Bikes are more fun than boards. You can do far more entertaining things on a bike, and there are less people wearing baggy trousers. Or 'pants'. However, in videogame circles, boards are more fun than bikes, as Tony Hawk aptly demonstrates on an annual basis with little or no response from biking circles. Until now? Well, not quite. Like the original, Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX 2 is a very good BMX biker, but it's still only as good as the last Tony Hawk title, and in reality a bit worse off than that.
In fairness to developer Rainbow Studios, it has had The Condor (that's Hoffman) in and has gone back to the foundations of the game, catering the various levels to the sport instead of just building on top of last year's Tony Hawk tech. However, much of Hoffman's game could happily interchange with what appears in its closest rival's series, and vice versa. Fundamentally, they're the same game.
In fact, the biggest changes could be considered refinements to the formula. Like the control system. As with Hawk, you hit X to pop a jump, and use combinations of the directional pad, circle, square and shoulder buttons to perform spins, flips and tricks. A few practice sessions and you'll start to grind and trick a bit. A few more and you'll be linking the odd spate of tricks with a nice manual. A few more still and it'll be all that anyone can do to stop you hammering the analogue stick back and forward to pull a manual whenever in sight of the ground, and trick combos will end only when you no longer want to risk the points total. Nothing new here.
But as Hoffman (and his pals on the 'circuit') all ride bikes, not boards, they can perform peculiar tricks whilst manualling on one wheel, twisting and contorting themselves to your button presses to rack up some extra points. Bikers in Hoffman's 2 also command an adrenaline bar (rather like the one seen in Z-Axis' Aggressive Inline), which once full can be unleashed via spectacular signature moves for each of the riders.
Apart from that though, it's the same game with different packaging. You pick a biker from amongst Hoffman's crew and embark on a road trip around eight real-life locations (New Orleans, Vegas, etc), pulling tricks and opening up new challenges. Each victorious session unlocks clips and footage of the real-life Hoffman crew doing their own real-life road trip, and it's awe-inspiring stuff.
Instead of handing you a bike and showing you the playground though, Hoffman's 2 has you attempting to complete tasks in sets of four at various difficulty levels. Each set of four earns you 50 road trip points, and with enough points you can unlock the next level. Since you're on a bus, you can always pootle back to previous arenas later on if you decide you can only do the amateur and semi-pro challenges at first, and the challenges start off easy so you can bus around a bit and get a feel for the various indoor and outdoor levels.
Tasks range from the criminal (smacking a few fire alarms) and the peculiar (collecting five hot dogs) to the amusing (fighting a giant tentacle) and downright ridiculous (collecting a condor), but they tend to take one of several forms; racking up a high score, grinding a high ledge, collecting five of something, crashing into five of something, doing a particular trick at a particular point or doing something along those lines. Those very, very familiar lines.
Bump 'n' grind
Sadly, along with the unsurprising mission objectives, the game boasts some pretty lamentable level design. It's the usual collection of sharp edges to grind and things to jump off, but levels are much less fantastical than their counterparts in Tony Hawk's, Aggressive Inline and so on. Admittedly, this is a restriction of the road trip / real-life angle, but it's still a daft restriction. More fantasy levels would have improved this game by quite some way.
Beyond the single player road trip mode, we have another set of standard options; park editor, freeride and multiplayer modes. None of which really does anything special, although you can have some good fun with the park editor if you can be bothered to tinker with it.
Another problem is the game's visuals. They're a problem because they're pretty boring - well defined, quite detailed and nicely realised, sure, but grey, unsurprising and unadventurous - and because the PlayStation 2 can't handle them. Slowdown is a fixture of most of the outdoor environments and for a game which is all about quick thinking, quick fingers and clever button combos, slowdown is a big problem.
It's not much better on the audio front, although that is at least more subjective. The opening salvo of tunes is your typical extreme sports catalogue of grunge, punk, rock and metal acts and few of them really fit the mood. There are some timeless classics in there, like Iggy Pop's The Passenger, but when these brush shoulders with music by a group called Swollen Member amongst other, equally brash contenders, you have to wonder why. I did say the opening salvo though. Fortunately you can unlock more (and frequently better) tunes by uncovering hidden CD tokens in the various levels, which is a nice touch.
A poor man's Tony Hawk's?
Right chaps. Pop your bikes up against the wall and let's work out how good it really is. The benchmark in the extreme sports genre (and it's a single genre for as long as there's zero divergence from title to title, eh?) is Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, with Aggressive Inline nosing its way into view as well. Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX 2 isn't as much fun as either of those - it's not as smooth to play or as imaginative as Tony Hawk's, and it's not as innovative or open-ended as Aggressive Inline. The two-minute timer (which even Neversoft has dropped for the next Hawk) is grossly restrictive, and the whole game just feels like a poor man's Tony Hawk's. It's also niggled by slowdown, which is quite unforgivable.
However, there's no better BMX biker on the PS2 at the moment, and fans of the sport will no doubt find Hoffman's 2 very realistic and an exciting prospect, in the same way that boarders first found Tony Hawk's. But whereas this is virtually the same game as the last Hawk release, the next Hawk release is just around the corner. Is it really worth it in the meantime?