Monday, September 7, 2020

Tony Hawk's Underground 2 (PS2)

Following the success of Tony Hawk’s Underground in 2003, a sequel was released in 2004, simply titled Tony Hawk’s Underground 2, which saw a much wilder take on skating culture. This was actually my first exposure to the Pro Skater series as a whole, even if I wasn’t the one playing it, and so this is the entry I am most familiar with. As a result, I will admit to having a small bias towards this game, and so would rank the game higher if I were to place it on a tier list, however I felt that it was not to the point that it would interfere with writing an impartial review. After going through the game again, while it has its issues and is generally a lot more crass, it still stands as one of my favorite entries in the series for its sheer fun factor.

While skating in New Jersey, the player character is kidnapped along with Eric Sparrow and a number of skateboarding pros. This turns out to have been a stunt by Tony Hawk and Bam Margera as their way of inviting the skaters to participate in a skating event known as the World Destruction Tour. Though the event was meant to have no press involvement, the skaters end up attracting attention anyway, including from the opportunistic Nigel Beaverhausen.

Likely in part to Bam Margera’s increased role in the narrative, the events of the game play out similarly to Margera’s Jackass series (or at least what I know of it), even being the first Pro Skater game to include a well-justified “Don’t try this at home” warning. Tying into this, the game sees a dramatic increase in vulgar and crass humor, including everything having to do with original character Paulie “Wheels of Fury” Ryan as well as a number of jokes at Eric Sparrow’s expense. As a result, along with some new gameplay additions that I will get into later, this game sort of serves as the epitome of the more fantastical side of the Pro Skater series, not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. While I enjoyed the more grounded narrative of Underground 1, I also still enjoyed the sillier story of Underground 2, due in part to familiarity and because this is the type of game you will never see get made in the modern gaming climate.

Original character Nigel Beaverhausen generally serves as the closest the game has to an antagonist, following the group around the world hoping to capture footage and increase his profile. As for how well this is pulled off, it should say something if, even after a gap of several years between playthroughs, I immediately remembered why he was such an annoying character as soon as I saw him.

Building off the mechanics introduced in the previous game, a number of gameplay enhancements are introduced to make combos a lot easier. The most primary introductions include the Natas Spin, allowing you to grind on objects such as poles and fire hydrants; Sticker Slap, an evolution of the Wall Plant in which you only need a single button press; and Focus, where you can slow down time while your Special Meter is full. On that, a number of special moves contribute to the more fantastical nature of this game, such as grinds that summon a shark attached to your board or make you fly a kite while lightning surrounds you, as well as a manual trick where you start juggling on your board. Additionally, walking is expanded upon, including being worked more into the level design, paving the way for new mechanics such as Freak Out, throwing objects and Graffiti Tag. A number of goals in the game require the use of Graffiti Tag, including on billboards, while Freak Out entails quickly building up a rage meter upon bailing to take it out on the board.

Stat Challenges make a return from Underground 1, except rather than being unlocked over time, you can pretty much complete most, if not all, of them as soon as you start up the game. The complexity of these challenges, as well as many others in the game, depends on your choice of difficulty, for which I chose Easy for the sake of expediency. To advance the story, you need to complete enough goals to earn 400+/1000 points, as per the conditions of the World Destruction Tour. You start out with a certain number of goals you can attempt, though more can be unlocked by tracking down and swapping places with other hidden skaters, including your choice of pro. Additionally, there are a number of hidden skaters you can unlock upon completing the story, including Shrek as part of a promotion for the then-upcoming Shrek 2. On that note, there is a hidden area in Boston that contains a reference to the infamous “Star Wars Kid” viral video, up to and including making the game’s facsimile of him an unlockable skater.

You can even play as a Ben Franklin impersonator.

One additional bit of replay value is Classic Mode, which returns to the gameplay styles of the first three Pro Skater games. To get more specific, the general gameplay is based in Pro Skater 3, including having to track down the stat points, mixed with the gameplay features present in Underground 2. Most levels are reused from Underground 2 itself, however a handful of levels are recycled, or faithful recreations of, levels from past games, including the original Pro Skater. You need to complete 6+/10 goals in each level in order to advance, with every other level being a choice between two. While you do need to track down stat points in order to upgrade them, you can now freely adjust your stats, not just the ones you collect.

During my playthrough, I did run into some issues I don’t remember having encountered before. One of the Story goals in Australia involves climbing up a koala statue, however it happened more than once where one misstep while attempting to do so sometimes resulted in me teleporting across the map. Additionally, though minor, there was a point while playing through Boston in Classic Mode where, upon bailing, the game had trouble knowing where to draw the skater for a couple seconds before drawing them as normal.

The levels themselves seem a bit smaller in comparison to the preceding game, however they have an even higher level of detail and the increased amount of NPCs allows them to feel even livelier than before. The character models are also generally improved upon, with a lot more diverse and distinct appearances in the body types and faces. Additionally, in a nice touch of realism, the game introduces a day/night cycle that gives the levels more of a visual flair.

The visual presentation continues to improve.

Also, much like Underground 1, there are a number of visible advertisements in the game, with the most overt being Motorola, Butterfinger and Napster. Motorola is even worked into the gameplay itself as the brand of phone the player character uses to receive text messages from other characters. A few other sponsors present in the game, McDonald’s, Sobe and Jeep, are by comparison more heavily downplayed, though the physical McDonald’s location from the previous game makes its return in the New Orleans level.

The general quality of the voice acting is improved over the original Underground, though Bam Margera and Tony Hawk get the most lines out of the pros. As for the soundtrack, the song selection is reduced from 79 tracks in Underground 1 to 53 in Underground 2, though it still contains a wide variety of songs. I will admit that my level of familiarity with this game’s soundtrack made it a lot more difficult to narrow down any particular favorites as I couldn’t really dislike any of the songs, though that didn’t stop me from trying. As such, some of my personal favorites include “Cheesecake” by Camaros, “Drums of Fire” by Cut Chemist, “Liberate” by Disturbed, “Midlife Crisis” by Faith No More, “Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II)” by Handsome Boy Modeling School, “Pain” by Jimmy Eat World, “Warsaw” by Joy Division, “Black Label” by Lamb of God, “Volume” by Libretto (feat. Lifesavas), “Whiplash” by Metallica, “Fall Back Down” by Rancid, “Power of Equality” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, “High Anxiety” by Suicide Machines, “Unknown Solider” by The Casualties, “Beat Your Heart Out” by The Distillers, “Whirlwind Pyramid” by The D.O.C., “Here I Am” by The Explosion, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” by The Ramones, “Deadly Sinners” by Three Inches of Blood, “Los Angeles” by X and “Sonic Reducer” by Dead Boys. A few other songs on the soundtrack, namely “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra, “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash and “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” by The Doors may seem like odd choices when put up against everything else, however they manage to work within the context of the actual gameplay.

In spite of its audacity, Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 is still one of my personal favorites in the Pro Skater series. The gameplay and level design encourage a lot of freedom and I can’t help but admire how its atmosphere fully embraces the sillier side of the series and what it was able to get away with at the time it came out. That said, while it certainly isn’t a game for everyone, I would still recommend it for extreme sports game enthusiasts just looking for a fun time. As with previous Pro Skater games, Underground 2 is structured such that the game can be played independently, however there are some details that make more sense if you have some familiarity with Underground 1.

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