The Tony Hawk series of games, although a long established franchise, have occupied a unique niche in the sports game landscape, due to the fact that, well, they?re not entirely sports games. Because of their quick pacing, focusing almost entirely on the in-game action instead of technical stats, and simple controls that felt more like a technical fighting game than a complex sports game, the Tony Hawk games have garnered much crossover appeal. Amazingly, despite the Tony Hawk line having spanned seven games, no other sports game has ever matched its crossover appeal, despite several attempts to urbanize, brutalize, or otherwise make ?extreme? the sport in question. So while the Tony Hawk series hasn?t changed much, it hasn?t needed to, since there isn?t any competent competition. The tradition continues on now in the form of Tony Hawk?s American Wasteland (THAW), and while it doesn?t offer anything radically different in terms of the core gameplay experience, it does an outstanding job of avoiding the sequel trap of repeating the same formula. Oxymoronic as that sounds, American Wasteland keeps the Hawk formula from falling into stagnation by providing a vast amount of content, and lots of ways to skate, so you?ll never get bored.
For those who haven?t picked up a Hawk game before, one of the chief ways that the Tony Hawk series sets itself apart from other sports games is its intuitive control scheme that allows new players to pick up the basics quickly, and doesn?t bore or confuse with the convoluted mechanics of other sports games. The left analog stick guides your skater, the right analog stick positions the camera, and the face buttons are pretty simple in their assignments. The root of nearly all techniques lies in the jump button, and after taking to the air, you hit the left analog stick and the appropriate button and you?ll instantly be pulling off tricks ?flip tricks, grab tricks, and grind tricks. You can even get off your board for a few moments by pushing the black button, to do some wall-running acrobatics, which can be incorporated into trick combos. With this basic setup, new players can get into the game and skate around, doing basic tricks in no time flat. Just as THAW?s controls are easy to learn, however, they can be difficult to master for those with only average levels of dexterity in their fingers. To land any trick, your board must be straight and level, and the more tricks you do in a single chain, the harder it becomes to maintain board balance. To get anywhere near the goals prescribed in some of the levels ? and to compete in many multiplayer score-based games ? it becomes a necessity to create extremely long combos of tricks, using stop-gap measures like manuals, sticker slaps, and wall runs constantly to keep the combo going. Again, for those who don?t have ninja-like reflexes, this can be quite a challenge, so for new players this can result in some frustration. Thankfully, the way THAW is structured, ninja-like reflexes are not always needed to proceed. The main Story mode starts off with relatively easy tricks and slowly ramps up the difficulty; in Classic mode, there are always alternate goals to choose from other than those for pure points; and in multiplayer, there are also modes where the amount of points does not determine the winner, so there?s something for all dexterity levels.
With that, let it be said right away, in plain English, why THAW is the best yet ? the game is huge. I?m surprised they managed to get that much content in a single game onto just one DVD. There literally is no shortage of stuff to do, and it?s hard to know where to start. A brief overview is as follows: the crux of the game is the Story mode, where you play the role of a washed-up skate fanatic loser who travels to L.A. in the heyday of its status as a skateboarding and punk lifestyle Mecca. Secondly, for those who prefer their Tony Hawk old-school, there?s Classic mode, where some of the best levels from previous Tony Hawk games are given a graphical facelift and with updated goals to take advantage of the new skating mechanics in THAW. There are the assorted ?Create-a-Modes,? as they are called in THAW, where one gets to create all sorts of new stuff?duh. And finally, there?s online multiplayer, here via Xbox Live.
The meat and potatoes of THAW is still the game?s Story mode. In short, the story is about a kid with a chip on his shoulder the size of Mt. Everest who leaves his old life in rural Midwestern America due to its extreme aversion to skating, and apparently anything else the kids consider ?cool.? Frustrated, he takes a bus to Los Angeles, where he hopes to be able to make a living doing what he loves most: skating?and being a cocky punk. As per the usual formula for a road trip rags-to-riches story, he encounters all sorts of weird fellows, gets caught up in crazy shenanigans, and eventually becomes the sickest skater the universe has ever known. All the while, the ?punk? lifestyle is elaborated upon, in all its contradictions, in being simultaneously rebellious while conforming to a consumerist lifestyle. While the story of THAW won?t exactly win any literary awards, the story does its job, providing lots of camp and cheesy comedy, likable characters (some only because they?re goofballs), awesome graphic novel scenes that capture punk-era art, and, of course, an impetus for the player to proceed through the actual gameplay.
