Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland is the seventh game in the Tony Hawk series of games.  Since the original game came out in 1999, the gameplay has been on an almost constant move forward.  I say almost as many people did not like the two most recent iterations, Tony Hawk’s Underground and Tony Hawk’s Underground 2.  With two moves into the world of the destructive and antisocial behavior already in place, it would take something completely new to draw Tony Hawk fans back for a third time. 


Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, or THAW as we’ll refer to it from now on, kicks off with you picking one skater out of a group of five.  Your character is looking to escape from his Midwestern life by moving to Los Angeles to skate.  His former home life was rocky as he was failing in his classes, and his parents didn’t approve of his skateboarding lifestyle.  It was time for a change.


When you step off the bus to L.A. you inhale the thick smog, and then proceed to get your country-bumpkin ass whipped.   It seems that the local skate scene doesn’t take too kindly to folks from out of town, especially ones with a mullet and flannel shirt.  After you have been ‘relieved’ of your worldly possessions, you meet up with Mindy.  Mindy will act as a guide of sorts throughout the game.  She starts off by telling you to get a haircut and some new clothes to help you shake off that farmboy look.  Once you rid yourself of the “Kensucky” look you get to start in on the story.

The Tony Hawk games have been progressive.  Every game seems to bring more and more to the table.  While THUG2 had massive levels, the primary hook of THAW is that there are no levels – all of Los Angeles is one giant level.  The graphics on the Xbox and PS2 are both 480p, but the Xbox version just looks a little cleaner.  Granted, none of the three versions I’ve played hold a candle to the 720p glory of the Xbox 360 version, but the Xbox has the sharpest look of all three versions – as is often the case. 


All of this area expansion and higher resolution graphics spells some hitches for the THAW engine.  Especially in the connecting areas between one part of town and another, you will see little graphic hiccups.  Occasionally, you’ll also have a few frame drops when an area is filled with several people or heavy animation.  It isn’t enough to miss a trick or affect the gameplay, but it is there nonetheless.  There are also clipping issues in the game.  Sometimes the characters seem to float several inches off the ground, and other times they seem to jab through it.  When you combine this with the occasionally semi-jagged character models, it makes it clear that we have reached the end of the road for this generation. 


The Tony Hawk series has always had the best soundtrack, and this new version
is no different.  There are 60 licensed tracks this time around including
songs from My Chemical Romance, Senses Fail, Green Day, and two of my favorite
bands, Oingo Boingo and Faith No More.  If you want to check out a more
expansive list, hit href="http://gamingtrend.com/PressReleases/index.php?PRID=3089">this PR
piece on the subject.  The system allows you to toggle the genres of Rock,
Punk, and ‘Other’, or you can turn songs on and off individually. 
What?  You can’t find a set of songs you like?  Well, because you are
playing the Xbox version you can simply rip your own soundtrack to the hard
drive and activate the custom soundtrack option.


The vast majority of the game has voiceovers.  The game has moved away
from being centered around Tony Hawk or Bam Margera, and is more filled with
Joe-nobody characters.  They turn in solid performances, often delivering
their humorous lines with just the right flair.  It is only when the
characters rattle off various moves that they sound out of place.  You’ll
occasionally run into the professional skaters of previous games, and you’ll
hear Tony Hawk on Sirius Satellite Radio.  This adds a bit of authenticity
to the title without solely focusing on the pros. 


The sound effects in the game are often borrowed from previous games. 
Since those were already solid, why fix what isn’t broke?  Now just fix the
few voiceovers that cut off too soon and we’ll be good to go.

The controls in THAW are familiar.  You use the left analog or the D-Pad to control your direction, and you use the right analog to control the camera.  Most often, the camera is where it should be, so you’ll use the right analog sparingly.  The tricks are linked to the face buttons, and spins are handled by the triggers.  The only button that seems to cause me grief is the white button.  The white button enables the focus mode.  I find that I don’t often use the focus mode as a result. 


If you have played any previous Tony Hawk game for any length of time, you are familiar with these controls.  They haven’t been broken for several games, so there is no point in reinventing them.  The new tricks that were introduced in this game are simple enough to pull off, so you don’t have to worry that new moves just means more complicated.  For instance, you’ll learn a move called a Bert Slide.  It is as simple as a button tap and pulling the triggers to modify the technique. 


