Impressive Tony Hawk games that arrive simultaneously with portable hardware launches are nothing new. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 took the series to the Game Boy Advance with winning results. But at the same time, you couldn't help but feel like you were playing a different game entirely. Now, just in time for the PSP launch, Activision is set to offer up a portable version of Tony Hawk's Underground 2, which was released on consoles last year. This "remixed" version of the original delivers almost everything that was great about the console versions, and with the inclusion of four new levels, the single-player experience has gotten even better.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the world of Tony Hawk is all about fast-moving freestyle skateboarding. The game is mostly goal-oriented, with challenges based on scoring, creating long combos of tricks, and some objective-based stuff, like pulling a specific trick on a certain object, which often results in a scene of mass destruction. But while the goals are the main point of the game, the control and gameplay is fun enough that simply skating around and tricking off of objects is a very worthwhile and fufilling activity.
The biggest change made for the PSP remix of THUG2 is the addition of four new levels. Kyoto, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Santa Cruz have been worked into the main story mode, meaning you'll hear some new dialogue in the between-level cutscenes that make these new levels fit. Each of these levels is a fine addition, and each fits right into the lineup of existing levels very well. Other things that fans of the console games will notice is that the graphics, while insanely impressive and very comparable to the PlayStation 2 version, have been scaled back slightly. Also, there's no in-level voice work at all. But the important things, like the ultra-tight control and gameplay the series is known for, are all shockingly intact. At times, you'll wonder how, exactly, Shaba Games managed to fit the PS2 version onto a portable system with so much of it completely unchanged.
While Tony Hawk's name may be on the cover, THUG 2 Remix has a lot to do with professional shopping cart destroyer Bam Margera and his brand of destructive fun, which figures much more heavily into the latest Tony Hawk game. The game's story mode essentially plays out like a Viva La Bam scavenger hunt, with two teams--one led by Tony Hawk and the other by Bam Margera--setting out on the World Destruction Tour. So your goals don't focus so much on becoming a star of the skateboarding world; here, you're just trying to fly around the world to break stuff.
THUG2's story mode is a whirlwind tour that gives you four skaters and a mess of goals to accomplish in each level. You start out each level as your created skater, though you'll also pick a pro skater as a partner. You'll also find two other skaters--or at least people who ride skateboards, since it seems weird to call Ben Franklin, a high-rolling cowboy, or a shrimp vendor "skaters"--hidden in various spots on each level, and each time you encounter a new skater, you'll unlock another set of goals for that level. Some of these new characters don't even ride boards. You'll run into Steve-O, who rides around on a wheeled mechanical bull, and you'll meet an Australian in a small go-kart.
At the beginning of each level, you're given a list and set off into the world. There aren't any onscreen indicators to point you in the direction of a goal, though if you happen to do a trick off a piece that is part of a combo goal, the rest of the pieces will light up. If you want the skinny on what, exactly, you're supposed to be doing, you have to pause the game and go into your view goals screen, which will give you more details on what you need to do. While this approach frees the game of clutter and onscreen icons, it also means you're going to be spending a lot more time reading text in the pause menu. Each goal is worth a different amount of points. Once you've earned a specific number of goal points, you'll be able to move forward. This also triggers a cutscene, which puts some more backstory in the Bam versus Tony adventure. All in all, the story mode is satisfying in its structure. The PSP version works in four optional levels in the story mode, which is a nice change of pace that gives you some choices to make, unlike the console versions' rigid pace. Despite having three difficulty levels, players should be able to burn through the story mode in around seven to 10 hours. Fortunately, that's not all THUG2 has to offer.
Underground 2 also contains "classic mode," which brings back the two-minute run timer and goal structure of the first three Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games. Many of the levels are the same ones you see in the story mode, but a number of levels from previous entries in the series--all the way back to the school and downhill jam levels from the very first game--appear here. While it's nice to have a separate mode like this, the concept of working to unlock levels that you've either already played in the story mode or remember from earlier entries in the series makes the mode a little underwhelming.
The gameplay in THUG2 starts with THUG, which added the ability to get off your board to run around, and expands from there. Probably the most important addition in THUG2 is the sticker slap, which is an airborne wall plant that shoves you off with a good deal of acceleration, making it perfect for finding your way back onto a rail and continuing a combo by going back the way you came. The rest of the gameplay changes aren't really as useful. You can also execute vertical wall plants while going up some ramps, giving you an extra height boost that you'll rarely need to actually use but will occasionally come in handy. You can now spray graffiti tags when you're off your board, which factors into some goals. When you're special, you can enter "focus mode" by flicking the analog disc, though it's little more than a glorified slow-motion effect. A few goals in story mode require it, but beyond that, all focus will do for you is make it slightly easier to land cleanly or to balance on rails, lips, and manuals for longer periods of time. If this is your first experience with the Tony Hawk series, you might find that useful, but anyone with even limited experience with the games won't need the help very often. There is also a new move called the natas spin, which lets you spin in place on top of poles, fire hydrants, trash cans, and other pointy items. It, like most of the other new moves, figures into a couple of goals, but doesn't really seem all that necessary.
