Inside Pulse 12

Review: Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland (XB)

Game: Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland
System: Microsoft XBox
Genre: Extreme Sports / Skateboarding
Developer: Neversoft
Publisher: Activision
Released: 10/18/05

A few years ago, there was a time when I would relish the release of a brand new Tony Hawk game. I fell in love back with Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 for the PS1, and played the hell out each incarnation ever since. However, the series really hit its peak around the THPS4 / THUG era. It was also the last time the emphasis was put on “pro skating”. When THUG2 rolled around, every skater regressed to a law-breaking skate punk in a desperate attempt to reintroduce the franchise as cool and edgy. I didn’t like where it was going, and I ended up rather disappointed with the game.

So now here comes the SEVENTH edition of the Tony Hawk franchise, leaving behind the “Underground” and replacing it with “American Wasteland“. Along with the new “THAW” acronym, it presents to us a virtual city in Los Angeles, and we can apparently go anywhere we want in this expansive cityscape with no loading times at all. At least, that’s what they claim. Now does Activision deliver? We’ll see about that…


STORY

You’re a teenage runaway from the mid-west who goes to LA because of problems at home. Your parents hate you, your school’s on your back, your girlfriend dumped you, etc. Basically, everything that can possibly go wrong with your life HAS, and you just need to get away from it all.

Of course its no cakewalk once you get there. As soon as you step off the bus in LA, you get mugged. Luckily, the local girl Mindy takes pity on you and helps you change your image up a little. One you do (and once you get your stuff back), you meander on for a while until you impress some of Mindy’s friends. They take you to their home away from home: a vacant skate hangout known as “The Wasteland”. Its horrid and bland, but its home, right? But Mindy has a better idea. With a few touch-ups, the park could be a world-class joint! So its up to you and your friends to go out into L.A. and steal a bunch of shit for the park and set up some crazy places to trick on.

And that’s the story in a nutshell. You go out into the world and steal things. And how do you steal things? Skateboard tricks! What a coincidence! (Sigh) While the story is definitely a step up from “play pranks on Bam Magera’s brother” from the last game, it is still MILES behind the story from THUG. It isn’t any kind of deep, but it holds the game together. Plus its really the only canvas they have to make their silly puns against famous stars like Ben Affleck (Whofleck) and Ashley Simpson (Sampson). (And hey! Don’t think I missed your little parody reference of DDR in there Neversoft! Prance Evolution 2, eh? Hahahahaha. Bite me.) I wished for something better than this, but oh well. There’s always next year.

Story: 5/10


GRAPHICS

The regular environments you skate in really haven’t improved that much since THUG2. Now this isn’t a BAD thing, as the environments are still rather detailed and realistic looking, but they are about the same quality as they were in THUG2, and probably even THUG now that I think about it. There’s really not much else that can be expanded on “what” you skate on. This, coupled with the entire Story Mode set in the L.A. area, there isn’t that much difference in between the look of the main areas.

Character models have received a few touch-ups, and look relatively realistic. But I’ve found that various costume pieces will often cause clipping issues when used in combination. For example, my created character has a buzz cut. During the cut scenes, the hair would disappear into the scalp in awkward ways. A BUZZ CUT, for crying out loud! You’d think that after five previous games on the XBox, we’d be avoiding graphical snafus like this. But apparently not. Ugh.

Graphics: 5.5/10


SOUND

Like the other games before it, THAW contains a large list of licensed music to skate to, and I’m sure there are one or two songs in that list exclusive to the game. (Forgive my ignorance, as I don’t know half of these bands.) Outside of two or three songs I can pick out regularly (Green Day’s “Holiday” and the humorous “I Like Dirt”), most songs are pretty average. Again, like the last two games, most of the songs are just bland and fade into the background. Luckily, custom soundtracks quickly alleviate this situation, as they are once again included.

The voice acting for the game is decent enough, but for the third game in a row, the same people voice all the characters. Granted the pro skaters have to be themselves, but your custom guy has the same voice as your custom guy from THUG and THUG2. And the voice of Mindy is the custom GIRL character voice from THUG. Now I realize that certain games need certain items for continuity sake, but do we need the same three people doing the all the minor voices in every game? This isn’t Funimation we’re talking about here.

