Genre: Extreme Sports
Release Date: October 18, 2005
There are a few things you can always expect in a calendar year: the World Series, a new television season, Christmas advertising in July, and a new Tony Hawk title. There's literally been one every year since 1999's groundbreaking Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, each one tacking on a few more gimmicks or widgets, enhancing what was already there, and evolving from a one-hit wonder into a franchise you can see from low orbit. And now, it's that time again.
In as much as background goes, THAW (I wonder what's next, THWAP?) spares the gamer any sort of heavy plot or character development. Much like the two Underground titles, you are placed gently as Joe Random Skaterboy, given the opportunity to rise from the depths of obscurity towards the lights of superstardom. Your motivation this time: bored stupid with rural life in some unidentified desert local, you hop a bus and ride right into the home of the original skate demons, Los Angeles. The only things holding you back from monumental success is, well ... you've got no fashion sense, no connections, no money, no friends, and worst of all, no skills. After getting quit easily mugged as you hop off the bus, the only person who seems to be willing to put up with you — a skate fan named Mindy — decides that you're not totally hopeless, and there it begins...
If you've ever played any of the previous Tony Hawk titles, you'll at least be passingly familiar with the gameplay and concepts. Those who've done their time with Underground will feel completely at home; little has really changed, but that's not a bad thing, given how well Underground 2 worked out. The controls haven't changed a notch, with the ollie and trick buttons exactly where they've been for seven revisions now. Also returning from Underground is the ability to leave the board and explore the city on foot, which helps in finding obscure goals or simply getting somewhere without worrying about falling on your butt.
The manual, sticker slap, and caveman all come back, with a few new friends: you can now graffiti tag anything that comes in handy (and yes, it counts in your combo); the bert slide lets you pull off ground level hand-plant spins that change your direction quickly (and serve as a nod to the The Z-Boys of early 1980s L.A.); the natas spin, which lets you go all Michael Jackson on posts and signs, spinning around like a ballerina on speed; and lastly, the wallrun and wallflip break out Prince Of Persia style moves to make even the highest wall accessible. That's not even getting into the all new (and completely optional) BMX mode, with a trickset and control style all its own....
One of the major departures from even the Underground titles is the final and complete removal of "levels." Los Angeles exists as a series of interconnected "zones," like Beverly Hills or Downtown, which can be reached by tunnels, bridges, or simply taking the bus. Load times are minimal, but most of all, this toasts the "return to main menu, pick a different venue" idea that's haunted every other Tony Hawk ever released. It's sort of Grand Theft Auto-esque, in its own way. The master zone, once you finally unlock it, is The American Wasteland. Mindy, yourself, and a few other local skate thugs set out to convert an abandoned construction site into the greatest skate park the world has ever known. Without giving away too many details, you'll need to "acquire" various bits and pieces for the park, in very ... special manners. It acts as a great progress indicator, and it's actually a fun map to dinker about on — it's really a wonderfully done map, as are all the rest.
New to the Los Angeles setup are the stores. Gone are the simple trade-in menus see in the Underground series: now you go shopping for things like tattoos, clothes, shoes, haircuts, and new boards. It's neat and all, but it's sadly not very dynamic (a lot of stores sell the same things, and it's all cosmetic, so once you've got a look you like, there's little need to change it) and money is not all that easy to come by. It also wedges out one of the most popular features of any Tony Hawk title since the original: Create-A-Skater.
In story mode, you're forced to chose from five pre-designed (and all male, I might add — it's the first time since the original C-A-S in THPS2 that you can't play single player as a female), each of whom winds up just being which skin color and facial design you want, since they all share the same clothing pool in the end. While you can do the original Create-A-Skater in classic mode (just like in Underground, you play the levels on a fixed timer with a goal sheet, a la THPS) or the multiplayer modes, but it's still an odd design choice.
The internals, on the other hand, don't really cause any undue stress or lamentation. The video is smooth, detailed, and some of the better material the PS2 is capable of putting out, and the control scheme holds up after nearly a decade with the exact same layout. We're steadily approaching the end of that, though: THAW uses every button and a great many combinations of them to get all these moves in check, so if any more come along, it's going to grow into a thumb-twisting fight to simply bust a trick.
The voice acting is above average, with B-list actors filling in the major roles. (Note to the developer: if you don't actually get the skateboarding legend to do their own voiceovers, that's fine — these guys are skaters, not actors, and it tends to show.) What really floored me is the music. THPS and its later offspring have always been about really grand playlists, ranging from punk to thrash or rap to reggae, and this is no different, featuring a divine listing of hardcore punk acts ("California Uber Alles" is on here! I swoon.), rap and trance groups, and a few things that just can't be categorized. EA, take notes: this is how you build a soundtrack.
And there you have it. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is Neversoft taking another dive at tweaking out the mechanics of the Tony Hawk universe and, yet again, striking gold. Consider THAW the next evolution, this time from self-contained but open levels to truly free-form environments. While not completely perfect, the minor things that come about — control complexity and a few missing features we've grown used to — don't bog it down in the least. I may miss the absolute insanity that was Underground 2, but American Wasteland is still a beautiful, unpredictable trickfest that's every bit as fun in its seventh iteration as it was back in the first.
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