If you've picked up a controller in the past six years, you've become accustomed to the domination of the extreme genre by Tony Hawk. The Birdman has single handedly revolutionized the skateboard game with solid controls, tons of characters and expansive environments packed with ramps and half pipes. What’s more, when the franchise seemed to get a bit stale with its lineup of pro skaters, Hawk turned the field on its ear with THUG. Last year’s title was an ambitious game that cast the player in the role of a fledgling skater trying to achieve his dreams of skating superstardom. This year’s sequel presents a separate take on your boarding aspirations. Grab your favorite board, because we’re grabbing big air in Tony Hawk Underground 2.
The plotline behind THUG 2 takes a number of sharp turns practically from the start of the game. Your character (one that you design using the considerable character editing tools of the game) is skating at home with a crowd of neighborhood kids cheering them on. Suddenly a van pulls up, shoving you into the back and driving off. When you come to, you discover you’re not the only victim of this drive by kidnapping. However, this is quickly cut short as a masked figure wielding a chainsaw bursts through the door swinging the tool near you. After a lot of screaming, the figure removes the mask to reveal the face of Bam Margera, professional prankster and rebel skateboarder. Both he and Tony Hawk then state that you and your fellow skaters have been “drafted” to Team Bam and Team Hawk to participate in a global scavenger hunt known as the World Destruction Tour.
Each city on the tour “hosts a number of goals you’ll have to accomplish to fulfill your team’s quota of points. Some of these feel like they’ve been taken directly from previous Pro Skater titles, such as skating a bench combo without touching the ground or successfully pulling off a number of tricks within a specific time limit. Others, however, feel inspired by the Jackass/Viva La Bam TV shows. These are usually the more destructive or ludicrous tasks, such as performing tricks off bull droppings or vandalizing property. Based on the complexity of each goal, you’ll receive a set point total. Successfully reach the minimum number of points, and your team can move on to the next town. You won’t have to take on these newer levels alone, however, because players can now choose a professional skater to partner up with them. Players will also be able to unlock Guest and Secret skateboarders relevant to that specific level to acquire more points. For instance, players will be able to take to the streets as Ben Franklin in the Boston level provided the gamer finds him. Once these additional skaters have been found, players can switch back and forth between characters at will, opening up new playing abilities “in some cases” and new goals to solve.
Fortunately, like the previous Tony Hawk titles, THUG 2 provides a number of new abilities to accomplish your tasks. Chief amongst them is the sticker slap, a maneuver that allows you to push off a wall, marking it with a “sticker” before returning in the direction you came. Not only can this be used to string together significant combos, but you’ll also receive a slight speed boost as you rebound off the wall. This is extended to vert wall plants, but instead of sending you back, it merely propels you off the wall higher, giving you more height on your jumps and tricks. Players will be able to “tag,” or spray paint objects much easier now, particularly because you can do it better when you’re off your board. You’ll find that there are plenty more occasions where you’ll have to caveman in THUG 2 than the other games, and some tasks can’t be completed without leaving your board behind. Aside from this, players will acquire a Natas Spin much later in the game, which allows gamers to rotate on any pivot like fire hydrants or trash cans.
This skill is needed to accomplish some goals, although it can come at a significant risk: Players can easily be thrown from the rotating board in any direction, leading to an embarrassing fall and loss of points. However, players can now save face with the new Freak Out feature, allowing players to basically throw a hissy fit once they’ve hit the ground. Every so often, the game will present a meter that players can fill by pounding a button on their controller. Fill most of the bar, and the game character will respond in kind, performing angry animations like throwing their board away or snapping the deck in two by jumping on it. However, this isn't simply a gimmick to release your frustration at not landing a trick; the act of freaking out actually restores energy to your Special meter. Once this meter is full, players can trigger "focus" mode, a Zen like state where pulling off tricks is significantly easier. This means you can extend grinds and spins for longer periods of time, adding to your combos and your score.
