Saturday, June 16, 2012

Tony Hawk's American Wasteland

While the gameplay in THAW is still sharp, this installment just seems to lack that special spark that made the series so much fun in the first place.
Review By Jeff Gerstmann
Don't let the recent name changes fool you. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is the seventh Tony Hawk game developed by Neversoft in as many years. Over the years the series has had installments that made dramatic changes to the formula, but the more recent installments have focused less on gameplay or structural changes and more on including a story. American Wasteland is the game that finally makes good on the story thing by offering a plot that's far more interesting than it's been in the previous two games. It also attempts to put all its levels together into one big take on Los Angeles that's free from loading times. That part doesn't work out quite as well as the back of the box would have you believe, but the real issue with American Wasteland is with its gameplay. You'll find the requisite handful of new tricks, but most of the story mode feels like a brief tutorial, and the classic mode isn't deep or long enough to hold the attention of series veterans. It's got more of the same fluid skating gameplay you've come to expect from the series, but the game's over almost immediately.

Story mode puts you in the role of a nameless skater from the Midwest who's given up on living in the middle of nowhere. Tired of being hassled by The Man, you run away to Los Angeles with dreams of skating in the area where skating all began. Things are going fine until just after you step off the bus, which is where you get jumped by some toughs who make off with your gear. A raspy-voiced girl named Mindy takes pity on you and sets you off in the direction of an adventure that sends you all around the city of Los Angeles, where you'll thrash, skate, and destroy as you find a crew of squatting vandals to call your friends, a skatepark to call your own, and...an alien costume. When you first start, you'll be a pretty weak skater. Most of the moves you've come to expect from the series, like manuals and reverts, won't even be available to you until you learn them. You'll learn most of the basics pretty quickly, but it'll take a little while before you learn to use special tricks, flatland tricks, and focus.

You'll also learn the game's new tricks, like the bert slide, which is the ground-based, surfing-like maneuver brought back to the skating hive-mind by Dogtown and Z-Boys. You can also get off your board and swing it at pedestrians (which isn't terribly useful), and you can learn some freestyle running techniques for wall climbing, flips, and so on. You can also find and ride BMX bikes in the game, which come up in a couple of goals but are mostly there for you to earn money, which you'll need at various points in the story. The BMX bike controls are vastly different from the skating controls, and they're surprisingly well thought out--provided you have a good PlayStation 2-like gamepad for your PC. Bike games have traditionally just mapped that to a button and a direction, just like any other trick. Here you'll have to do a backflip and a 180 at the same time to get credit for a flair. The BMX stuff is minor, overall, but it's an interesting diversion.

Few of these new tricks really matter, because most of your goals in story mode simply ask you to quickly grind or natas-spin on an object, or wall-plant or sticker-slap something while watching the fun. Most of the goals are based around the skate ranch, an area found just outside of Beverly Hills that's mostly a large empty dirt lot with a halfpipe in it. One of the major thrusts of the story is your crew's desire to trick out the ranch, so you'll always have goals that involve you busting out a piece of the city so that it can get added to the ranch. There are a lot of different pieces to add to the ranch, but since most of them are required goals that get the story moving again, you won't have to go out of your way to get them. You'll have a few things to do in the skate ranch itself, but it's mostly just there for show and for free skating.

The main problem with the goals is that they're ridiculously straightforward and leave nothing to the imagination. If you need to grind some support cables to loosen a sign on top of a theater, the game sets you down directly in front of those support cables. After you grind them, you'll be asked to pull off a wall-plant on the sign itself. Again, it drops you into the exact position to pull it off. The game really seems bent on holding your hand every step of the way. While forcing you to go out of your way to line yourself up might not be the most fun thing in the world, the way THAW is set up makes the entire story mode feel like a tutorial. If you've kept up with the Tony Hawk series over the years, you'll nail most of the goals on your first or second try. While it has a "sick" difficulty mode that's meant to make the game more challenging, it still lines you up just right and still forces you through all the early move-learning tutorial stuff, which is decidedly un-sick.

The saving grace of the story mode is that the story it tells is actually pretty good. It follows the standard "ragtag group of misfits' struggles to save the place they call home from evil real estate moguls" plot that drove such classic films as Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. But along the way, the characters become a little endearing, and most importantly, the game doesn't beat you over the head by shoehorning the pro skaters in whenever possible. When you finally do start encountering the game's pros, you do it in a way that feels natural, which is great. That said, the plot's got some holes, and the last mission hits you unexpectedly, exacerbating the game's short feel. If you were any good at playing previous Tony Hawk games, you'll probably be done in four or five hours.

A big part of the story mode is that it tries to present the entire city to you as one large skateable environment with no load times. That's true in theory, but it's not nearly as pure as it may sound. The city's levels are all separated by tight hallways you have to skate through to change areas. So you're technically still in control, but these hallways are lame and pointless and really might as well just be load screens. The game starts to load the new area when you enter the connecting area, which usually causes some stutters and skips in the frame rate. On some machines, the action just stops for a second. If you want, you can catch a bus from area to area, which saves you the hassle of having to skate from one end of LA to the other. Since you can walk around the bus while the interior of it shakes onscreen, this technically isn't a load time, right?

