Tony Hawk diehards, though, the heavenly trick/combo system is more than enough to appease you in your search for the perfect lines through the levels.
On the downside, if you purchase THUG 2 solely to play through the Story and Classic modes, you're probably not going to get your full money's worth. Both modes can be completed under normal difficulty within a weekend, though you'll need to clear them thoroughly and play through multiple times to reap all the rewards. There is plenty to unlock, but the unlockable goodies alone don't make the game worth purchasing.
What makes the game a real winner is the actual skating. As with every Tony Hawk title, a deep trick system, exceptional controls, and highly interactive environments greatly prolong the game's playability. It can be argued that the most fun to be had in THUG 2 is in the Free Skate and multiplayer modes, which let you flex your creativity and show off your skills (as well as improve upon them). The wide assortment of tricks, features, and options provides an almost endless amount of depth. In essence, if you were hooked on previous Tony Hawk titles, there's little reason to believe you won't be hooked on this one as well.
Overall : 87
Neversoft's decision to spice up the Tony Hawk franchise with a Jackass-style theme may draw criticism from some hardcore fans of the series. Truth is, beyond the crassness of its Story mode, THUG 2 is not radically different from last year's game. There's not a whole lot new here aside from a few gimmicks and some off-the-wall elements. The inclusion of Classic mode and extraneous features (like tagging and projectiles), while welcome, will do little to excite those with only a passing interest in the series. Focus mode is fun to activate and nice to look at, but purists will come to view it as a form of cheating. Meanwhile, novices are unlikely to appreciate the small additions Neversoft made to legitimately enhance the skating mechanics, the Natas Spin among them.
Tony Hawk addicts, on the other hand, are sure to be mostly pleased with THUG 2, regardless of any negative feelings they may express toward the Story mode. After all, the true strength of the Tony Hawk series exists in the skating, not the storytelling. Fortunately, the skating is pretty much as solid as ever.