Graphically, THUG 2 is much different than previous Tony Hawk titles. Whereas older titles emphasized realistic character models for the skaters (even with the "outlandish" hidden characters), THUG 2 goes completely in the opposite direction, featuring overexaggerated facial features and animations. One look at the digital version of Bam is enough to solidify this assessment, since his eyes look like they're about to fall out of his skull at any second. Considering the insane, often off the wall antics that you'll undertake on the World Destruction Tour, this style actually suits the gameplay quite well. In fact, some of the characters just wouldn't seem appropriate if they were done in any other way – how else can you explain Steve-O riding a mechanical bull on wheels wearing chaps? There are a few hiccups that slightly mar the title, though; draw distance, particularly on the PS2 is sometimes clunky, resulting in a significant amount of pop-up from the background forcefully leaping into view. There were a number of times that the boundaries of the game world became visually apparent on spectacular crashes or large jumps -- I noticed the void of undefined game space quite a bit if I performed grinds or plants near the edges of maps. This seemed to correspond to the large amounts of clipping that the characters sometimes demonstrated with half pipes and walls.
Aurally, THUG is incredible. I never thought that I'd skate to Frank Sinatra, but he and Johnny Cash actually mesh well with harder edged groups like The Distillers and Faith No More. Thug packs more than 50 songs from diverse groups and artists, and it's possible to find at least one or more tracks that you'll dig as you shred the sidewalks. The pro skaters involved with the game also do a pretty solid job of voice acting, making the cutscenes seem much more alive and vibrant as they show off the craziness of the Tour around the world.
In fact, the manic nature of the tour is both a blessing and a curse to THUG 2. If you like Jackass and Viva La Bam, you'll love the pranks and mayhem that ensues throughout the title's story mode, even though it's relatively short from city to city. If however, you're a purist, you'll probably hate this game for a number of reasons. First, the emphasis on finding the best line for sick combos or busting a number of tricks really diminishes in favor of performing the requisite number of points to move on to the next level. In fact, acquiring the minimum amount of points gives you the same cutscene as accomplishing every, or just about every, task in a city. Second, the acquisition of points (aside from certain goals you have to fulfill) is practically a useless inclusion within the story mode, since they zero out after a certain amount of time. So a monster combo soon becomes irrelevant considering the overbalanced direction of the story. Finally, the "destruction" that you create is often undone during every day and night cycle, forcing you to redo certain actions for combos. For instance, I had to release the penned up bull in Barcelona a couple of times because the damage kept getting repaired after a short amount of time.
Purists will probably opt to play the Classic mode instead, which returns the standard time limits to the title from the first Tony Hawk titles, along with the SKATE and COMBO letter goals, secret tapes, etc. that fans loved. Unfortunately, even this mode has a few problems. First of all, some of the newer THUG 2 levels just don't mesh well with this format, creating a large inequity between the older, simpler stages and the more expansive ones. Secondly, since most Tony Hawk vets probably remember many of these older levels (particularly the ones that they've spent numerous hours unlocking and mastering), it would've been perfect if there were newer stages to explore.
Perhaps one of starkest exclusions is the fact that Xbox owners don't have online play for THUG 2. To be blunt, this completely blows. Xbox Live has just as rabid and active an online community as the PS2 or PC players, yet they've been screwed out of online play for this title, relegating them to two player split screen play. This is relatively unfortunate, considering that the included additions to online play, Elimiskate and Scavenger Hunt are just perfect for multiple players. Elimiskate is similar to many racing games, except instead of the person in last place getting knocked out of play, the person with the least amount of points from tricks and combos is eliminated. Scavenger Hunt is based around players navigating a level and dropping coins around a stage, then hunting for as many coins as possible within a time limit. These mini-games are fun, but the do suffer from a significant amount of lag and slowdown during play at times, usually when players join matches or when a game is just starting for everyone. The older multiplayer games, like Graffiti and Combo Mambo among others, make a return appearance and are really great for extending the life of the game. It's just a shame that Xboxers can’t join in the fun.
Overall, THUG 2 is a fun, albeit flawed sequel that won't entirely appeal to every skating fan. The lack of attention to the pure mechanics that attracted so many players to the series is a significant detraction to the game, as are the limitations placed on some of the game modes and the overemphasis on acting crazy. However, the game is still a Tony Hawk title, and its solid history of delivering engaging skateboarding year after year is maintained with THUG 2.