"From there, the game forces you to watch inane cinemas between events. The scenes here are downright childish. At the best of moments, they might make you smile. But they’re poking fun at just about everyone not in the game, and their juvenile nature is more often irritating than it is amusing. That, or they’re ripped from every comedy movie you’ve ever seen and are no longer amusing as a result. No matter how you’ve performed, the plot is scripted and tries to paint you as the underdog."
After a year-long wait, Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 has finally been released to bask in any glory left by its predecessor. As always, gamers everywhere are preparing to ask the inevitable question: “How’s the story?” Huh? What was that? You don’t care about the story? You just want to skate around finding killer combos? Well, you can do that too. But first, let’s talk about Bam Magera.
In last year’s Tony Hawk’s Underground, developer Neversoft fiddled around with the idea of a story to drive the franchise. They’d tried adding cool new features like manuals and stitching and reverts, so why not try a story? Well, the story wasn’t all that hot. It was about you, a novice skater trying to make it to the pros. It had betrayal, heartache and triumph. You know, all the sort of stuff that doesn’t belong in an extreme sports game. And we tolerated it because, well, there wasn’t much choice.
This year, the story mode is even more ridiculous. It seems Tony Hawk and Bam Magera (I read somewhere he’s from television’s short-lived Jackass series) got together and decided to host an event. Skaters from all over are brought together to compete on two teams in a worldwide tour of destruction. The losing team in the end foots the bill. It doesn’t sound so bad, really, but the game doesn’t give you many choices. With your custom skater, you’re assigned to Tony Hawk’s team. Want to play with Magera? Tough luck. Not that I wanted to, but it would have been nice to see the option just the same.
From there, the game forces you to watch inane cinemas between events. The scenes here are downright childish. At the best of moments, they might make you smile. But they’re poking fun at just about everyone not in the game, and their juvenile nature is more often irritating than it is amusing. That, or they’re ripped from every comedy movie you’ve ever seen and are no longer amusing as a result. No matter how you’ve performed, the plot is scripted and tries to paint you as the underdog. Even if you’re kicking tail.
With the story set up as an excuse, the game at last fumbles toward (and in some cases reaches) excellence. You’ll progress around the globe, starting in Boston and then moving to Spain and so forth. These choices seem rather arbitrary, but that works just fine. If you can put up with the plot, you should have no trouble accepting the progression of stages.
Within a given stage, you first have a few objectives given to you by Tony. Some of these involve meeting teammates or helpful characters. For example, in the first area I chose to partner with Bob Burnquist. Once I found him in the level and talked to him, I was able to switch between him and my created skater. Each had separate objectives, some linked to the others. Also in Boston, there was a hidden character in a tavern with a scooter. He had some tricks of his own. For each objective you complete, you get a set number of points. Out of 1000 or so available in the first area, for example, one trick might net you between 25 and 75 points. When you reach the minimum required, you may then progress to the next portion of the story.
If this setup sounds decent, well, it is. The problem is that some of the characters ride vehicles, which is just irritating. Though it may sound like fun to ride around the streets on a mechanical bull attached to a scooter, it actually isn’t thanks to faulty controls. The vehicles here don’t have so much as half the grace of a plain, old-fashioned skateboard. Each moment I spent riding such vehicles, I kept longing for a return to the basics where controls are nice and I wasn’t ramming into corners I couldn’t see coming, or sitting there twiddling my thumbs while my stupid character slowly bumbled his way back to his hideous ride to try again.
Even some of the objectives you can tackle with your default character are irritating. To use another example from the first area, you are asked to wheel a guy on a stretcher over to see Tony, while hospital orderlies try and play interception. They don’t take kindly to you running off with a patient in desperate need of surgery. The problem is that you don’t have a chance to get moving very fast at all, which makes progressing very far at all quite difficult.
For each such moment, there is something to counterbalance. For example, one goal I liked involved performing tricks in the air in rhythm with a tune pumping from a boombox. The arcade high score targets are also good fun, and there are a few other delights. It’s just a shame they’re sandwiched between the ‘bad’ bits. Of which there are far too many in the story mode. Thankfully, blessedly, wonderfully, you don’t have to play the story mode. For those gamers out there like me, Neversoft oh-so-wisely included a ‘Classic’ mode.
This welcome addition is nearly everything you might hope. Rather than watching tedious plot elements transpire, you just move through levels completing enjoyable tasks. Each stage has ten objectives. Finish six of them in one stage and you can advance to the next ‘bracket,’ which consists of either one or two stages.
This is quite reminiscent of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. You have two minutes on the timer and the objectives are quite familiar. For example, spell ‘Skate’ or collect the letters that spell ‘Combo’ in one continuous… combo. There are also high score challenges and tasks such as grinding certain railings, or performing certain tricks while airborne. In short, this is the stuff of my dreams. I missed it a lot in the last two games, so it was nice to see Neversoft moving back to what made the series such a blast in the first place.
Another feature I like is perhaps the most important, the stages themselves. There are quite a few of them here, some taken from the older games in the series and touched up visually, some all-new. The rehashes were quite welcome and still every bit as enjoyable for me as I remembered (though they can’t fairly be counted as ‘new’ material despite a few new objectives peppered through them), while the new additions are also quite nice.
One stage that really sticks out in my mind is New Orleans. It’s a collection of rickety buildings and apartment complexes, gathered around the edge of a graveyard that overlooks a swamp. People are partying, gaudy signs hang from towering buildings, and you can grind just about everything. Whether you prefer stages more horizontal or vertical in orientation, they’re both here. Stages often provide a bountiful amount of each simultaneously. They’re also dense with objects to grind or plant, pedestrians and vehicles. Two minutes simply isn’t enough time to enjoy the richness of any of these locales, and you’ll likely enjoy getting to know their intricacies every bit as much as I did.
Even the Classic mode has its negative aspects, though. For one, there’s no real incentive to play through it multiple times as separate characters. As you progress, any stat boosts you gain are applied to every character in your roster. This wholesale approach to character development in some ways keeps things simple, but it doesn’t do anything to help the game’s longevity.
Another potential flaw is a new addition to your moves list. While the previous game introduced the ability to jump off your board in the middle of a combo and hoof it briefly (or to run around the whole stage on foot if you so desire), this one adds a Matrix-style twist. Fill up your ‘Super’ meter and then press the ‘R’ button as you’re landing to activate a slow-motion perspective. This makes it insanely easy to move throughout the level at a whim, or to set up score-enriching lip tricks that would make anyone in his right mind envious. Though there is a time limit on this feature, it never really feels anything less than cheap. It looks cool, but it’s cheap.
Some may feel that word applies to the whole game, and I guess I can see the point. But despite the spectacularly awful story mode, I still found myself enjoying Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 more than its two immediate predecessors. I like that Neversoft gave me options and I like the new places I can skate. If they tweak the ‘Classic’ mode for the next iteration (the one Activision hasn’t announced but that we all know is coming) and tone down the story mode, it’s quite possible the franchise is again headed in the right direction. No thanks to Bam Magera.
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 13, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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