Much like a perennial sport series, the Tony Hawk games seem consistent in their yearly releases. But unlike the Maddens and the MLBs, Neversoft seems to always refine the gameplay or add a new nuance that makes every older title archaic. Try as anyone might, it is exceptionally hard to go back to a Tony Hawk game that doesn't have the revert or flatland tricks in them. And while many claim the small additions are simply a ploy to sell more games (well, of course they are), no one can fault Activision or Neversoft for releasing games that simply get better and better as the series wears on. Now, after two "Underground" outings which split Hawk fans every which way, Tony Hawk returns in American Wasteland in what is obviously a return to the basics and what made the series great to begin with. But does it add enough new content to warrant a purchase or does it simply regurgitate what we've already played at least half a dozen times with just prettier graphics? Is the seventh time the charm?
As with the two previous Tony Hawk outings (the Underground series), American Wasteland is a very story driven game. Luckily, all the immature, grating, American Pie-like destructive humor has been removed in favor of a real, mature story. While it still follows the typical Rocky-esque loser makes good storytelling arc, it is well told and the best Tony Hawk story we've ever seen. For long-time fans of the series, however, the fact that the story mode is really a overly long training mode where you'll have to re-learn every skill you already know may put some off, but while it may get tedious from time to time, it's a good way to polish up your skills for the Classic mode and multiplayer games. For newcomers, American Wasteland is the most accessible of all the Tony Hawk games. For veterans, the difficulty can be tweaked to add to the challenge, but the story mode does overstay its welcome after a while. The other downside to the story mode is that the game forces you to pick between four preset characters (that you can edit later on) instead of allowing you to use a completely fabricated skater like previous games. I for one always created a female skater, but American Wasteland didn't have this option.
American Wasteland is perhaps the Tony Hawk game with the least amount of gameplay innovations (Dogtown and Z-Boys' homage: the Bert Slide being the only real new move) but featuring the most technical leaps. While the developers will have you believe that there are no load times, what the game does is have you skate through a "pipe" area while it streams the next part of LA. The whole affair is seamless and in the story mode, there really isn't any loading (apart from the initial one). In other modes however, be it Classic Mode, create-a-whatever, etc, you will find loading and lots of it.
But with all the nitpicks, it should be clearly noted that what American Wasteland really tries to do is bring the series back to its roots, where the gameplay was about skating and not creating havoc, collect items or ride cars. American Wasteland is really a game about skating and while many may claim that it's too little too late, it's obviously the first step in the re-invention of the series and a step in the right direction (and far away from the Underground). Besides learning the fundamentals of skating all over again, you will be tasked with building your very own skate-park using pieces that you've gathered from around LA. The create-a-park feature has been around for a long time, but it's nice to see it implemented as a core part of the gameplay and it works.
Besides the Story Mode, fans will be glad to see the Classic Mode return where you have two minutes to beat pre-determined goals within a level. While this mode isn't as long as the story mode itself, it's a nice diversion and one that veterans will appreciate more than others. Fans will also appreciate the plethora of multiplayer modes and options that have always added a huge amount of replay value to the series. Playable on Xbox Live, the game runs smoothly, with lots of nice, competitive modes, but the few gamers that seem to be playing this online are wily veterans that can bust combos the likes of which are hard to replicate. Luckily, most are good natured and willing to offer advice for those of us that are, after seven games, still learning.
Graphically, one would assume that the next generation Xbox 360 would be the victor against the Xbox and PS2, but not so. While the 360's graphics are crisp and very clean, in high definition, it is far too easy to see all the texture limitations used. While the skaters look amazing, other objects like buses, cars, etc, suffer from the Flintstone syndrome where everything looks a little too "square" . Buses should have curves. Not in American Wasteland. And, as with other games on the 360, use of real-time lighting effects are a mixed bag. Even in some cutscenes, the sun's location often casts a complete shadow over a character's face, making him or her completely unrecognizable. This is unfortunate since it is a problem that could have easily been fixed, especially during scripted moments. It is nice, with glitches and all though, to see the game run in high definition and while it can't compete with other next-gen games, it clearly looks better in some areas (skaters, boards, signs) than the Xbox and PS2 versions.
In the audio department, the Tony Hawk series has always offered a large quantity of songs by top artists and American Wasteland continues in this respect. For this outing, many artists offered renditions of classic punk songs. While this is nice, I'd much rather hear My Chemical Romance perform one of their own songs than someone else's. But still, there is again enough content to please almost everyone and what is offered fits the mood of American Wasteland perfectly and certainly gets the blood pumping. While the pro-skater voice acting is still hammy and hit-or-miss (luckily their parts are always small), the main characters, Tony Hawk and Mindy (your skate mentor) are perfectly voiced. Mindy is voiced by Cree Summer who, like Jennifer Hale, can always be counted on to give an amazing performance.
In the end, American Wasteland feels a little anti-climactic as a title. While technically speaking, it's a step in the right direction, it seems that the gameplay has finally been stunted and while this may have been necessary (to escape the trappings of the Underground series) it seems that there was something missing, at least for veterans of the series. Anyone who has yet to try a Tony Hawk game need look no further than American Wasteland for the prefect first step. Fans looking for their yearly fix will still enjoy the Classic Mode and the lengthy, but easy, Story Mode. And as always, the multiplayer aspect is the perfect party game for players of all skill and ages.