Tony Hawk's American Wasteland
Tony Hawk's American Wasteland offers a change in formula from past endeavors though and attempts to shake things up a bit. Instead of the play style found in Pro Skater and the destructive escapades from Underground, Wasteland's new trick is a sandbox environment. This time around you get to craft a skater and build reputation in the seamless and magical landscape known as Los Angeles.
When you start playing American Wasteland you get situated right away as one of five selectable characters (yes, for single player you cannot entirely custom create your skater). Once you arrive in L.A. you're treated to a nice knuckle sandwich and all of your crap is stolen. That means you have to skate a bit, win some cash and buy some new rags and stuff. It doesn't take long to get that started though and right away you are able to change your appearance and spruce things up a bit. Everything from a haircut to a new shirt, pants and even skateboards will be at your finger tips, so you can craft the boarder you've always dreamed of.
After a little tutorial style gameplay, you eventually make your way out into the real world and earn some street cred. The world (city) is pretty much your oyster and the beauty of it all is that no load times await you. It's a quasi-Grand Theft Auto type environment, though not nearly as sprawling as you'd expect. The trappings are broken up into sub-sections but you could easily combo your way from one point to another if you're good enough. The only problem is that you'll have to go through a relatively sparse loading tunnel between locations in order to accomplish that.
Part of the single player experience involves something called a Skate Ranch, which is where all of the cool kids hang out. It also happens to be the place where a lot of junk goes that you can collect throughout the city. I made the mistake of going about my business without checking back at the Ranch for a long time. What transpired while I was away was a deluge of garbage that was randomly placed in an awkward fashion. It's pretty cool to have all of these things collect themselves in an area, but a little disappointing that you don't really have control over where they go. Hence the name "American Wasteland".
The beauty of American Wasteland is that the skating has really returned to the Tony Hawk series. Underground spent more time in single player focusing on goofy antics and an anarchistic view, but deviated from the heart of the franchises beginnings. Thankfully the seventh installment of the series spends just about as much (if not more) time allowing you to skate as it does telling you a story.
You'll earn new moves with the more objectives that you accomplish and even when you start the game you are lacking some of the fundamental maneuvers that are a key component to your boarding repertoire. You'll even be able to sit your rump on the seat of a bike and tinker with a little BMX. Some wonky objective recognition gets a little annoying, especially when you do a specific move that you're asked to and the CPU doesn't register it. Other than that the Story Mode is very smooth sailing and all together a little too easy. The real meat of the replay for the game comes from the other modes that are included on the title.
The game includes a competent Create-A-Mode that lets you tinker with your skater, graffiti tags, park and some tricks. It's relatively easy to use, though some of the interfaces are a little clunky feeling. The most notable of the other single player modes is easily the Classic Mode. This is set up pretty much like the first Tony Hawk game. You are given two minutes and a list of goals that you need to beat such as completing letters and racking up a score. There are even some stages from old games in the series and you can even play through this mode with a buddy thanks to some co-op. In addition to this you can either Free Skate around or just go for a High Score instead of being stuck with the single player.
Speaking of playing with a buddy, you can go on Xbox Live or just play from your console. There are several modes to go through such as Score Challenge, King of the Hill, Graffiti and even a few options only available on Xbox Live, such as Capture the Flag. The gameplay is pretty lag free and the gamer environment is full of people that are all better than I am at the game. Even so, I had a good time with it and the multiplayer adds a lot to the game that the Story Mode lacks.
Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is easily recognizable as a Tony Hawk game. That should say it all for fans of the series. There's really not a lot that's new to the latest version of the franchise that wasn't included in previous ones. Character models and animations look very good. The environments are detailed with plenty of objects to grind off of and the glory of having no load time to bog things up is beautiful. The framerate is as smooth as ever to boot, so while this game doesn't take the series any further, it does look like one of the best.
Tony Hawk games usually have a good collection of songs under their hood, but something about this year's installment didn't do it for me. Something about the pop/punk blend just didn't seem to go with the overall atmosphere and really got on my nerves after a while. The sound effects used in the game are all from prior endeavors and the voice acting is great for the most part, though at times it's pretty atrocious. The quality is very good with some great use of Dolby Digital surround, meaning you can expect a fairly immersive experience.
While it may not be the "best" of the Tony Hawk series, American Wasteland is right up there and definitely headed in a better direction than the way Underground went. There is nothing inherently wrong with the gameplay to keep it from getting a really high score. The trick system is solid, the online play is great, and the single player experience is good enough. The only real problem with the game is that we've simply had too much of Tony Hawk over the years, without a lot of innovation. Activision and Neversoft should step back from the series for a little while and release something in a couple years that will give fans enough reason to come back for more.