Tony Hawk's American Wasteland

Review

posted 11/9/2005 by Cyril Lachel
other articles by Cyril Lachel

After all these years of top quality skating simulators you knew Activision would stumble eventually.  Although games like Tony Hawk’s Underground 1 and 2 were a departure from the normal Pro Skater series, they still managed to feel fresh and connected to the franchise.  But after seven years of teaching couch potatoes how to skate the good folks at Neversoft have finally released a game that you might as well skate past.

When Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland was announced earlier this year it sounded like the developers were finally going to take the series in a new direction, we were finally going to experience a sequel that was less of an expansion pack and really improved the overall experience.  Neversoft talked about a fully streaming Los Angeles, one that offered a huge world to trick off of.  They bragged about the inclusion of the BMX bike, finally allowing you have some variety in your Tony Hawk experience.  On paper it really looked like this Tony Hawk was going to be the major step forward we’ve all been waiting for. 

Unfortunately these elements didn’t gel together quite like a lot of people expected.  Instead of feeling like the next step in the Tony Hawk universe I came away feeling it was a major step backwards.  American Wasteland still offers a lot of the elements that made the older titles so much fun, but what is added to the mix ends up making this feel like an experiment gone horribly wrong.

 As I mentioned above, the big new improvement to American Wasteland is the “streaming” Los Angeles you’re stuck in.  When I use a word like “streaming” a lot of people immediately think of the Grand Theft Auto series, what with their giant cities that you can go anywhere in.  The idea of being able to trick off of a large, streaming L.A. is pretty exciting.  It’s an idea that should be the center piece of this game.  But this aspect of the game does not quite come as advertised, since you aren’t really allowed to go anywhere you want at any time.

Instead of being a large, wide-open space, the L.A. in American Wasteland is really just a bunch of closed in locations that are connected by a street, alleyway, sewer, etc.  In essence you will be playing regular Tony Hawk levels, the kind we’re used to from earlier entries … only this time you will be able to skate through the loading screens (instead of waiting).  You still get to hit the major L.A. hotspots – Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Santa Monica – but it all feels so similar to the older games that it’s hard not to be both disappointed and a little angry that they weren’t able to fulfill the promise of a fully streaming world.

This year’s Tony Hawk is much more story driven than previous incarnations, to the point where you won’t even be able to make your own character in the single-player story mode.  You simply get a choice of one of five characters (all men); whomever you choose will get on the bus headed to L.A. and the grand adventure has begun.  You start out with almost no moves/tricks, they are earned as you progress through the game.  This means that you won’t be able to do a lot of the special tricks you learned from the six previous Tony Hawk titles until much later in the game.



Unfortunately your time in L.A. is not all partying and good times; as soon after you have made California your new home you are mugged and left to fend for yourself.  Thankfully it doesn’t take long before you are confronted by a girl named Mindy and her pack of friends.  In no time they are showing you their skate park, an empty oasis that has some major potential.

Much of the game has you grinding and doing tricks in order to “collect” various parts of the city for your skate park.  You’ll be grabbing everything from shark heads to the walk of fame to the Hollywood sign, all in an attempt to make your park THE place to go when you want to perform wicked tricks.  For every piece of L.A. you collect you will be given a chance to automatically go to the skate park to see where the piece was put, but since there are so many different things to collect you’ll probably end up waiting until much later before moseying back to your oasis.  By the time you’ve completed the single-player campaign you will barely be able to recognize this park, there’s almost too much there by the end of the game.

The challenges you are required to complete should be the meat and potatoes of the game, but instead we’re forced to play through a whole bunch of lackluster missions in order to advance the story.  The single biggest problem with the missions are that they are entirely too easy.  In older Tony Hawk titles there was a nice mix of easy and hard for you to work on, but here things seem decidedly easier from beginning to end.  Most of the missions line you up where you want to go so it’s really nothing more than doing exactly what it says at exactly the right time, something you can retry over and over until you get it right.  The game seems to be preoccupied with the feeling that it needs to help you every step of the way, something that gets a little old by the time you’ve made it out of the training levels.

Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland controls just as you would expect from seven years of tweaking an already good simulator.  They’ve added a few new moves, but by and large the game will still feel just as you remember from last year’s model (or really any before it).  If you haven’t played a Tony Hawk game in a while (or ever), don’t worry, the game does an excellent job of explaining how to do just about everything in the American Wasteland universe.  Unlike earlier entries this one feels like it is more geared at new skaters, those gamers who somehow missed the last six Tony Hawk games.  While I like to see that the game is accessible to everybody, it would have been nice if they had given us series veterans a little attention, too.

