How do you keep pushing on the Tony Hawk's series? It's had the most intuitive and complex control system ever seen in an extreme sports game for five years now. How do you improve on that?
It's a challenge that must keep the game's developers Neversoft up all night. Last year they took a bold step by jamming the skating into a storyline and putting your face on the lead character, a young punk struggling to make it big on the skate scene.
It kind of worked, but the story-driven missions alienated hardcore fans of the two minute blasts earlier Tony games offered, and the half-baked Jackass references fell pretty flat.
That's why the two most instantly impressive features of THUG 2 are the return of the timed Classic Mode and a new, improved storyline featuring some of the mental-in-the-melon boys from Jackass, with Bam Margera taking a lead role alongside the Hawkster.
The inclusion of Bam instantly lends a fat slice of crazy credibility to the action. The storyline picks up from where THUG left off - you've made it as a pro skater, but Tony and Bam kidnap you to take you on their World Destruction Tour, an unpublicised and strictly underground skate demolition of six international cities. Yup, THUG 2 is keeping it real.
We've seen some of the early cut-scenes and can confirm that they are better - and funnier - than THUG's efforts. Getting Bam and crew on board also opens up cool possibilities for hidden characters like Steve-O and, our favourite, Bam's dad Phil who skates his fat ass around wearing nothing but a pair of Y-fronts.
But what about the skating? Purists will love the return of the Classic Mode, which exists alongside the Story Mode. It's basically a return to the no-holds-barred two minute frenzies we loved so much in the early Tony games. Each level you unlock in the Story Mode has a list of objectives in Classic Mode which unlock bonuses when you complete them. The only bummer is that you can't transfer your skater between Classic and Story Mode, but we're pleased to see it back so we won't complain.
In terms of actual new gameplay features, you can know pull off a Matrix-style 'focus' move by pressing down on the right analogue stick. The action slows down giving you more time to plan your line and appreciate your tricks. It's a nice effect but doesn't radically alter how the game plays.
One new move we do particularly like is the Natas Spin. By ollieing onto a fire hydrant, a lamppost or even a scooterist's crash helmet and holding the L1 button and triangle (we played it on PS2) you spin around on the spot. It works just like a grind except you're stationary, but it's a great way to involve more of the scenery in your combos.
Talking of scenery, Neversoft have made a real effort to include loads more interactive elements in the levels. We all loved the earthquake that hammered the LA level in Tony 3, so every level in THUG 2 should have the same kind of thing.
We've had a good grind around the Boston and Barcelona levels and can confirm that there's loads to muck around with. In Boston you can set your board on fire then launch cannonballs into a construction site, bringing it crashing down into a sweet impromptu skate park, and in Barcelona you can unleash a raging bull who'll destroy half the level for you and open up whole new lines. This is brilliant, since as you skate the level's constantly flipping the script on you.
On top of that you can add your own artistic touch to the scenery by spraying your tag onto any surface or using a wall-plant to plaster stickers everywhere. In line with THUG's extensive customisation options you can design your own tag with a nifty little paint package. It's fun just to skate around and spray stuff, but it'll also crop up as a mission objective and if you tag something mid-combo you'll rack up some big points.
Customisation's still an important part of the THUG experience. If you're playing on PS2 you'll be able to stick your face onto your character via the THUG website or (and this is cool) capture your image with an EyeToy and bang it straight in! You can do this on PC too now, but unfortunately not on Xbox or Cube.
As for some of the first THUG's more controversial elements, the off the board stuff and the vehicles are still there. Jumping off the board remains totally optional when you're racking up combos, but it is handy in Story Mode and you'll need to be on foot to spray your tag.
As for the vehicles, they've been toned down to be more skateboard-like. We razzed around Boston on a diesel-powered motor scooter which was more of a fun diversion than THUG's annoying vehicular interruption.
So nothing radically new, then, but it's clear that Neversoft have listened very carefully to gamer feedback on THUG. Good work, fellas - that's definitely the best way to keep pushing on the series.
THUG 2 is out on PS2, Xbox, GameCube and PC from October 8. You can check out two of THUG 2's cities, Boston and Barcelona, in our movies and take a look at the screenshots while you're here.
TONY HAWK'S UNDERGROUND 2 MOVIES