It takes some real chops to take the same proven gameplay formula and make it playable and fun again, year after year. Fortunately, the fine-feathered folks at Neversoft, creators of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series, have been up to the task of delivering a great new version of the seminal skateboarding game repeatedly for the last few years now. Will they be able to do the same thing with the upcoming Tony Hawk's Underground 2? According to a brief demo we had recently with the game (and a consultation with our magic eight ball), signs are pointing squarely to "yes."
The original Underground's big innovation was its new story mode, and Underground 2 will pick right up where the first game left off with a new tale of love and loss...or at least a story of more skateboarding. You'll again be playing the rookie who you took to pro status the first time around, although in the grand scheme of things--that is, next to Tony Hawk himself--you're still pretty small time. Through a bizarre series of events, you'll get pulled into a skating tournament of sorts called the "World Destruction Tour," being spearheaded by Hawk and that old jackass Bam Margera. Each character will lead a team of pro skaters. You'll start out in the story mode skating for Mr. Hawk as you travel to various hot spots and inflict your deck on the hapless populace.
THUG2's levels are similar to those you've seen in past games, but Neversoft is doing a lot to refine and streamline things to make the game flow more smoothly. We got an extensive look at the first level, set in Boston, and noted that there seems to be a lot more to do in the new game. As in Underground, you'll skate around the world with your player-created character, looking for tasks to complete to increase your skills and notoriety. This time, though, you'll also be able to switch to pro members of your team, such as Bob Burnquist and Mike Vallely, whenever you find them in the level. These skaters have their own goals, and of course their own moves, some of which overlap with your own.
Each level will even contain novelty skaters that you can take control of once you've met them, and these skaters will again have their own special tricks and moves as well as their own tasks you'll have to complete. For instance, in the Boston level, we were shown how the player can switch off to control Benjamin Franklin, who's a pretty good skater for a guy who has been dead for over 200 years now. Anyway, ol' Ben comes complete with his own special move, the Franklin Grind, which sees him whipping out a stars-and-stripes kite that gets struck by lightning when he grinds. There will be plenty of other such novelty characters in the game that you can control for a little extra variety and humor.
Neversoft wants the levels in THUG2 to be more lifelike overall, so it has eliminated the hovering icons that signified the goals and tasks you had to complete in the previous game. Instead, you'll have to identify your mission objectives from context--for instance, we saw a bench that the player needed to grind on in the Boston level begin to flash when the player approached it. You'll have a list of goals that you can check at any time, and each one will provide a small picture as a clue of where you need to go to find that goal.
Levels in THUG2 will also be more interactive this time around. Lots of smaller elements in the environment will be breakable or otherwise rigged so you can mess with them. For instance, doing a spin move on top of a fire hydrant makes water shoot up like a geyser. Each level will also have one major element that will open up a big new area. In the Boston area, we saw how the player could light his deck on fire (by skating through an open flame) and then grind on two old cannons that just happened to contain live ammo. These cannons fired, bringing down part of a partially constructed building and opening it up so we could skate around inside of it.
Underground 2 will introduce some new mechanics into the series' tried-and-true gameplay. The biggest addition is the focus mode, which you can activate when your special meter is sufficiently full. Focus brings the camera in closer to your feet, applies a soft-glow filter, and (most importantly) slows the action down substantially so you'll have an easier time doing hard tricks, sticking landings, and so on. Focus drains your special meter, but you can keep doing moves to power it back up and extend the slow-motion effect as long as possible.
You'll also be able to use a new freak-out meter whenever you bail. By hitting the triangle button as fast as you can, you'll make your skater perform a tantrum of some kind that will see him snapping his deck in half or doing something similar to that. After this little burst of aggression, you'll receive a small freak-out bonus to your next trick score. We also saw how you'll be able to pick up projectiles (apples, in the case of the Boston level) and pelt unsuspecting pedestrians with them, and the resulting bonus from direct hits will be applied to your combos for even higher scores. Finally, you'll be able to do a jump move that has you planting a sticker on and then rebounding off of a wall in a single move.
The story mode may be good for many players, but apparently lots of old-school Tony Hawk fans have been clamoring for a return to the basics. For them, Neversoft is including a classic mode in Underground 2 that will take all of the existing levels from the game, plus a smattering of levels from previous games (we were not informed of which levels they will be), and let you proceed through a branching stage progression that's very similar to what you may have played in the previous Pro Skater titles. The goals in the classic mode stages will be much more like, say Pro Skater 2, in that you'll be collecting the letters to spell out "skate," performing various special tricks, looking for secret tapes, and so on (and all with a two-minute timer ticking away). This mode should provide a more straightforward skating experience for those who thought the story mode didn't move fast enough for their tastes.
Tony Hawk's Underground 2 will continue the series' trend of being eminently customizable--in addition to the expected modes like create-a-skater and create-a-trick, there's now a create-a-graphic editor that you can use to make new graffiti tags that you can then paint onto walls in the main game. This interface won't exactly provide you with free-form painting tools; rather, you'll have a selection of premade graphics that you can deform, colorize, and layer on one another to make something unique. There seems to be a lot of graphics choices offered here, and on the PS2 you'll be able to go online and trade your designs with other players as well.
The original Underground played it fairly straight, but THUG2 is definitely leaning toward a more humorous tone. The cutscenes we got to see were certainly pretty amusing, and they featured Tony and Bam hamming it up for the camera. From what we saw, there's a refreshing dose of puerile humor in the game, as you might expect (and probably hope for, you sicko). The graphics are definitely keeping up their end of this shift in tone, as everything looks just a little more cartoonlike than last time around, while still maintaining the solid polygonal construction of previous games. Additions like Ben Franklin and his Franklin Grind effect help to keep the mood light, which is always nice. From what we saw, it seems like THUG2 will be an entertaining game to watch as well as to play.
Overall, it looks like Tony Hawk's Underground 2 will offer a lot of meat to fans of the series without mucking too much with that underlying formula they hold so dear. Neversoft seems to be addressing criticism of the previous game's story mode by making the new one much more entertaining (the humor is a nice touch). And besides, there's always the classic mode to fall back on if you just want to relive the gameplay that made the original so great. Tony Hawk's Underground 2 is currently slated to hit stores in October, so we'll bring you much more before that time.