Unfortunately it’s not just that the game is extremely easy, it’s also very short.  No matter how bad of a Tony Hawk player you are, chances are you will bust through this in a dedicated weekend, it’s just not all that long.  The story stays interesting all the way through, but the whole experience is over far too quickly.  All of the small missions seem like they are building to something big (like a big skate-off or something), but that never happens and the ending just feels like it comes too early.  There are barely any missions that require you to actually skate against other players, something that made the first few Tony Hawk games so much fun.



The story mode is not the only way to play through Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland … but it is if you want to actually skate in L.A.  Like THUG 2, THAW allows you to choose from the story mode and a classic mode, one that offers the types of challenges found in the first few Tony Hawk games – collect S-K-A-T-E, find the hidden tape, get a certain score, etc.  Instead of simply recycling the story mode levels for classic mode, Neversoft has gone ahead and recreated some of the best loved levels from the six other games.  Sadly this too feels short; it’s one of those experiences that you can easily beat in only an hour or two.  Considering that these were old levels to begin with it would have been nice to see more than six areas to skate in.

One of the big improvements in American Wasteland that had been talked about was the addition of BMX bikes, in effect combining the worlds of Tony Hawk and Mat Hoffman.  Just as promised, these bikes are indeed around town … but they come with their own set of problems that will keep almost everybody from picking them up.  For one thing you don’t even need to touch the bike until late in the game, which makes it feel more than a little tacked on.  Controlling the BMX can be a real pain, especially when you’ve grown accustomed to the skateboard game play.  My experience with the bike was pretty bad, often it did not want to do what I wanted it to and it always felt too loose (even when I knew what I was doing).  I can only assume that they are going to improve this aspect for next year’s model, but in its current state it would have almost been better if they had left the bike out altogether.

While Tony Hawk may have been slow to embrace the Xbox Live, this is one series that has not been shy about going online.  All five of the Tony Hawk games on the PlayStation 2 have been online, even before Sony had released their Network Adaptor.  This year’s model doesn’t stray too far from what we had last year, it still allows gamers to play in a room of eight and take part in all kinds of different games.  Playing the game online is a lot of fun, even if we’re bogged down by the lackluster levels found in the game.

Perhaps my biggest gripe about Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland is where it’s located.  While I have nothing against Los Angeles, it just doesn’t seem diverse enough for a video game … especially one like this.  They do a good job of making the various “levels” look different, but I couldn’t help but want to go someplace else just to experience something new.  L.A. is fine for awhile, but why stay there when we can go all over the world?

Even more interesting is how similar some of the levels are to places we’ve been before.  We’ve already experience L.A. before in other Tony Hawk games, and the Santa Monica level is a spitting image of Santa Cruz, one of the classic levels found in American Wasteland (as well as the PSP version of THUG 2).  Speaking of the PSP, the final level in American Wasteland is the casino level found just a few months ago in THUG 2 Remix.  I’m all for reusing old levels in the classic mode, but it just seems lazy to reuse levels in the story mode.



The graphics in American Wasteland are good, but not great.  This is the fifth Tony Hawk game on the PS2, so there haven’t been a lot of graphical improvements over the last few years.  The L.A. world you are skating through looks decent, but a lot of the characters are kind of blocky and showing the limitations of the hardware.  The game itself runs reasonably fast, so you will rarely notice any imperfection in the level detail … but it’s a whole different story in the cinema scenes.

The music is what you’d expect from this type of game, a wide mix of everything from punk to rap to heavy metal.  There are some nice cuts – including Frank Black’s Los Angeles, Oingo Boingo doing Who Do You Want to Be, and Holiday by Green Day – but, by and large, there is a lot of filler.  With over sixty licensed songs this isn’t really that big of a deal, but it would have been nice to be able to select what type of music you wanted to listen instead of having to suffer through it all.

As expected we get quite a bit of voice acting from a number of famous skaters.  These characters don’t really come into effect until late in the game, but they all make more pretty interesting characters.  Well, all but Bam Margero who not only sounds like he’s phoning it in, but kind of sounds like he’s using the speaker phone.  The rest of the cast does a decent job, and Neversoft has even included Tony Alva, who was documented in the movie Dogtown and Z-Boys (the documentary that inspired this year’s Lords of Dogtown movie).  Too bad they couldn’t find a better use for these real-life skaters.

Regardless of how it looks or sounds, American Wasteland just feels like a step backwards from previous Tony Hawk games.  The levels aren’t nearly as interesting as they should be, it’s far too easy, and they didn’t add much to the over all game play.  Even if you’ve mastered all of the older Tony Hawk titles you may still want to try this one out before you sink your $50 on this installment.  It’s not a bad game; it’s just forgotten what made the first six entries so good.  Let’s hope Neversoft realizes their mistakes and gives us something really special for the 2006 model.






C-
American Wasteland doesn’t quite live up to the promises made by its creator, something that ultimately ends up hurting this seventh Tony Hawk installment. After all these years of teaching couch potatoes how to skate, the good folks at Neversoft have finally released a game that you might as well skate past.