Tony Hawk's Underground 2 REVIEW

Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Review (Xbox)

When we talk about great franchises in sports gaming, most often we think of the great football, baseball, and basketball series that have graced the game store shelves for the past decade. In the world of "extreme sports", we see very few series last more than one release. Although some have released a sequel or two, no "extreme sports" series comes close to touching the success and longevity of the "Tony Hawk Pro Skater" series from Activision and Neversoft. Through four incarnations of "THPS" and a switch to a more story-based "THUG" ("Tony Hawk Underground"), this franchise has produced gaming gold since 1999.

The latest release, "THUG 2", sticks with the story-based feel on the first "THUG" release while bringing back some of the old school-feel of the "Pro Skater" series. Does the series have the staying power to keep it fresh at release number six?

"Tony Hawk Underground 2" is built around two modes. The first, and definitely the bread and butter, is the Story Mode. This year’s Story Mode tells the tale of a secret, underground “World Destruction Tour” between teams led by skateboarding golden boy and series spokesman Tony Hawk and skateboarding bad boy and MTV personality Bam Margera. The objective, in a nutshell, is to wreak havoc and break stuff all around the world. You, the created skater, will travel around the globe taking part in the challenge. The coolest part this year is that you’re not alone. On each level, you’ll not only control your skater, but also a Pro, a Guest, and a Secret Guest, each with his own specific set of goals. Guests could be TV personalities like Wee-Man or Jesse James and the Secret Skaters can be as obscure as Benjamin Franklin.

Classic Mode, on the other hand is “old school” Tony Hawk. The old standards like collecting S-K-A-T-E or "combo-ing" over the letters C-O-M-B-O. It’s nice to get that classic feel and style again, but it’s not without issue. My problem, and maybe it’s just me, is that the Classic Mode doesn’t present you with any unique levels. They could have really added to the replay ability if they had made some levels exclusive to that mode. It is a deal breaker? Far from it - but it would have been a really nice addition.

There have been a few minor gameplay additions to this year’s title. I have to stop short of calling them improvements, because they aren’t really important. One is the ability to slow down to what has become known as “Bullet Time” in gamer-speak. Basically, when you get special, you can go into slow motion in an attempt to pull off special moves and more complex sequences. I found it very difficult to use and rather unnecessary.

I feel the same way about the new “Freak Out”. When you wipe out, you have a limited window of type to mash the ‘Y’ button to fill up your “Freak Out Meter”. The higher it gets the bigger tantrum. A good board throw or break can start your run with a few extra points to combo off of. I felt compelled to do it on my first few crashes, but once you’ve seen the animations, it really doesn’t add much to the game.

Overall, gameplay in "THUG 2" is solid. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel enough different than the previous versions to really jump out at you.

File it deeply into the “If It Ain’t Broke” file when it comes to the sights and sounds of "THUG 2". Neversoft knows what they do well. The animations and environments are as top notch as ever. The look and feel will not disappoint. The tricks look sweet as ever. The crashes are still bone rattling. And the layouts of the cities and parks allow you to trick off of just about anything and everything.

The soundtrack is as robust as ever with over 50 songs from multiple genres from Punk to Hip-Hop. You can even kick it old school with some classic rock! As has become the standard, the custom soundtracks that Xbox users have come to expect are there and ready for you to play DJ.

The great improvement in the marriage between graphics and audio can also be seen in the cut scenes. The voice acting continues to improve, although Tony himself still sounds like he is reading his sixth grade “What I did on my summer vacation” report. The cut scenes are definitely getting a little more “MTV’s Jackass” inspired then previous years. It’s more bodily noises, pranks, and destruction than hardcore skating.

I don’t know if it was a factor of development time or a conscious choice, but Activision did not include any Xbox Live support in "THUG 2". In fact, they even removed the system link support that was a staple in previous versions. I don’t know if this is a sign of the "Tony Hawk" series moving into the realm of becoming a PS2 platform exclusive, but it is very disappointing to say the least. You can still get in some split-screen, two-player action, but that is the full extent of the multiplayer gaming for owners of the big green box.

Note: While this review was written based on the Xbox version of the title, the PS2 version does offer multiplayer online support, as well as a custom face editor that allows you to map your face onto your custom skater.

I can’t in good conscience lower a game’s score because I want more from it. But in the world of fifty-dollar-a-year franchises, it’s important to the let the readers know whether this year’s installment is worth the investment. If you are a "Tony Hawk" or "extreme sports" gaming junkie, then owning this title is a no-brainer. It’s every bit as good as the previous versions. The new skate parks and areas would equate to a roster update in a football title. That makes "THUG 2" a must buy for you. If you didn’t like "THUG", you won’t like "THUG 2". Not enough has been added or changed that would make this a worthwhile purchase for you. What about the fence sitters? The undecided? It's really simple: If you haven’t played "THUG" before, start there. You’ll likely find it at a great price. If you like it, then go buy "THUG 2".

This is a great series that continues to compete with the "Big 4" (and more) sports franchises in quality and longevity. Unfortunately, it also makes you subject to some of the same pitfalls that come from raised expectations. Even great games have down years. Even down years can be great games. "THUG 2" is a different thing to different people. Where do you stand?

Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Score
out of 10