This brings us to the single most touted feature of THAW: the claim of ?no loading? times. This claim is not entirely true. Of course, prior to loading the story mode, there?s one loading screen. Once inside the Story mode, the entirety of Story mode is broken into four distinct levels, which are separated by loading tunnels, where you can keep skating and tricking while the game loads the next section, like MDK. When going into one of these loading tunnels, you?ll notice a slight hiccup. So, technically, there?s still loading times ? a bit of false advertising, but ultimately irrelevant to the overall quality of the game. THAW is still very freeform and allows the player a great deal of freedom in choosing what one does in the name of skating. Story mode starts off pretty linearly, while the absolute basics of skating are taught, but soon branches out into a truly freeform mission structure, as many of the most freeform segments center around getting parts and real estate for a skate park you help build. In a manner akin to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, your character?s appearance is malleable and customizable, albeit to a lesser extent than Create-a-Skater mode (mainly due to the fact that you need money for each change, such as new t-shirts or haircuts). The voice acting for the characters is, well, mostly awful, and plenty of hamming abounds. Considering the campy, completely-not-serious nature of the story, though, it fits quite nicely. Many die-hard fans of the Tony Hawk series have complained that the Story mode is too easy, but as a new player (sort of?I haven?t played a Tony Hawk game since the first Pro Skater), I found it to be just the right difficulty.
However, those players looking for more of a challenge can turn to the Classic mode, where more traditional level structures (and harder challenges) await skate fans. There are six Classic mode levels, with the majority of them being remakes of levels from previous Tony Hawk games (such as Minneapolis and The Mall). It might seem like a bit of a cop-out that these levels aren?t wholly original, but with some of the newer play mechanics that have been included in the Tony Hawk games since the first one, the old levels are still fun to play as a result of this inclusion, making them seem like new experiences. The score targets have been updated to reflect all the new tricks you can do to rack up your combo counter, and the alternative non-score based goals from the previous games are back, such as finding the letters of S-K-A-T-E or the hidden tape, which you can go for if the high score goals are out of reach for your poor calloused fingers.
The modes that give THAW the most replay value, though, are the Create-a-Modes, where the sky?s the limit as far as your vision of skating is concerned. First, there?s Create-a-Skater, which has a decent selection of prefabricated skater models for you to choose from, which can be customized in appearance, from clothes, hairstyle, accessories, board graphic, shirt graphic, etc. This wouldn?t be very compelling, except for the fact that when you create your skater, you get to tailor aspects like his/her skating stats, and the tricks available and what buttons/directions they are mapped to. You can play these skaters over Xbox Live, showing off your beautiful/hideous avatar with a fabulous trick set to the whole world. Ditto with Create-a-Trick, where you take pre-existing trick animations, and, like a music or video editor, put them into timelines where they get blended together into your own twisted concoctions ? a fun and compelling animation mixer. Create-a-Graphic allows one to create one?s own emblem, which shows up as a graffiti tag, and isn?t all that robust, only having pre-existing shapes to choose from with no option to draw or import one?s own. (Although drawing with an Xbox controller would be hard anyway.) Finally, there?s Create-a-Park, an awesome and easy to use skate park editor, which allows one to create the craziest skate park imaginable, with the option to add things like hills, ramps, tables, rails, and even underground tunnels. It does have its limitations ? one being that you can?t change the overall look of the skate park, as you have to pick from six pre-set themes; and two being that you can?t share your parks over Xbox Live. (For shame!) At least actual play over Xbox Live is robust in its features. There is no shortage of different ways to play ? score-based multiplayer modes include Score Challenge, Trick Attack, Elimiskate, Combo Mambo, and probably a bunch of others I forgot. There are plenty of modes where landing long combo chains isn?t a necessity (although it still helps), and these modes seem to take their cue from first-person shooter games ? modes like Capture the Flag, Slap! (think Deathmatch with skateboards), King of the Hill, Graffiti (which is like Halo 2?s Territories mode), and, again, more I can?t remember. THAW?s that packed, folks.
Of course, it doesn?t hurt that the game?s not that bad to look at. The actual models and such don?t look all that impressive, especially with the characters having some blocky areas and jaggies, but the graphics are still impressive considering the sheer area that?s rendered at any given point. In that sense it?s like the Grand Theft Auto series ? low on individual detail, high on sheer amount. But despite the awkward-looking models, the sheer style of this game is enough to make it look good ? a simultaneous homage to, and caricature of, the So Cal area which has long defined skating cool. The soundtrack is similarly awesome, with a broad range of tracks, from rock, to pop-punk, to hip-hop, to accommodate the diverse tastes of the skater crowd. If you don?t like any of the music tracks, you can turn them on or off, or, if you hate the entire soundtrack, you can import your own music (at least on the Xbox version).
Although most of the time I don?t like sports games, THAW is a triumph that even non-sports fans will enjoy. With all the content, THAW literally has something for everyone, and thus overcomes its flaws with brilliance. Hawk fan or not, sports fan or not, you can?t go wrong playing in the American Wasteland.