Sony's PSP has been garnering quite a bit of attention for the visual quality of its games since its Japanese launch in December. The selection of titles that have been released for the system have been the equivalent to the leap that took place from 2D visuals of the 16-bit era to the fully 3D polygons of the 32-bit era. However, while it's easy for original titles that are tailor-made for the hardware to impress, it's another matter when you're dealing with a well-known console franchise. Such is the case with Activision's Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Remix. Despite Sony's claims about the PSP's processing power, we were left to wonder if Neversoft's ambitious entry in its acclaimed series of skating games starring Tony Hawk could really be done justice on a portable system. The massive areas, complex control scheme, and detailed visuals seemed to be a tall order for re-creation on a handheld. However, after getting an exclusive look at a work-in-progress version of the game, we have to say that THUG 2 Remix on the PSP made our jaws drop. The Northern California-based developer Shaba Games has re-created the entire console experience on the PSP. In addition to that, the company has also included new content and Wi-Fi multiplayer. While the version of the game we played was still unfinished, we have to say we're mightily impressed by what we've seen so far.
If you haven't been following the Tony Hawk franchise lately, we'll give you a quick primer to bring you up to speed. The series began in 1999 on the original PlayStation and quickly made waves, thanks to its intuitive control and addictive gameplay. Subsequent entries in the genre-defining series were met with equal acclaim and made the jump to the current generation of hardware with aplomb. However, anxious not to fall into a rut, developer Neversoft changed things up in 2003. Rather than serve up a fifth game that followed the familiar formula it had created, Neversoft went in a different direction with Tony Hawk's Underground, a game that retained the core gameplay that fans and critics loved, but with a whole new spin. This new approach dropped the strict linear progression of the previous games in favor of a more open-ended technique. In 2004, Tony Hawk's Underground 2 fleshed out the new direction that was mapped out in its predecessor with a rich game chock-full of cameos, eclectic music, and a good mix of single- and multiplayer modes.
When it came time to bring THUG 2 to the PSP, Activision turned to Shaba Games, a veteran developer based in Northern California whose credits include Sony's Grind Session, Matt Hoffman's Pro BMX, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 for the PlayStation. The dev team at Shaba decided at the start of the project to add additional content. For those keeping score at home this means THUG 2 Remix features all of THUG 2's eight story mode levels, a slew of playable characters, two single-player game modes, the three create-a-modes, and over 10 multiplayer modes. In addition to all that, the game includes four new areas (Santa Cruz, Atlanta, Kyoto, and Las Vegas), the ability to import your face into the game, and Wi-Fi support. Not bad for a portable game, eh?
The two single-player modes--story and classic--will play exactly like their console counterparts. The story mode will put you in the role of a skater drafted into a "world destruction tour," essentially a skating competition between teams headed up by Tony hawk and Bam Margera respectively, which sends you around the globe to have all kinds of mayhem-causing fun. There will be a flexible mission objective system that lets you tackle the ones you feel you can handle. You'll progress by earning points, which means that you won't have to complete every objective on each level before moving on. For those finishers who need that sort of pressure, the game's classic mode is patterned after the first four games in the series and presents you with a mighty laundry list of to-dos for each of its 14 levels, including classics, such as spelling COMBO, and collecting a hidden secret tape. As with every entry in the series, plan on finding a boatload of unlockables. In addition, all of the multiplayer games from the console version of THUG 2, such as combo mambo, slap, scavenger hunt, and elimiskate, are all on hand and representing the PSP's Wi-Fi capabilities.
OK, so it's really pretty. How does it handle?
So how does all this feel? Well, after messing around with the story, classic, and Wi-Fi modes, we have to say it feels pretty damn good. The story mode has been tweaked some to fold in the four new areas. The tour will now kick off in Santa Cruz and feature new cinematics that tie the new areas into the experience. We're also pleased to report that the new locales blend in nicely with the original spots and are, in fact, a little bigger. Each of the new places features level-changing events for you to trigger as well as hidden content, which is cool. We're especially stoked about Koyoto's level-changing event, due to Shaba's love of Japanese quirkiness. The new areas also figure into classic mode and extend that experience some. The multiplayer mode is pretty indistinguishable from the online experience on the PlayStation 2. You'll have the same basic options to set up your profile and a game, and it can all be saved to your memory stick.
The game's control has had to be adjusted to accommodate the PSP's lack of two buttons, but all of the moves that you need will be available. The version of the game we played mapped camera control to the analog disc and character control to the directional pad. You might find the setup a little tricky initially, especially since the analog disc is needed to trigger the bullet time-like focus mode in the game, but you'll be tricking like a champ after a bit of adjustment. Once you've gotten a feel for the layout, you'll find the game to be as responsive and fun to play as its console predecessor, which is pretty mind boggling when you consider you're playing it on a portable system.
Our brains have had a hard time trying to reconcile the impressive visuals we've seen in this work-in-progress version of the game with the retail THUG 2 we've been playing since last year. The visual quality between the two games is far closer than you'd expect. Depending on how you look at it, either Neversoft's PS2 game didn't push the hardware as hard it appeared to if THUG 2 could be ported to a portable system with such accuracy, or Shaba and the PSP kick all kinds of ass. We expect the truth to be found in Neversoft's impressive code base, which the seasoned developer has distilled into an impressive multiplatform friendly science that pays off famously on Sony's portable. The environments are large and detailed, with just a modicum of activity. The character models are all very sharp and are on par with those seen in the PS2. Texture quality has been tweaked a bit, but, thanks to the PSP's small screen, it doesn't appear to be too far off from the console game. Best of all, the frame rate zips along at a high clip. We've noticed a bit of inconsistency in a few spots, but we expect it to be sorted out by the time the game ships. The cinematics make good use of the graphics engine and do a fine job of moving the story along. As with just about every Hawk game, you'll notice the occasional awkward camera angle, but that hardly ruins the experience.
The audio was still being sorted in the version we were playing, but it already contained the bulk of the audio from its console cousin. The speech and sound effects from the PS2 game are all in full effect, although there were a few clips of speech that weren't in the version we played. Tony Hawk, Bam Margera, and the rest of the game's motley cast are all on hand to bring their virtual selves to life. Even more impressive is the game's inclusion of all the music tracks from THUG 2--an unprecedented achievement for a portable game that we expect to see more often on the PSP.
Based on what we've played, Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Remix is an impressive debut for the series on Sony's new portable system. Shaba's voodoo-like conjuring of the original THUG 2 content, along with a tasty assortment of new goods (especially the Wi-Fi multiplayer), is an excellent showcase for the developer's skill and the PSP's considerable power. The absolute worst things we can say about the game right now are that the loads can be longish in spots, the camera can occasionally fall into an awkward angle, and the control takes a little getting used to. These few things amount to a minor bump in the mighty impressive road that THUG 2 Remix is heading down. If you're a fan of the Tony Hawk series or are just looking for a wicked showcase for your PSP, you'll want to keep an eye out for Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Remix when it ships alongside the system on March 24. For more on the game, check out some exclusive media.