Each area is pretty large and feels at least somewhat different from the other ones. In terms of raw outdoor LA skating, you'll get Hollywood, Santa Monica, downtown, Beverly Hills, and East LA. But you'll also skate in an indoor skatepark, tear up an oil rig, and eventually get access to a casino, though this casino is taken from the PSP version of THUG2, so it's not exactly a new level. The casino is the last area you'll see in story mode, which is pretty disappointing if you played THUG2 on the PSP and already saw this level. The level design throughout the game is full of huge skate lines that let you extend combos into strings of tricks that take you all over the level. It's at a point where if you're good at keeping your grind and manual balance meters under control, you can do tricks and combos forever. The million-point combo that felt so skillful four years ago is now the order of the day, since some spots feel like you can hop off anything and land on another trickable object almost automatically.

The flip side to THAW's story mode is classic mode, which once again takes things back to the two-minute run timer, skate letters, and secret tapes that marked the first three entries in the series. It also pulls in classic levels from other Tony Hawk games. The series has been reusing the old levels as special unlockables for the last few years now, so most of the truly amazing levels from the Tony Hawk series have already appeared in a nostalgic context. That leaves behind some good (but not all that great) levels from Hawks of the past, including more levels from the PSP THUG2 that was released last year. The goals have been rearranged a bit, so they won't be exactly how you remember them from the previous games, but that doesn't make them especially difficult, either. Again, if you're on your game, you'll probably be completing at least five of each level's 10 goals on your first run-through. If you want to get every single goal in the mode, it'll take more time, but vets should have at least gotten to the last level on the list--a pretty cool postapocalyptic ruined-city level--in an hour or two. There's more to see and unlock, but if you're just trying to unlock the basics so you can get online to host a game (where you're limited to hosting levels you've seen in single-player), you can do all that pretty quickly.

The online action in THAW hasn't changed much at all, and on the PC, competition is pretty scarce. Eight players can get into a game to play score-based challenges, capture the flag, goal attack, graffiti, combo mambo, and so on. The modes are generally pretty cool. Even just the plain old high-score competition is worthwhile because the game lets you throw down really heavy combos. Stuff like graffiti and capture the flag forces you to change the way you play a bit. And the firefight mode--which lets you shoot fireballs out of your skateboard, effectively turning the game into a makeshift shooter--is also pretty crazy. All in all, the online's worth playing, though new players might have a hard time getting used to the particulars or nailing high-scoring combos, since the single-player doesn't really train you for that sort of activity.

The modes in this year's online game are pretty much the same online options we've been seeing for quite some time now. It's a little weird that your skater from story mode can't be used online or in any of the other non-story modes. Considering you're sort of building this skater up over time, it would have been nice if he eventually turned into some superskater to give players that do well in the story some extra incentive. To sum up the online mode, if you've enjoyed competing online in the past, the collection of new levels should be more than enough to keep you entertained this year.

That said, you'll unlock secret skaters when you finish the modes on different difficulties. This year's unlockable for beating the story on normal is--like it's been in recent years--pretty random, and it represents an interesting addition. We won't reveal who it is, but let's just say that he would have been a lot funnier with some voice samples, and perhaps some sort of special manual move that brought out a large pimp chalice. OK, perhaps we've said too much...

You'll also have the same sort of "create" modes that you've seen in past games, letting you create skaters, skateparks, tricks, deck graphics, graffiti tags, and so on. On the PlayStation 2, you can also map your own face onto a created skater, and the game lets you upload and download things like created parks from a central source. Since you can't take your story mode skater out into other modes for some strange reason, creating your own skater is good for getting your individuality out there, especially if you're playing online a lot.

Graphically, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland looks OK, though it has limited options for resolution and the frame rate isn't steady, even on machines that well exceed the game's requirements. Key story figures seem to animate a little better when just standing around on the street while waiting for you to ride up and activate them. The areas are large, but they don't seem much larger than the levels found in last year's game. Considering the console versions of the game had widescreen support, it's odd that the same support doesn't appear to be included here. Also, you'll have to have a good PlayStation 2-like gamepad to play this game properly, because the keyboard can't keep up at all.

Much of the sound in American Wasteland has been pulled from the previous games in the line, which is to be expected, since the developer got the sounds of skating down quite well years ago. Still, you'll hear some new sound effects here and there if you're listening closely, and for the most part, the game sounds nice. The soundtrack is once again varied across several genres, and it includes Frank Black's "Los Angeles," which, really, is all you need. There are also a lot of new punk bands covering a lot of old punk songs. If you're emotionally attached to a lot of old punk rock, you'll probably hate it on principle, but the covers are decent. If you're playing the Xbox version, you can opt for a custom soundtrack. There's a lot of speech in the game, and most of it's nicely done. The pro skaters, who were occasionally rough in past years, aren't in the game very much, but their performances are generally more believable overall. And the rest of the cast members do fine jobs with their lines of dialogue, which are well written and fit in the context of the story, except for the part where other skaters keep calling you a "noob," which really seems out of place.

While the gameplay in Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is still sharp, this seventh installment just seems to lack that special spark that made the series so much fun in the first place. The Tony Hawk series has always worked, because, even if you stripped away all the goals, pro skaters, and extra fluff packed into each annual installment, the simple act of finding lines and skating freestyle across the levels was great fun. Even with a handful of new tricks, simply skating around and grinding out huge lines only goes so far, especially when the levels are set up to make doing so incredibly easy. It's enough to make you think that maybe the series needs a year off to give it time to incorporate some dramatic new ideas that could revitalize the once-great franchise.

NAME: TONY HAWK'S AMERICAN WASTELAND
SYSTEM: PC, XBOX, XBOX 360, Nintendo Game Cube, PlayStation 2

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