I've come to think of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series kind of like my Aunt Bertha. She's an enjoyable person and has her own little hilarious backstory to success, but, oddly enough, when she gets some new gloss put on her, like a hairstyle that seems wilder than anything Marilyn Manson can cook up, you can't help but see a little fascination added on to the old thing. The Tony Hawk series is back for its seventh go-around, this time with American Wasteland, and fans should be pleased. The rest of you...eh, worth a rent.
The game puts you in the shoes of a young skater wanna-be who wants to build himself into the glory status of Hawk and become the next great boarder. So what's a guy to do when his dreams exceed the small town that he's living in? Transport himselt to Los Angeles, that's what. Here, in the game's Story Mode, you follow in the shoes of his upstart and a few of his newfound friends as they make their way all over the city, completing a number of goals and pranks, collecting items, and eventually making the place an American skateland.
Of course, the story's just a bit modified from Tony Hawk's Underground 2, where two teams of pranksters went on a "world tour" trying to prove their worth in prankhood, but this one seems to revert back to the old style of the Tony Hawk games, instead of some underground movement. The results are a bit surprising, and give this game series a bit more mileage than I would have expected.
The Story Mode in itself is just one offering, but it's plentiful with a number of goals to complete and items to collect for your home turf, some of which lean on the downright bizarre and don't exactly look normal sitting next to a worn-out sofa. Still, it has its moments, and you can switch between a number of given characters throughout to prove their mettle in different tasks. It's just a bummer that you can't add your own created character to the mix like you did with Underground, as it would have given the game a bit of personality. At least you can mess with the characters at hand, though. Dress them up like clowns, I say! Call the fashion police!
Another bonus about Story Mode is that you're not really given everything right away, and have to earn new abilities and tricks, such as the Focus Mode (sigh, which is still flawed) and a couple of other new moves. It's not entirely frustrating, and will have skating fans digging into new moves for a few hours.
There's also the return of Classic Mode, one of the best additions to return to the Tony Hawk series in some time. This allows you to revisit old levels from the previous games in a fully glossified form, finding old and new goals strewn across a number of terrains like Minneapolis and Atlanta. There's also new icons to find and a lot to open up in here, which is great. I loved this mode in THUG 2 and I love it even more here.
But what's wonderful about this latest endeavor on the Xbox is the full-blown support for Xbox Live -- and it is full-blown. Chat support and online play are both on hand, so you can trash-talk many a gamer (and take some back for yourself) while you grind against others in a number of competitions and mini-games. The most significant addition is Co-Op, where you can team up with a friend to complete goals on a level and save yourself some precious time. These can also be played offline via competitive split-screen multiplayer, so you and a bud can just chill without racking up the servers. Nice.
The game continues to look better with each outing, and Neversoft has managed to add some personal touches to the visuals. The character animation is as blazing as it could ever be, especially on the "bails" and "crashes", some of which look downright sickening. The details throughout the areas of Los Angeles are utterly endless, although an occasional clipping issue does come into play at some points. Fortunately, Activision and Neversoft made up for this by taking the loading time to absolute minimum standards, making the game a free-flowing experience. Yes, even while you're blazing high amongst the rooftops and thrill rides, the detail barely loses its touch. The engine has definitely reached a peak here, though, so you have to wonder how much further it has to go. Perhaps the forthcoming 360 version will answer our question.
As far as soundtrack, it's as righteous as ever. The tunes range through a number of bands, ranging from such alternative acts as My Chemical Romance to Bloc Party to old-school tunes by Mtoeley Crue and Public Enemy, to even some quirky additions by the likes of Oingo Boingo and Dropkick Murphys. It's really vast and you're bound to find a few favorites in there, most of them themed very nicely with the skating action. The voicework included is basically the skaters joshing around, but having a good time with it, and it adds a bit of realism to the game. Hey, you wouldn't want people thrasing around LA sounding like frickin' Joey, would you? Rounding out the audio are some killer sound effects, an item the series has never grown stale on.
Besides the multiplayer and the vast opportunities at hand in the various modes, American Wasteland also gives you the chance to ride around on a BMX bike. Granted, it takes a little getting used to, and one has to wonder what a BMX bike is doing in a skateboarding game to begin with (isn't that what BMX games are for?), but it's a nice touch and will give fans of Mat Hoffman's stuff something to do within the game. Unlockable movies and hidden characters round out what else can be done with the game.
It is old. This is true. The series has seen seven chapters now and many of you might run into the feeling that it's merely grinding its wheels at this point. But at least Neversoft didn't opt for Tony Hawk's Underground 3 and instead implied feeling into their effort, and the result will certainly reward fans. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is one of the better grinders to come off the pike in some time, and those who don't mind building up million-point combos will find themselves in la-la-land for quite a while. Now if I could only get Aunt Bertha to get into the game.
That'd be wild.