Another thing I noticed is that about half of the voices didn’t match the accompanying script. Some of it was pretty funny, like when you learn BMX tricks, but it kinda gets annoying after a while. You’d think they’d modify the in-game script to match the differences, wouldn’t you? (Sigh)

Sound: 6/10


CONTROLS/GAMEPLAY

The controls to THAW are just as responsive as ever. Although its a bit difficult to pull off tricks that require a double-tap of the D-Pad, the controls feel just as natural as they were in previous entries. A still ollies, X performs flip tricks, B performs flips, and Y grinds. Classic mechanics such as the manual, revert, caveman, and the spine transfer are also present.

There are several new moves you can perform as well, much like all new Tony Hawk incarnations. But the new tricks seem rather minor in comparison. For example, there’s the Bert Slide, which allows you to crouch down and slide up/down ramps and on the pavement. There are also “parcour” gymnastic tricks you can do while off your skateboard. They’re pretty neat, but odds are you won’t be incorporating them into your repertoire very often. THUG2 faced the same dilemma, throwing in a bunch of idiot moves you do OFF the skateboard that you’ll never use. These new tricks are a far cry from the awesome inventions brought forward in the early THPS games.

A new form of play in this game is the ability to perform tricks on a BMX bike, requiring a new set of controls. It takes some getting used to, considering you hold the A button to move and the thumb stick to steer, but it won’t take long to get used to. You’ll also be able to learn all the tricks associated with BMX riding in Story Mode.

Speaking of which, lets move on to the modes of play. Once again, Story Mode is the main mode and contains three levels of difficulty. Like in previous games, the goal is to skate around your current surroundings, performing various challenges in order to proceed. In this edition, there’s a sort-of “compass” that will help guide you around the massive city of L.A. Pink stars point you to challenges that move the story along, while other icons point you to side-challenges that will earn you money. Dollar signs lead you to a hobo that will give you money by performing various tricks. (A hobo…yeah…) A spray can leads you an “artist” that will give you money for spraying tags in the desired location. (You can also customize your own tag through him.) A BMX icon will take you to the nearest bike. And several other icons will lead you to various shops to modify your character. The new compass can be a blessing and a curse at times. While it does lead you around the current area, the icons can end up a cluttered mess sometimes. This can be a bit confusing if all you want to do is head to the skate shop.

The most interesting thing about Story Mode is the fact that you can’t perform ANYTHING worthwhile of a pro. You can’t revert or spine transfer, or even use traditional mechanics like Special. You’ll have to learn all these tricks as you go through. But the sad thing is that you never truly advance farther than an Amateur Skater here. Emphasis is completely taken off the “pro” aspect put forward in the last six games. Ugh.

One of the big toting points of the game is that there are “no loading times” between areas, and that you can move around the entire city of L.A. as though it were one gigantic stage. Believe it or not, this is true…sort of. Like previous games, all stages are still sectioned off. There’s Hollywood, East L.A., Dogtown, and several other areas to skate through, but each area represents a small square. So how does the game not load between areas? Simple. There are extremely long “hallways” you travel down in order to get to the next area. These are used to mask the loading of each individual stage. Still, the illusion works for what its worth.

And while loading times aren’t COMPLETELY gone in Story Mode, they have been drastically reduced. There are times when you’ll be prompted to go back to the Skate Ranch, or use a bus to travel to whatever area you want. Here, it only takes a second or two to load each area. This is a definite improvement over previous Tony Hawk games, and its definitely impressive.

Classic Mode from THUG2 also returns, and comes complete with LOADING TIMES! (FALSE ADVERTISING AHOY!) While last year’s version had its problems, it was incredibly robust with around 16 stages I believe. This year, however, is pitiful. You are granted with SIX stages, and 4/5 of them are reused from previous games. Have you played THPS2x and THUG2 Remix before? You’ll recognize most of the stages. And it doesn’t stop there, oh no sir! Your starting stats are all at 7/10, making it INCREDIBLY easy to perform all the tricks they ask of you from the start. Finally, the most sad thing here is the fact you can unlock all the stages in Classic Mode in 15 minutes if you know exactly what you are doing. Hell, even if you only know HALF of what you’re doing! Ugh.

Create-A-Modes are back in full force, and as implied above, most are accessible through Story Mode for various tasks. Create-A-Tag lets you make your own logo for spray-painting. Create-A-Skater is exactly as it sounds. Create-A-Trick lets you create your own trick by combining elements of existing ones. And Create-A-Park gives you the option to create your own stage to mess around in. Nothing really new here to report, but the modes are everything you’ve come to expect from the series.

