Tony Hawk's American Wasteland

Review

posted 1/4/2006 by Cyril Lachel
other articles by Cyril Lachel

When the Xbox 360 launched in November one of the biggest gripes about the system was the number of ports of current generation games being released along side it.  While there were incredible games that took advantage of the system's power, it seemed like there were just as many that just rehashed what we already had on the original Xbox, only with higher resolution and better Xbox Live support.  Tony Hawk's American Wasteland must have been the type of game these people were complaining about.

Before we get into the meat and potatoes of American Wasteland, it's worth noting that this is actually my second time through the game.  When Gaming Nexus needed a review of the PlayStation 2 version I stepped up, ready to see what Neversoft had in store for us in their seventh (yes, seventh) installment of the popular skateboarding franchise.  This Xbox 360 version is exactly the same as what I played on the PS2; it's a lazy port of a game that ultimately disappointed me.

But just because this game is exactly the same (with exactly the same levels, music, story, and tricks) doesn't mean it's going to run you the same price.  For whatever reason Activision has decided to charge a full $60 for this port, a game that is not only short but also incredibly easy.  If you think I had reservations about recommending the game at $50 you can only imagine the pain I have trying to justify this more expensive Xbox 360 version.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves, American Wasteland is an interesting experience with a lot of good and bad to talk about, including some lofty promises that fell flat.

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, tunnel, 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 best part of this 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 first few levels.  Worse yet, the entire game ends up feeling like one long tutorial, which just shouldn't be the case considering how many of these Tony Hawk games they've released.



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 Tony Hawk's Underground 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.

Although this is the seventh game in the series, American Wasteland is the first Tony Hawk title to feature online play over Xbox Live.  After being able to play friends online with the PlayStation 2 versions, it's awfully nice to finally be able to do the same thing over Microsoft's network.  For the most part playing online with the Xbox 360 is a lot like what was available on the PS2, only with a better buddy list and the ability to talk to the other players with the headset.  You can fit eight players in a room which can make for a fun time, no matter if you're new to the franchise or a seasoned veteran.  There are a number of different games to play; everything from team based games to a simple skate competition.  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.

On the current generation systems American Wasteland was good looking, but certainly nothing you'd invite your friends over to be impressed by.  Unfortunately, the same holds true with this Xbox 360 version.  Outside of a few improvements to the textures, it's hard to tell that this is a next generation game.  The character models just look awful when you look at the rest of the Xbox 360's launch line up, and even the backgrounds tend to lack the polish you'd expect from a system of this power.  If you're looking for a game to show off the graphics of your brand new game system then you best be looking at picking up Project Gotham Racing 3 or Call of Duty 2, American Wasteland's graphics aren't going to impress anybody.

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.  If you end up getting tired of the music Neversoft has selected for you then you can always insert your own music, one of the only advantages to this Xbox 360 version.

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 for 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 2005’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 $60 on this installment.  This Xbox 360 version isn't any worse than what you could find on the older game systems, but we expect more from our next generation games … especially if they are going to cost more.  I can only hope that next year's installment makes better use of Microsoft's powerful hardware and improved Xbox Live features.  This is one launch title that is hard to recommend over the barrage of far better games.






D
This "next generation" version of Tony Hawk's American Wasteland feels like a missed opportunity. If you're looking for a game that shows off the power of the Xbox 360 then you have no reason to even consider this game, and at $10 more it's hard to justify this over the versions on older platforms. Better luck next year!