Review: Tony needs to go underground and stay there a while.
Hard to believe it's been almost 6 years now since Tony Hawk's Pro Skater released on the PlayStation and single-handedly gave birth to the short-lived extreme sports phenomenon. Built on the foundation of traditional skateboard action and, oddly, platforming, THPS was an immediate hit due to the incredible and addictive gameplay. Developer Neversoft wasted little time putting out a sequel that was even better than its predecessor, giving PS owners a reason to not worry about the PlayStation 2. Who knew, though, that the Tony Hawk franchise would be overexposed so quickly? After the solid, but not spectacular THPS3, even hardened fans were hoping for a break ? a break that's still not come, even if the focus has changed from the 'Pro Skater' direction for a move to the underground with THUG in 2003. With reviews still mostly high, Activision has...erm...saturated the market with Tony Hawk with reckless abandon, with editions appearing on every system imaginable; I half expect an Atari 2600 version one of these days, considering it's appeared on stuff like the Tapwave for cryin' out loud.
To nobody's surprise, Tony Hawk has appeared on Sony's PlayStation Portable, with a 'remixed' version of the latest entry into the franchise: Tony Hawk's Underground 2: World Destruction Tour. All things aside, THUG2 Remix is a feat of PS2 to PSP porting, maintaining the core game, adding some new stuff, and yet making it work fairly well in handheld form. But technical merits don't make a game, and no matter how good the port is, Tony Hawk has become stale and boring, bringing so little new to the table that it's just not fun anymore. And thanks to some issues with the PSP controls, it's even more frustrating to enjoy this game. If you're still a huge Tony fan and froths at the mouth over a console-quality version of the game in handheld form, THUG2 Remix is a dream come true, but for the rest of us...well, hey at least this series had a great run early in its life before becoming a poster child for awesome games that became too worn out before their time logically could have been up. It's still a fine game that does things nobody else has been able to do, but it's grown so long in the tooth that the game has become a parody of what it used to be, and desperately needs a break before even Tony Hawk himself sees the shenanigans going on.
THUG2 Remix has both the Story and Classic modes from the console versions. The Story puts you in the middle of a 'World Destruction Tour' pitting Tony Hawk against Bam Margera, whose teams attempt to skateboard their way to chaos, Jackass style. It's still a skating game at heart, only with the concept of destroying stuff as the central focus. It's a pretty lengthy mode, especially compared to the original THUG, but the whole 'skater nerds tearing up the world, literally' gimmick is really boring and played out and wise to ignore and instead focus on the quality gameplay. Classic mode was thrown in to appease fans of Tony Hawk 1-4, with the more standard goals like spelling S-K-A-T-E, C-O-M-B-O, and getting high scores, almost as an apology for the THUG direction. It restores some of the Tony magic but with so little advancement since the nearly perfect 2nd game, it gets boring and tired after a couple hours of play. There's also some wireless LAN play for up to 4 players, though it's not actual online play. In addition you can create goals, tracks, skaters, tags, etc. in a pretty useful engine.
No matter what mode you actually play, the gameplay remains the same, and if you've played anything past 3 (when the revert was added), leaping right in will not be a problem. The thing is, so little has been done since then that it's almost too familiar, unless you're somehow a first-timer to this classic franchise. At its core, the skating action is almost perfect, with a horde of tricks within huge levels that are made to explore in order to find all the various goals spread around. The platforming elements are as good as it gets still, and is still unique since using a skateboard to do tricks in order to get the necessary air to reach other areas or grind high ledges isn't something you find in Sly Cooper or Crash Bandicoot. The fact that all this has been done before in 5 other Tony Hawk games in the last 5 years doesn't deny the fact that the actual skating action is as polished as you'll find, and nobody else has ever really tried to topple Tony at his own game (though games like Aggressive Inline did many things that snuck into Tony games after that unappreciated classic came out); it's just too bad that Activision and Neversoft have not exercised restraint and taken a year off here and there to retool and redefine their most vital franchise (which won't happen this year since American Wasteland is coming). Even the greatest games of all time can become boring if you play them again and again; Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 is one of my all-time favorite games (though Tony Hawk 2x on Xbox is the dream THPS game still), and seeing it rehashed again and again diminishes that quality. It doesn't help that the game continues to get more complicated (and not necessarily challenging), with less fun goals and more BS necessary to complete courses. The days where 10 goals was acceptable can still work, guys.
Like the last THUG, within Career mode, as you perform tricks and whatnot, your skills increase, quite fast at that. It's not quite RPG style (like say Aggressive Inline and its experience system), but it is based upon doing things frequently and consistently so your skills increase. The game lacks much of the classic feel of getting money to put towards skills, tricks, and whatnot, but I suppose getting the gradual increasing skills works in the median. There are hidden things like the special video tapes that the first few games used as the 'easter egg' goal, but usually the goals concern doing a special trick on a certain spot to destroy something, playing tit-for-tat with another skater, even a goal based on getting a certain combo score. This applies to both the Career and Classic modes, though Classic has many more 'traditional' goals to complete compared to the Career. Old-school fans likely will flock to the Classic mode, especially fans who hated the change to the Underground style. Much of the game is fluid and polished, though, as you'd expect, many of the goals aren't all that unique or interesting since they've all been done before.
Unfortunately, as polished as the gameplay is (but hell, after all these years it better be polished), it has problems with the PSP that are almost unavoidable. Basically if you have adult-sized fingers and try doing the tricks and such, it can be a chore because of the smallish PSP d-pad and face buttons; it isn't programmed to compensate for this compared to the PS2 versions. And because of it, some tricks just don't seem to wish to be pulled off, leaving frustration in those situations where you need huge combos to complete a goal. It doesn't help that sometimes the game can chug along with delays to button presses leading to screwups on many tricks. The THPS games have always had pinpoint, accurate controls, so this is a disappointment on many levels; though 95% of the time everything's fine, that 5% is extremely annoying to deal with. And this is not even mentioning the sluggish and haphazard off-board controls ? just keep your skater on the board; and please Neversoft, don't make us get off the board anymore.
In terms of technical merits, THUG 2 Remix is a standout PSP game. The huge levels have been retained, and though they seem less 'busy' it keeps a solid framerate most of the time and has some really good unique details all around each level, especially the original levels devised for the Remix. It's a little hard to see the characters, the mark of a legitimate console port not taking the smaller PSP screen into consideration, but the widescreen lets you see more of the course at a time. The big problem, however, is how much the screen 'ghosts' while playing, as if its unable to keep up with the speed of the game. Of all the PSP games I've played, it's the only one that really's had a ghosting problem at all, and though it can be dealt with, it can also be headache-inducing. On the audio end, they managed to fit in most, if not all of the huge licensed soundtrack, which is quite a feat, and a great deal of the voice acting from the Career mode. The usual sounds of skateboards rolling on the ground is done well and you feel it when you hit the ground ? all that's needed is for the PSP to vibrate like crazy when it happens.