Don't let the recent name changes fool you. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is the seventh Tony Hawk game developed by Neversoft in as many years. Over the years the series has had installments that made dramatic changes to the formula, but the more recent installments have focused less on gameplay or structural changes and more on including a story.
American Wasteland is the game that finally makes good on the story thing by offering a plot that's far more interesting than it's been in the previous two games. It also attempts to put all its levels together into one big take on Los Angeles that's free from loading times. That part doesn't work out quite as well as the back of the box would have you believe, but the real issue with American Wasteland is with its gameplay. You'll find the requisite handful of new tricks, but most of the story mode feels like a brief tutorial, and the classic mode isn't deep or long enough to hold the attention of series veterans. It's got more of the same fluid skating gameplay you've come to expect from the series, but the game's over almost immediately.
Story mode puts you in the role of a nameless skater. Tired of being hassled by The Man, you run away to Los Angeles with dreams of skating in the area where skating all began. Things are going fine until just after you step off the bus, which is where you get jumped by some toughs who make off with your gear. A raspy-voiced girl named Mindy takes pity on you and sets you off in the direction of an adventure that sends you all around the city of Los Angeles, where you'll thrash, skate, and destroy as you find a crew of squatting vandals to call your friends, a skatepark to call your own, and...an alien costume.
When you first start, you'll be a pretty weak skater. Most of the moves you've come to expect from the series, like manuals and reverts, won't even be available to you until you learn them. You'll learn most of the basics pretty quickly, but it'll take a little while before you learn to use special tricks, flatland tricks, and focus.
You'll also learn the game's new tricks, like the bert slide, which is the ground-based, surfing-like manoeuver brought back to the skating hive-mind by Dogtown and Z-Boys. You can also get off your board and swing it at pedestrians, which isn't terribly useful, and you can learn some freestyle running techniques for wall climbing, flips, and so on. You can also find and ride BMX bikes in the game, which come up in a couple of goals but are mostly there for you to earn money, which you'll need at various points in the story.
The BMX bike controls are vastly different from the skating controls, and they're surprisingly well-thought-out. You'll hold a button to pedal, steer with the left analog controller, and perform tricks with the right. Also, some tricks are left up to you to put together. A flair, for example, is a backflip and a 180 turn combined. Bike games have traditionally just mapped that to a button and a direction, just like any other trick. Here you'll have to do a backflip and a 180 at the same time to get credit for a flair. The BMX stuff is minor, overall, but it's an interesting diversion.
Few of these new tricks really matter, because most of your goals in story mode simply ask you to quickly grind or natas-spin on an object or wallplant or sticker-slap something while watching the fun. Most of the game's goals are based around the skate ranch, an area found just off Beverly Hills that's mostly a large empty dirt lot with a halfpipe in it. One of the major thrusts of the story is your crew's desire to trick out the ranch, so you'll always have goals that involve you busting out a piece of the city so that it can get added to the ranch.
The main problem with the game's goals is that they're ridiculously straightforward and leave nothing to the imagination. If you need to grind some support cables to loosen a sign on top of a theater, the game sets you down directly in front of those support cables. After you grind them, the game will ask you to pull off a wallplant on the sign itself. Again, it drops you into the exact position to pull it off. The game really seems bent on holding your hand every step of the way.
A big part of the story mode is that it tries to present the entire city to you as one large skateable environment with no load times. That's true in theory, but it's not nearly as pure as it may sound. The city's levels are all separated by tight hallways you have to skate through to change areas. So you're technically still in control, but these hallways are lame and pointless and really might as well just be load screens. The game starts to load the new area when you enter the connecting area, which occasionally causes some stutters and skips in the frame rate. If you want, you can catch a bus from area to area, which saves you the hassle of having to skate from one end of LA to the other. Since you can walk around the bus while the interior of it shakes onscreen, this technically isn't a load time, right?
The flip side to THAW's story mode is classic mode, which once again takes things back to the two-minute run timer, skate letters, and secret tapes that marked the first three entries in the series. It also pulls in classic levels from other Tony Hawk games. The series has been reusing the old levels as special unlockables for the last few years now, so most of the truly amazing levels from the Tony Hawk series have already appeared in a nostalgic context.
Graphically, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is a great-looking game. More attention has been paid to things like the pedestrian models, which don't look as badly as they used to. Key story figures also seem to animate a little better when just standing around on the street while waiting for you to ride up and activate them.
While the gameplay in Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is still sharp, and the game still looks and sounds just fine, this seventh installment just seems to lack that special spark that made the series so much fun in the first place. The Tony Hawk series has always worked because even if you stripped away all the goals, pro skaters, and extra fluff packed into each annual installment, the simple act of finding lines and skating freestyle across the levels was great fun.
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