Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Hands-On

We spend some quality time with the latest entry in the Tony Hawk franchise.

In the last six years, Activision and Neversoft have repeatedly proven themselves to be one of the best pairings since chocolate and peanut butter. The companies' series of games starring skateboarding legend Tony Hawk has broken new ground on just about every platform under the sun. However, after four entries in the Pro Skater series, Neversoft opted to shake things up with Tony Hawk's Underground, a story-oriented spin on the action that built on the solid mechanics honed in the previous entries. Tony Hawk's Underground 2 continues Neversoft's experimentation with the franchise, offering a meaty new adventure and an assortment of new modes and features that build on the original Underground.

Grind the world as Ben Franklin this fall in Tony Hawk's Underground 2.

For its next installment in the THUG series, Neversoft appears to be taking the "kitchen sink" approach and packing the game with a wealth of unlockable goods. The main meat of the game will once again be the story mode, which sends you on a skating adventure with Mr. Hawk. The narrative picks up shortly after your victory at the end of the original THUG and finds you basking in skating glory in the wilds of New Jersey. Unfortunately, you don't get much time to bask, thanks to a good-natured kidnapping at the hands of Bam Margera and Tony himself. It seems that the pair is looking to compete in a world destruction tour with teams composed of some of the best skaters around. Your recently cemented prowess makes you the perfect candidate, which is why you find yourself on Tony's team. The competition sends you and your group on a whirlwind tour of the globe, with stops at some key skating locales. As you'd expect, you and the gang will be doing more than your fair share of skating and destroying as you travel the world.

You'll find that story mode has been tweaked a bit to be friendlier to players who need to ease into pulling off the mega combos that are required for victory in the game. The mode's structure has been tweaked to cough up unlockables pretty regularly, offering you rewards in a trail-of-bread-crumbs fashion. Rather than requiring you to rack up boatloads of points, the game will now let you earn new playable characters simply by finding them. Each level in the game will feature roughly two characters hidden somewhere in the map. Once you find them, you'll be able to use them in any of the game's modes. The roster of character includes familiar pros from the previous games, such as Chad Muska, along with some nonskating folk as well. Yes, kids, this is likely the only game on the planet where you'll have to choose between Ben Franklin and Jesse James when going on a run. The twist to these special characters is that each will have his or her own signature moves, and one will even come packing a vehicle. For this year's entry in the series, Neversoft has tweaked the vehicles to allow them to be used in the same places as the skaters on every level.

THUG2's levels will feature an open-ended structure that lends itself to a more free-form experience. At the start of each level, you'll be given a brief fly-through of key spots that highlight where you should go and what you should do. Your goals will be a scavenger-hunt-style array of tasks ranging from skating challenges to more over-the-top challenges like finding a way to tag a massive billboard that's placed high up in the level. As you complete your goals, your score will go toward the team total. The open-ended goal system means all goals will be active from the start, which in turn means that you'll find yourself naturally completing some of them as you make your way around the level. From the sound of it, there should be roughly 24 goals per level. While you won't have to initiate any of them by talking to pedestrians, you'll still see them milling about and offering tips or hints on your tasks. The hidden characters you encounter will often add to your list of goals with unique challenges that you'll have to get through. While you'll often be able to tackle those challenges with your own character, some will require you to use a specific character. If you're ever unclear on a goal, you'll be able to call up an in-game objective list to get your bearings.

New to the mix of modes this year is classic mode, a retro bit of gaming that uses the time-based and score-oriented structure from the Pro Skater games. However, rather than just offer a bit of nostalgia for longtime fans using the new graphics, THUG2 provides a proper skating experience along the lines of the old game. You'll skate and trick across a mix of levels that includes those seen in the story mode, as well as six old-school levels taken from the four Pro Skater games. Each level will feature 10 goals and the same structure as the old classics, which is a nice touch.

The story mode will be driven by humorous cutscenes, complete with celebrity voice actors.

