There are certain things you can count on happening every year. Flowers blooming in spring, snow falling in the winter, and the Lion’s having a losing season. Activision releasing another Tony Hawk is another of those wondrous things. This year, Neversoft brings us Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. Like last year’s THUG 2, they added a great deal of emphasis on story. Unlike last year, however, they have reemphasized the on the board action that made the first couple THPS games such breakaway hits. What they’ve come up with is an incredibly solid (if slightly flawed) game with tight controls, and a great story.
When you begin THAW, you will pick one of five skaters to represent you in Neversoft’s virtual Los Angeles. From there, you hop the bus to LA. As soon as you get there, a couple of thugs mug you and steal your stuff. Luckily help arrives in the form of Mindy, who acts both as a friend and guide through the course of the game. The rest of the game follows your skaters exploits as he meets up with fellow skaters, enters skate competitions, and goes about building the greatest skate park in the world. Needless to say, you will encounter a great deal of obstacles along the way, from protesters, to police officers, to fellow skaters. True to the franchise, expect plenty of over the top characters, celebrity parodies, and excessive destruction to follow. The story is very well written and presented. I found myself laughing out loud at some of the gags (particularly one involving your character and a little girl he thinks is a big fan), which is always a good sign. There are some glitches in the presentation, however that drag the score down a bit. Subtitles often do not read the same as the spoken dialogue. It’s a minor issue, but an annoying one nonetheless. It may be less annoying if you could turn the subtitles off, but when I tried to do so they continued to show up. Things like this may seem minor, but in a game as finely tuned as this they do stick out.
Graphically, the game looks top notch. Environments are detailed, and well designed. The story mode takes place in what amounts to a free roaming version of Los Angeles, and the environment of the different areas of LA you will visit definitely helps make them stand out from levels in previous THPS games. Santa Monica has the Ferris Wheel, board walk, and ocean air. Beverly Hills has the posh houses and shopping malls. Of course, regardless of the area, there are plenty of incredibly innovative surfaces to skate on, as has become the Tony Hawk tradition. Character animations are lifelike, from the motions during a trick, to the sick impact of a bail. Detail on the player character is impressive, especially considering the wealth of clothing, hair, and accessory options to choose from as you progress through the game. There are occasionally some camera issues, but nothing game breaking. I would have liked to see a little more graphical flair, especially during the Focus mode, but overall the game looks very good.
Typical of the Tony Hawk franchise, the gameplay in THAW is top notch. Control is the same great mix of simplicity for rookies, and complexity for veteran skaters. The controls for tricks feel like second nature after a few minutes of practice, Of course they have added some new tricks this year, and brought back some of the great additions that newer versions of the franchise brought to the table. This game is a lot more “On board” compared to the last one, and while the ability to get off your board is present, you’ll find you spend most of your time on four wheels (or two, or one).
Most of the mission objectives in the story mode focus on your character finding pieces for this skate park, and having to do assorted tricks to earn those pieces. This would get a little repetitive, if not for the fact that once the piece is earned, it can be skated on in the park. The park grows as the game goes on and you find more pieces. This really helps to give every mission a sense of purpose beyond just “Do this off of that”. As I mentioned above, the gameplay takes place in a free-roaming city. Perhaps the one thing that Neversoft bragged about most when it comes to this game was the seamless nature of the environments. No more loading screens. Did they come through on what sounded like a very difficult, if not impossible, promise? The answer is yes and no.
There are no loading screens in Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. For that, I give Neversoft a tremendous amount of credit. Nothing breaks up the flow of a game like a “Please Wait” screen. However, the environments are not completely seamless. When moving from one area to another you will travel through a “tunnel” of sorts. The inside of a shopping mall is your tunnel from Hollywood to Beverly Hills, for example. There are things to trick off of along the way, so you won’t stop moving from one part to another, however these areas do keep the game from being completely seamless in the traditional sense.
There is also a Classic Mode for people more interested in the traditional S-K-A-T-E collecting, Secret Tape finding, 2 minute runs of the original series. This mode contains a mixture of new levels, and great new spins on levels from other games in the series. Classic Mode adds greatly to the replayablity of the game, and is a welcome addition. You can also play Classic Mode co-op, which is an excellent idea, if a bit marred by the lack of online capability.
Some minor flaws in the gameplay slip through every now and then. For instance, several times during the course of the game I failed missions even though I had completed the necessary requirements for their completion. Occasionally, the timing on tricks like bank drops can seem a little spotty, but it is definitely the exception rather than the rule. Other than these occasional flaws, the game control is rock solid, however. So while they may give you a good excuse as to why you failed a trick for the first time, don’t expect to be able to blame them on the second run. The Gamecube controller is not the most sports game friendly controller around, and it shows in THAW. While the game makes good use of the controller, it really takes some getting used to. Unfortunately, the greatest flaw of THAW is that it is just too short. While the Classic Mode does add to the replay value, I would have liked to seen just a little more depth and difficulty to the story mode. As is, the average player will probably complete the story mode in about 5-6 hours, and the seasoned THPS veteran will probably finish it in 4-5.
Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland contains a mix of great music from several genres and time periods. Artists such as The Doors, Alkaline Trio, The Faint, Taking Back Sunday, Black Flag, Green Day, and many more make up one of the best soundtracks in the series’ history. This is incredibly important on the Gamecube, as it lacks the Xbox and Xbox 360 versions custom soundtrack feature. The voice acting is also well done, providing a variety of character voices and adding a great degree of humor and credibility to the story mode. The sound effects are also very well done, and will be instantly familiar to fans of the series.
There are several extra modes in Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. The create section is filled with options, so you can create your own custom skater, some tricks for him to do, and a park for him to do them in. The one thing that hurts this version of THAW is the lack of online play, especially considering the GC version didn’t really get anything to make up for it’s absence.
Overall I would definitely recommend Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. While the Gamecube version is lacking some of the bonuses of the PS2 and Xbox versions, it is still very solid. Regardless of the version you choose, The crisp control, humorous story, and innovative level designs stand out as among the best in the series, and are sure to keep you tearing up the pavement for hours on end.