Skating a thin new line.
With a next-gen console launching, you expect a few genres to be covered: a platformer with an endearing lead character, an anticipated first-person shooter, something vroom, vroom, crash, and, well, Tony Hawk. Hot on the heels of its release on other consoles, Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland skates the exact same line on the Xbox 360, just faster.
Indeed, the content in the Xbox 360 version of THAW is totally, completely and in all other ways thoroughly identical to the PS2/Xbox/GC versions. So before we shove off to re-explore the core, I’ll quickly drop in to discuss the one change to this half-pipe of a port: the graphics.
By and large, the graphical enhancements are limited to some better textures and a few character modeling tweaks, showing off sexy new wrinkles in T-shirts and such. In general you get the same slightly blocky characters, but they just look a bit cleaned up here. And holy crap, it cooks. The framerate is rock solid throughout, and even if it doesn’t look a great deal better, it solidifies the Zen-like control scheme like a new box should. This is the height of the ancient Hawk style, truly.
But like anyone at the height of their power, the Hawkman is starting to go a little mad. The game plays exactly like it always has, which is in many ways a good thing, but thanks to the insane amount of trickery that has piled up over the years, it’s also an easy thing.
The game’s main Story mode literally drops you off in L.A. as the new kid in town. After some tomfoolery, you find yourself scavenging pieces of the city to build the Skate Ranch. Celebrity involvement has thankfully been toned down to an acceptable level; the whole Bam Margera nightmare is pleasantly over. Regardless, anyone playing Tony Hawk for its plot is just plain silly.
The big deal is the "streaming, massively skateable L.A." which is actually neither massive nor particularly streaming. The city is broken into ten levels (yeah, they’re still levels) connected by loading tunnels, and by completing certain goals in each area, you’ll gain access to new ones. While it beats the pants off last year’s THUG 2 world skate debacle, it isn’t exactly GTA with a skateboard like you’d hoped. The levels are all about the same size, and it takes roughly five minutes of straight line skating to get across the whole town. They don’t seem to share the feng shui of old, and while it’s decent fun and crammed full of stuff to crush combos on, skating through another long tunnel every 45 seconds is a drag, no matter how smooth. On the (kick) flipside, it’s not a loading screen.
The core gameplay hasn’t changed much over the years and there are very few new moves this time around. The Bert slide gives you another thing to do across flat ground, but more notable are the Parkour tricks, which turn the simple act of walking into a combo-fest of wall-runs, flips, and tucks. They also serve to navigate you to some of the more vertically challenging locations.
Combine that with the manuals, reverts, flatland tricks and sticker slaps and you wind up with a game that’s almost crushed under its own trick weight. As far as I can tell, there’s not a single thing in American Wasteland that can stop your combo assault now. By now, any frequenter of this series is most likely past Jedi status and will breeze through every challenge this outing offers in no time. It’s hard to want to tear it up when you can score millions just dinking around one random half-pipe.
The goals certainly won’t cause you much stress, due to their repetitive structure (there are about 5 types of missions) and the fact that you’re conveniently placed directly in front of what you need to do. Whatever object you need to trick on is labeled clearly, including whatever buttons you’ll need to press. It rarely takes more than three tries for most goals, and some are so simple, they’re jokes. ‘Land a 1200 point combo.’ Wow, I can get double that if I ‘freak out’ after I biff the trick I was after in the first place.
At least the act of tearing it up is still addictive and fun. Others have tried to copy this control and have failed, and despite their lack of innovations, Neversoft has done a good job not breaking the parts that don’t need fixing.
To that end, a new bike mechanic has been added to break up the monotony. These missions do offer respite from the bland goals, allowing you to control the bike separately from the tricking. It’s not really a full-fledged system, but it is a welcome change of pace.
So is the ever-evolving Skate Ranch. You’ll collect new pieces for your Mecca while destroying the town, slowly building up your own big skate park using objects found on each level. It’s good fun to go back after getting a bunch of new objects and seeing your monster grow.
Speaking of which, Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland is literally overflowing with things to do. When you tire of Story mode, Classic mode awaits, which features even more throwback levels and throwback goals. Apparently somebody lost all those secret tapes again.
Motivation to complete Classic and Story mode lies in online play, of all things, as you can only host games in levels you’ve unlocked yourself in single-player, so get S-K-A-T-E-ing. The Xbox 360’s online mode is the same as the other versions, drawing from the entire game by allowing you to skate every level from both modes and use your custom parks, skaters, and tricks. You can even download other people’s create-a-things and upload your own. The usual wealth of play modes are still around, like Elimiskate, Trick Attack, Graffiti and Combo Mambo.
Playing online is easy as ever, and also provides a great way to get your ass handed to you. The counter to this is the ability to turn off manuals, reverts, walking, the balance meter, and even stopping when the clock hits zero so crusty Pro Skater codgers can test each other’s mettle without all this fancy new mumbo-jumbo.
Rather than keep it typically old-school with an assortment of classic bands, American Wasteland pulls an American Idol by featuring contemporary bands covering old-school songs. The result is fine if you like covers, but will aggravate purists to no end.
Create-a-thing modes are thinner than the last release, now limited to skaters, parks, tricks, and new graffiti tags. It’s all pretty much the same, and you’ll probably ask the same questions I did. Why is the create-a-park still so small? Why can’t I use my custom skater in Story mode now?
But the real question is whether or not you really need another Tony Hawk game. American Wasteland is greased lightning on the 360, but is otherwise totally unchanged from its earlier release. I suppose it’s a fine purchase if you skipped out on the other versions, but keep in mind that you’re just getting new wheels for the same old board.