Again, the controls were great to begin with, so there is no real need to make improvements.

There are a great deal of improvements present in THAW.  The already-mentioned free-roaming environment gives the game a greater sense of cohesiveness not present in previous titles.  You don’t feel like the levels are disconnected from each other.  This extends into every aspect of the game including just changing clothes.  Similar to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, you can visit various shops to customize your character.  In a step up from San Andreas, you do this without loading.  You can select from a variety of shirts, pants, shorts, hairstyles, facial hair, pads, board graphics, wheels, grip tape, and more to customize your character.


All this customization won’t help the fact that you suck.  Apparently your skate lifestyle in the Midwest was really lacking as you have no real skill at all in the beginning of the game.  You don’t know how to do moves like the Natas spin, manuals, reverts, stickerslaps, wallplants, etc. until you’ve been taught again how to use them.  If you are an old school Tony Hawk gamer this might inject some frustration for you.  Thankfully this portion of the story advances pretty quick. 


Rather than giving you an arbitrary percentage to follow, the story is primarily tracked with the Skate Ranch.  When you arrive, there is very little in your ranch, so your first mission is to collect wood to build a ramp.  While the dog you are skitching a ride from looks like he is sliding like Gumby, you end up with the wood and you build your first addition to the ranch.  The story runs wild from here as you try to collect various items from all around Los Angeles.  You’ll grab radio towers, spinning wheels, ramps, rails, pipes, and other bizarre paraphernalia to fill the ranch.  The ranch ultimately serves only to move the story forward, and for a good ‘free skate’ zone to play in.  It also gives you a visual representation of where you are in the story arc.  You can go and collect these items at any time, so feel free to just skate yourself crazy until you feel like moving forward. 


When you are ready to move forward, you follow the compass on your screen to find the pink stars.  These pink stars represent people who can give you missions.  In addition to pink stars you will also see green spraycans for an opportunity to work with a local tagger, a white bus that will take from one end of LA to the other instantly, a dollar sign which represents somebody willing to give you money if you can pull off their challenges, and the BMX bike.


The BMX bike, unlike many of the previous vehicles in the Tony Hawk game, feels like a full-fledged addition to the game instead of something that was shoe-horned in.  The tricks on the bike are just as complex and varied as those on the skateboard.  You use the analog sticks to swing the bike around and the face buttons to land tricks.  If you can pull off tricks on the board, there is a good chance that the bike tricks will fall right into place. 


Another major portion of the gameplay is the addition of Sponsor Challenges.  At the skate shops around town there are small boards that list off challenges for you to attempt. These can be as simple as ‘Land a 1000 point combo’ or ‘Grind for 2 seconds’ to ‘Ollie 20 feet’ and ‘Land a 100,000 point combo’.  These Sponsor Challenges net you stat upgrades such as faster speed and more air.  You have to complete the sponsor challenges within a 24 hour period, but if you don’t you just have to go get them again. 


As I mentioned before, the ‘create-a’ modes are integrated into the gameplay.  One aspect that I enjoyed was the inspiration points.  At an inspiration point you can create your own custom tricks.  It’s a part that most players probably won’t tinker with, but the fact that it is in there for guys like me is very cool.


If you could care less about storyline and want an old school Tony Hawk experience, then THAW has you covered.  There is a classic mode here where your objectives are more streamlined with timed runs to grab the SKATE and COMBO letters, secret tapes, max points, etc.  If you want the original experience with all the upgrades, this mode is for you.  If you have a nice big TV, you can also try out the new split-screen co-op in classic mode. 


I’ve saved the best for last – Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland has FINALLY come to Xbox Live.  Not just for two people either, this is full 8 player support people!  There are modes such as Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, Pot o’ Gold (think keep-away), Scavenger Hunt, Horse, Goal Attack, and more!  Being able to play this without alternating, or without splitting the screen is awesome.  This alone makes the game worth the price of admission.

It is a good thing that they included Live play for this game – it is very short.  I have been playing Tony Hawk games since they came out, and even in my rusty condition I was able to close the story arc in roughly 5-6 hours.  The replay value will come in the form of online competition as I was told there will be no downloadable content. I would have liked to see more costumes or something simple, but it just isn’t meant to be. 

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