The last mode that will be sucking up your time in THUG2 will be the game's multiplayer mode, which will once again offer up online play for those with PlayStation 2 network adapters. We had a chance to try out two new games being added to the mix, elimiskate and scavenger hunt, which were fun additions to the already solid assortment of modes. Elimiskate is a scoring challenge that periodically cuts out the skater with the lowest score until only one skater remains. Scavenger hunt is an interesting mode that plays out in two parts. The first part will task you and your opponents with laying down five color-coded coins. You can put the coins down anywhere you like by pressing down and the relevant button. Once everyone has dropped their coins, the second part of the mode kicks in: a race to collect the most coins. This fast-paced mode is fun and easy to pick up, though it isn't as simple as it sounds. You may initially think it's a good idea to drop all five of your coins in one spot so you can quickly collect them when the second phase starts, but it's not quite that easy. When the second phase begins, all skaters are randomly sent to different parts of the level, meaning one of your opponents may end up sailing through your precious clump of coins, leaving you high and dry.

As in the previous games, the player hosting the multiplayer session will be able to customize elements of the matches, such as time and whether or not combos you're working on when the clock runs out count toward your score. The multiplayer modes also feature a few extra perks this time around, such as the addition of a new editor in the already robust selection of customizable elements in the game. The face-mapping feature that lets you map your mug on your skater also returns and now includes EyeToy support as another (and presumably faster) option for importing your face into the game.

New multiplayer modes ought to give the game some longevity even after you've finished off the story mode.

Many gameplay elements have been improved and refined. You'll be able to spray-paint anything in the game, à la Jet Set Radio Future, and you'll also be able to pick up items and throw them around, an ability that becomes a key part of later missions. You'll get information in the game via text messages, something that appears to be all the rage these days. Focus mode is a new bullet-time-style addition to the experience that is accessible only when your special meter is full. Triggering it will cause your meter to slowly drain, but, if you manage to perform tricks successfully, you can keep it up for quite some time. The benefit of the effect is that the time slowdown it offers makes it easier to perform tricks and keep your balance. You'll also be able to perform flips, front and back, as well as rotations on any move, which can be added to special moves to extend them. If you wipe out and just need to work out some frustration you'll have the option to "freak out," which lets you mash on the triangle button and fill a meter, resulting in some amusing animation and the added bonus of a multiplier score to start your next combo with. "Not a spin" is an old-school move based on the oeuvre of skateboarding legend Natas Kaupas that lets you spin around any pole or fire hydrant. When asked if Kapas would be in the game, Neversoft coyly mentioned that he may in fact make some kind of appearance.

Neversoft is aiming to blend the series' top-notch 3D graphics with a much more stylized look that's a departure from the style of previous Tony Hawk games. Rather than staying rooted in the realistic look that has been a constant in the franchise, THUG2 features an exaggerated style that has some cartoonlike elements. The environments are massive and feature a higher level of detail and a good chunk of interactivity. Each level will now feature a massive geometry-changing level event, along the lines of the LA earthquake seen in Tony Hawk 3, that will permanently alter the landscape and let you access new areas. Each level will feature a day-night cycle with some weather touches, such as fog rolling in. You'll also find that you'll be able to go through and break items, as well as paint tags over existing graffiti spots. The character models are detailed and feature solid animation with a nice helping of facial action during the cutscenes. As far as performance goes, the work-in-progress version of the game we tried ran smoothly on the PlayStation 2.

The audio in THUG2 follows the blueprint set by the previous games in the series and features a mix of known tunes, a voice cast that includes skating celebs, and a generous helping of ambient sounds that help bring the colorful world to life. While we can't reveal the licensed tunes in the game just yet, you can expect an eclectic compilation of appealing tracks. The various celebs who provide voice work for their characters do a solid job of it with enthusiastic readings. Finally, you can expect to hear a pretty broad array of unique ambient sounds to bring the crowded environments to life. While the version of the game we played was still coming together, the audio was definitely sounding good.

THUG2 features a cartoonlike look that contrasts with the previous games in the series.

Based on what we played, Tony Hawk's Underground 2 is shaping up to be an interesting second step down a different path for the Tony Hawk franchise. The new twist on the story mode, the return of the classic style of gameplay that hooked fans back in the day, and the new online modes certainly make for a meaty offering that's an interesting follow-up to the first THUG. The wealth of content in the game is complemented by a more stylized look, courtesy of Neversoft's powerful 3D engine, which cranks out large, detailed environments and equally impressive character models. Fans of the series and those curious about what all the fuss is about should keep a an eye out for the game, which is scheduled to ship this fall for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. Game Boy Advance and PC versions of the game will also ship at the same time. For more on the game, check out our exclusive interview with Neversoft and new movies from three areas in the game on our media page.

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