The game also has a new "freak out" function. After some falls, a freak out meter will appear, and mashing the grind button will cause it to fill up. If you reach a certain point on the meter before your skater stands back up, you'll make him get mad and destroy his board. A new board gets tossed in, and play continues as normal. But your tantrum translates into a couple thousand points of base score. So if you can get a combo going a few seconds after you bail, you'll get some bonus points to throw in there. However, freaking out just means it'll take longer for you to get back on your board and start skating again, and the game has almost completely de-emphasized point scores in its goal-based modes. The score bonus isn't enough to justify the extra time it takes to get back on the board, so you're usually just better off keeping your cool. While not all these changes are all that great, the core gameplay in THUG2 is still very strong. The refined gameplay that comes from six years of tinkering still works, and fans of the series should still enjoy themselves quite a bit.
The PSP version of THUG2 retains most of the features found in the PS2 release, including face mapping for your custom skaters. The face mapping works largely as it did on the PS2, though getting your face onto your PSP is now as simple as taking a photo with a digital camera and placing that JPEG image on your PSP's memory stick. It's easy to use, and it works surprisingly well...once you get the hang of lining up the images and making the skin colors match up. In addition to the robust skater creation, THUG2 Remix also has a handful of different create modes that let you build your own parks and create graphics for stickers, decks, and the like.
THUG2 Remix has wireless networking support that lets up to four local players play in 11 different modes. Most of the standard modes found in the console versions of the game, like trick attack, score challenge, combo mambo, slap, king of the hill, capture the flag, firefight, and graffiti, are present. THUG2's console release introduced new modes, like elimiskate and scavenger hunt. The former works like a knockout race in a driving game, where the player in last place is eliminated at specific intervals until only one player remains. Scavenger hunt has two phases. In the first, each player skates around and drops five coins at different spots in the level. After that, it's up to the players to collect as many coins as possible. The first to collect them all, or the player with the most coins when time expires, is the winner. The multiplayer support works well, and the modes give you a lot of different options to choose from, making this a smart inclusion. But while the four-player support is cool, it's disappointing that actual online multiplayer isn't included.
From a technical standpoint, THUG2 Remix looks very impressive. You'll have to look pretty hard to find areas where it differs from the PS2 version, but after spending several hours with the game, you'll start to see where corners were cut. Some fences and other thin objects have been reduced to flat, 2D textures. And the textures, in general, are a little blurry. But the fact alone that this version compares favorably to the console versions speaks volumes about both the quality of this port, as well as the PSP's overall technical abilities. The frame rate is both rock solid and smooth enough to convey the action very well.
THUG2 has a slightly different look from the previous Tony Hawk games. Specifically, the models used in cutscenes have a slightly more exaggerated appearance to them. While they may not look quite as realistic, this over-the-top look makes the characters--Bam Margera, in particular--seem much more expressive and animated than in the past. This fits well with the off-the-hook nature of the story mode, which has you going all over the place and busting stuff up in an unrealistic but satisfying fashion. In the game, the worlds are colorful and unique-looking. The skater models look good and animate well, which is unsurprising given that much of the animation is recycled from previous entries in the series.
The audio in THUG2 Remix is great. The sounds of actual skating haven't changed much, but they still fit well and sound nice. The soundtrack is as varied as the previous game's, containing a hefty list of really crazy songs. Have you ever skated to Frank Sinatra tunes? You'll get your chance here, as Old Blue Eyes joins artists like Metallica, The DOC, Ween, Less Than Jake, Violent Femmes, Atmosphere, Ultramagnetic MC's, X, Ministry, Brand Nubian, and, yes, Audio Two, a hip-hop duo that contributes its classic track, "Top Billin'." Yes, the entire soundtrack from the console version of the game is present here, too. With more than 50 tracks in all, as well as the ability to turn off tracks that don't fit your tastes, you'll probably find a suitable bunch of songs to skate to. The only thing missing is almost all of the speech found in the console versions of the game. It's noticeable, but the characters' personalities still come through in the cutscenes.
Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Remix is, first and foremost, a great game. But with its ability to successfully mimic the console versions, it's an impressive technical achievement, too. If you played the console versions to death, the PSP's new levels probably won't be enough to warrant another purchase. But if you've stayed away from the Tony Hawk series for a while, this is a great chance to get reacquainted with it.