Reviewed: January 31, 2005
Released: October 5, 2004
Apparently there is an annual tradition around the GCM offices where every January after the holiday smoke has cleared we clean up the office and review all those games that fell behind the desk or got swept under the rug. Today’s lost treasure is the Xbox version of Tony Hawk’s Underground 2.
Cliff has long since turned in his more timely review of the far-superior PS2 version, but for those of you still sitting (or grinding) on the fence about this extreme sequel, I’ll chip in my two cents. As the resident sports “expert” it falls within my realm to cover this title even though skateboarding isn’t one of my fortes. Going into this game as a total rookie to the Tony Hawk franchise I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised.
Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 is the six Hawk game in just as many years. The skating and trick engine has long since been refined and tweaked to absolute perfection so the only thing left for the designers to do is figure out a way to put a fresh spin on a legacy concept. Last year’s Underground game allowed you to get off the board and experience a bit of a story. This year the world, the story, and even the trick system has been expanded.
Tony Hawk games have always been about interesting levels with a laundry list of objectives, normally tricks to perform or letters to collect, and when you finish enough goals you get to move onto the next level. Underground takes these levels and sets them in a story, nothing as epic as Grand Theft Auto but interesting and often hysterically funny.
For those who don’t care for the story you can head straight for the classic mode and start checking off that laundry list. To sweeten this mode you not only get all the levels from the story mode but several classic levels from the first three Tony Hawk Pro Skater games. It’s certainly not an anthology or all-inclusive collection but it’s a nice sampling of the past six years of console skateboarding.
These two modes are quite different and allow the serious gamers to perfect their skills in the classic mode while those fond of action, humor, and just general chaos will find plenty of extreme thrills in the story levels. This is truly one of the few games that is accessible to veterans and noobs alike.
There are a handful of new moves thrown into the mix for this latest edition but none are terribly ingenious. My favorite action, at least for the first dozen times I did it, was the Freak Out where you have a temper tantrum and throw or smash your board. There is also a Focus mode that slows down time (think Matrix) but this doesn’t really enhance the gameplay. It’s merely a way to watch some of the more intense moves in slow motion.
The levels are massive and well designed. They aren’t entirely realistic and its easy to see that levels were carefully designed for lengthy trick lines so you could pull off some insane combos. The levels are also a living space with traffic, pedestrians, and there is even a special trigger that will transform the level in some major way.
I admit to being a bit envious of the PS2 crowd as there is no online support for Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 on the Xbox. If any game screamed for online play this is it. There is support for two-players but none of the options were original or even that much fun.
Controls work well enough but there is no mistaking that the trick system was designed with a Dual Shock in mind. I was able to master 90% of the tricks in this game, but I can only imagine how much easier and fluid this game is on the PS2.
The character animation is quite impressive and the actual character models all have a slightly exaggerated cartoon-style about them. Many of the characters are based on celebrities and you can easily recognize who is who. Even subtle details like facial expressions are handled nicely.
The levels are massive and full of detailed architecture and colorful textures that keeps things fresh with an urban flavor. Everything is bright with a cartoon-style that matches the characters. The Xbox supports HDTV is both 720p and 480p modes for ultra-crisp displays.
Don’t let the “custom soundtrack” label on the box fool you. Normally that means you can play whatever you like but here it only means you can create a “favorites” list from any of the 53 tracks included with the game. Fortunately the included music is so diverse that there is something that is guaranteed to please just about everyone from the biggest punk rocker to his grandpa. Yes, we have Frank Sinatra on one end of the spectrum carefully balanced by Metallica on the other and The Sugarhill Gang is rapping their way through the middle.
There are more celebrity voices in this game than the last two seasons of The Simpsons and they all turn in excellent performances. The opening movie that establishes the story is simply hilarious.
Sound effects are all in place and sound realistic. Most of the time you are hearing your board rolling or grinding along with the painful grunts and groans of an untimely dismount. There is also plenty of environmental noise, all in a fantastic Dolby Digital mix that surrounds you with urban flavor.
I spent about 22 hours finishing the story mode, but this was my first time with the series. I’m guessing anyone who has played any of the past games or has any experience with the basic trick system can shave a few hours off that playtime.
The two-player modes and mini-games are rather dull and won’t give you much (if any) extra playtime and the total lack of online support is simply unforgivable. While I’m likely to be interested in THUG3, if it doesn’t have Xbox Live support I’ll probably skip it. Skateboarding is a social sport and doing it alone is a drag.
Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 is bigger and arguably better than last year’s original, which I ultimately had to breakdown and play after I finished this game. Most of the new stuff seemed tacked on for the sake of having something new, and for a skateboarding game I found myself doing a whole lot of stuff “off the board”. It kind of reminded me of all the on-foot missions in Driver 3.
I did enjoy the classic mode and for a newbie like me it gave me a taste of what I had missed in the golden days of Pro Skateboarding. If you are new to the Hawk empire then this is a great place to start, but I fear there just isn’t enough here to impress veterans of the series, especially if they have PS2’s, which ultimately offers the best gameplay experience, online and off.