Like previous XBox versions, the 2-Player games are included. Unlike previous XBox versions, they are Live compatible. Yes, THAW is the first Tony Hawk game to take advantage of XBox Live, mainly through the various 2-Player matches. Now we can finally Score Attack, play Horse, and all those other fun little diversions over the Internet. It’s actually pretty fun, and adds a bit to the life of the game.

For the most part, its still Tony Hawk, but with minor enhancements. The Live aspects add some life to the game, but for the fifth year in a row, deja vu keeps creeping up in the gameplay.

Controls/Gameplay: 6.5/10


REPLAY VALUE

In order to complete the game, you’ll need to proceed through Story Mode three times at increasing difficulty, and Classic Mode twice. Now, this is assuming that you WANT to complete these modes more than once. Seriously, even with the increasing difficulty of your challenges, not much changes between them. Especially considering (a) there’s only a one-mission difference between Story Mode difficulties, and (b) the final mission of the whole game is running to one location. Boring, boring stuff.

Now again, the Create-A-Modes and Live components will extend the gameplay for a while, but not by much. As much as I hate to admit it, the same ol’, same ol’ Tony Hawk gameplay is getting tiresome. I really, really don’t want to keep playing the same stuff over and over again. Especially if modes like Classic Mode are filled with nothing but old stuff I’ve played before.

Replay Value: 4/10


BALANCE

For what its worth, while the tasks are easy as hell to perform, Story Mode is pretty balanced. You start out with low stats, and the only way to gain stats is to complete “sponsor challenges” found on posters near a skate shop. You can only perform four challenges at a time, and have to wait a day in game time to perform more. The upside is that you can’t “munchkin” your stats early on in the game. The weird downside about this is that while 70 challenges are available, you’ll never have to complete them ALL in order to max out your stats.

On the other side of the coin, once again, is the fact that Classic Mode is so unbelievably unbalanced it’s not funny. This is the complete opposite of THUG2’s Classic Mode, which placed your stats very low. But here in THAW, the mode can be completed in an incredibly short amount of time. I’m really disappointed here.

Balance: 5.5/10


ORIGINALITY

Man, why is it that Neversoft can release the same friggin’ game every year with only minor tweaks and additions, and everyone else falls all over themselves? They only things new to this version are stage set-up and a few minor tricks, and a BMX controls that can be largely ignored until late in the game. And this year’s Classic Mode is barely original as is in terms of stages and such. So like past versions, putting “Tony Hawk” and “original” in the same sentence is laughable.

Originality: 3/10


ADDICTIVENESS

Past versions of the game sucked me in completely. I remember plugging in THPS2 for my PS1 and playing for hours on end. THPS3 and THPS4 expanded on the great formula with some great, game-changing additions. Even THUG had some cool things to offer, including a really cool story mode. But with the last couple of games, the additions became less and less impressive. What used to suck me in so much has now bored me in plenty of spots. The game is still fun, be definitely not to the degree it once was.

Addictiveness: 4/10


APPEAL FACTOR

Despite the near lack of “newness” here, people will snap this game up for the “Tony Hawk” in its name. Heck, even I get caught up in the excitement when new Tony Hawk games are released. But the games are caught in an endless cycle known as “Madden Syndrome”. The new game in the series contains very little change, but that doesn’t stop the diehard fans from picking the new version up at full price on Day 1. So the game is going to appeal to the audience Neversoft befriended, pampered, and groomed to except only minor enhancements for the full fifty-dollar price.

Appeal Factor: 7/10


MISCELLANEOUS

The main item I hate about later editions of the Tony Hawk series is the slow draining of the importance of the actual pro skaters. Now that the creation of your own skater is mandatory, the game doesn’t really persuade you to choose other skaters to play as. They don’t have their own challenges like previous games. They don’t have their own ending movies. Hell, they don’t even have their own unique skate stats anymore! They’re just the equivalent of average computer models with different names and costume skins. I’m surprised that these guys still have their own unique moves still!

(Sigh) It’s just another one of the series’ shining aspects that has been pushed by the wayside.

Miscellaneous: 4.5/10


THE SCORE

Story: 5/10
Graphics: 5.5/10
Sound: 6/10
Controls/Gameplay: 6.5/10
Replay Value: 4/10
Balance: 5.5/10
Originality: 3/10
Addictiveness: 4/10
Appeal Factor: 7/10
Miscellaneous: 4.5/10
TOTAL: 51/100 (AVERAGE)