Review: Another Year, Another Tony Hawk Game
Activision's series of Tony Hawk games has become one of the staples in the video game industry, and has made the man into a legendary skating icon. Every year skating fans are treated to a new Tony Hawk game, and the series has evolved from the Pro Skater series to the recent Underground titles. The newest addition to this top-selling series is Tony Hawk's American Wasteland. American Wasteland takes the franchise back to the roots of skating, but is this enough to warrant your purchase?
The main difference between the Pro Skater series and the two Underground games was the inclusion of a Story Mode. This trend continues with American Wasteland, as once again you are thrust into the role of a kid trying to make it big. When you start out, you are asked to pick from one of five pre-made characters (which is a far cry from the previous highly detailed Story Mode create-a-character engine in the Underground series). You turn out to be just a kid from the Midwest trying to make a name for himself in the sprawling city of Los Angeles. After some local thugs give you a hard time, you are approached by Mindy. Mindy introduces you to her crew, teaches you some tricks and essentially becomes your guide throughout the rest of the game.
Throughout Story Mode, you'll be completing dozens of goals to help out your new friends, build an amazing Skate Ranch and turn the heads of a few pros in the process. When you start out, your character won't be able to execute many tricks. As you progress throughout Story Mode, characters will teach you grabs, flips and tricks that you can add to your wide arsenal of moves. This was a bit unsettling, as I guess I am somewhat of a Tony Hawk veteran, but it definitely makes the game easier and friendlier to those new to the series. Within a few hours, you'll be able to execute all kinds of grinds, fliptricks, manuals and special tricks. Grind and spin on a hydrant? No problem. Skitch a cop car? Of course. Slow down time with Focus? Yes, yes and yes! Other interesting moves, such as the ability to get off the skateboard and run around town also return. New tricks are fairly rare, although the bert spin, wall flip and sticker slap seem new to me. The Xbox controller layout takes 5-10 minutes getting accustomed to, but afterwards everything feels fairly natural.
An interesting addition is the ability to ride a BMX bike. Throughout the game, you can run across BMX bikes lying around. Whenever you wish, you can hop on and take it for a ride. The BMX bikes have their own trick engine, and you can perform anything from grinds to stalls to tire taps. The BMX bikes are a nice addition to the series, and you don't have to use them if you don't wish to. There's a guy that will pay you to do tricks, and a few missions require you to use one, but overall you aren't forced to switch from board to bike.
American Wasteland's biggest claim to fame, however, is that it is ?the first free-roaming Tony Hawk game.? Activision highly publicized this game because they claimed that you can skate Los Angeles as one massive streaming world. This is mostly true, but there should be an asterisk with an explanation. Yes, Los Angeles is massive. And, yes, there are no load times. In the Pro Skater series as well as the two Underground titles, you would skate around a location, then switch to a new one, wait for it to load, complete the goals and switch again. This is not the case in American Wasteland. In this game, you'll be skating throughout Los Angeles the entire time in Story Mode. LA is broken into numerous sections, such as Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Santa Monica, East LA, Downtown LA, the Skate Ranch and others. However, the gimmick is that all of these locations are connected through a series of ?tunnels? that are basically loading areas. These tunnels are about ten seconds in duration, and they have poles and fences to grind, but this still is different from just having one large area GTA-style.
Nevertheless, the Story Mode is original and fairly fun. Some of the goals include collecting Skate Ranch pieces such as a shark head statue, velvet ropes and a flight of stairs. These pieces will be brought back to your Ranch and by the end of the game one of the worlds most amazing skate parks will be complete. Throughout the Story Mode, you will also encounter a slew of tattoo parlors, barbershops, skate shops, accessory shops and clothes shops, allowing you to customize your character in many ways. All of these cost money, however, which can be earned by doing tricks for hobos, spraying graffiti for various artists or performing some BMX tricks. Speaking of skate shops, outside each one you will find daily Sponsor Challenges. Each day, four challenges are posted and they include objectives such as: manual for seven seconds, do three grabs in one combo, ollie 20 feet, etc. If you are successful, then your skater's stats will increase. This creates a very natural skill progression that I am a big fan of. But be wary, the internal game clock means that time is ticking, and new sponsor challenges will replace old ones at midnight.
If Story Mode isn't exactly what you are looking for, American Wasteland has plenty more to offer, even when playing single-player. The Classic Mode is one of my personal favorites. Classic Mode brings it back to the good old days where it was just you, a level, a two-minute timer and ten goals. American Wasteland features six classic levels including Minneapolis, Santa Cruz and the Mall, with plenty of high scores, secret tapes, C-O-M-B-Os, S-K-A-T-E letters and tricks. What's even greater is the ability to go through these classic challenges in co-op mode, where you and a friend can tackle the goals simultaneously. For example, if you are trying to reach a Pro Score of 300,000, both of you can simply rack up 150,000 each and the goal will be completed. Classic Mode is not only easier with two players, but it's also more fun.
In order to satiate your multi-player thirst, Activison has included 13 multi-player games. To be honest, I haven't had the time to try them all out, but the ones that I have tried are terrific. As always, there's Trick Attack ? player with highest score at the end of the time limit wins, Score Challenge ? first person to reach a set score wins, Combo Mambo ? person with highest combo after time limit wins, King of the Hill and Firefight. But other modes such as Scavenger Hunt, Pot O'Gold and Capture the Flag are included, giving you so many options that you'll have trouble trying them all out. And to make things even better, American Wasteland is the first Tony Hawk game to appear on Xbox Live, so you can test out all of these multi-player modes online against players from around the globe.
If you're still bored with Story Mode, Classic Mode and the multi-player options, well, there's even more. You can create your own skater, create your own graphic, create your own park and even create your own trick. These modes are all very detailed and there are hundreds of options for each. The only thing is, you can't use a created skater in the Story Mode. Essentially, American Wasteland has everything you ever wanted from a skating game and more on top of that.
Graphically, however, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is not a pretty sight. The graphics engine has been recycled for several years now and this is fairly visible now. Some of the textures are dull, and this is especially apparent during the cut-scenes. Characters look ugly and their movements are somewhat jerky. The tricks and grinds themselves are animated fluidly and appear realistic from a non-skater's point of view, and this is all that you can ask from a skateboarding game. I'm a pretty big fan of the visual representation of Los Angeles; it actually made me want to visit the city and some of the spots featured in the game. One interesting thing that I noticed was the extreme amount of in-game advertising. I noticed tons of ads for Sirius satellite radio, Jeep and Nokia. There are billboards with Nokia ads placed in the game, Jeeps will stand in the middle of a playground, and your soundtrack is ?sponsored? by Sirius. It didn't irritate me, but was interesting to notice.
The audio department has a fair share of ups and downs. The character voice-overs are a low point from my perspective. Although the actual dialogue fits the game, despite its silly nature at times, there are pauses between characters that makes the dialogue seem unnatural. As for sound effects, everything is in tip-top shape. From the sound of the board splitting in half to the grinds and car honks, everything sounds pretty natural. And then there's the famous Tony Hawk soundtrack. Year in and year out, Tony Hawk fans are treated to a large soundtrack of old-school and upcoming artists in the rap and rock genres. This year, American Wasteland features over sixty tracks. Artists like Green Day, Public Enemy, Bloc Party, Dead Kennedys, The Doors and Scissor Sisters are several of the more well-known musicians featured on this soundtrack. I'm sure that everyone will come across several songs that they will enjoy, while others are simply perfect for this game.