Genre: Extreme Sports
Release Date: November 15, 2005
The More Things Change …
My first encounter with Tony Hawk Pro Skater came on my Sega Dreamcast and with great skepticism. I'd heard the hype, read the reviews and wondered just how good this game could really be. What I experienced was a revelation, and for three more installments of the franchise I was hooked. I loved the game. I took ownership of my little skater dude in his earning new stats, new clothing and skateboards. I competed in tournaments with a ferocity I had never exhibited in real life. I wrecked my roommates in vicious games of horse, tag and that multiplayer game where you trick off things to get it to turn red or blue. Then Tony Hawk went from Pro Skater to Underground and did exactly what I didn't want or need: Neversoft added a plot. That makes about as much sense to me as adding a plot to Madden ... oh wait, never mind they did that already. The series lost me with THUG and its silliness and wannabe CKY antics.
Tony Hawk: American Wasteland doesn't forsake the storyline approach to the gameplay, but it does shake off the jockish sense of humor and silly contrivances of the THUG episodes. THAW, whether you play the PS2, GameCube, Xbox or 360 version, puts you in the sneakers of some Midwestern hick who's hopped a bus to LA during the mid '80s to partake in the Punk Rock Revolution that is skateboarding. The whole purpose of the storyline is to create the ultimate skate park using various pieces of LA's broad landscape. This concept is a novel one, and it's certainly a step up in narrative styling than the past two Tony Hawk games; however, I still find myself wondering why Neversoft feels so compelled to create a storyline for a game that doesn't need one.
One new feature that THAW boasts is a seamless landscape a la Grand Theft Auto, where one could conceivably link a chain of tricks and combos across all of LA. Practically speaking, it's impossible to do, but it's theoretically possible. I say this not because it'd be too difficult (Lord knows some 12-year-old somewhere has managed to do it), but because the landscape isn't really as seamless as Neversoft would have you believe. Each of the game world's segments are linked by tunnels of some sort that you need to pass through while the game streams in the other areas of the level. There aren't any load times, and you can play the game from start to finish without so much as seeing a loading screen. This in itself is quite an achievement and a major evolution in the game's design, but I again ask why.
What I've always felt to be Tony Hawk's greatness during the Pro Skater installments was that you designed your own skater and went from level to level, unlocking and finding new things and linking together lines that would wreck any skate tape in any skate shop anywhere. THUG focused less on the skating and more on the story, much to the game's detriment. THAW refines the storytelling significantly, but I still do not see this to be any major improvement over what is essentially a flawed game design.
Criticisms aside, the skating elements of THAW are rock solid. You can do even more sick things on four, two or one wheel. There is a whole suite of old-school flatland tricks you can put into play, and you can also get yourself on a BMX bike for a change of pace. The BMX segments are cool, and the gameplay functions are different to pose a new challenge but familiar enough to pick up easily and make sense. You can still create your own tricks and your own park, and in the classic mode, you can create your own skater. Indeed, I find the classic mode to be THAW's saving grace because if you agree that the story mode is a befuddling experience, you can revert back to Tony Hawk Pro Skater and rock out on various renditions of classic levels with two minutes to get it done.
THAW comes in many flavors, and the one I sampled was that of the brand new X360, which boasts high-definition gaming in a natural widescreen format, along with high-resolution texture mapping, normal mapping, bump mapping and anti-aliasing. Alas, THAW is merely a straight port from platform to platform, so the only aspects of the 360's hardware that is taken full advantage of is the anti-aliasing, high definition and widescreen format (which can be had on the Xbox). The load times are inconsequential, and the draw distance is never an issue. Multiplayer can be had in all forms over Xbox Live, and you can take your customized skater into online competition using True Skill to match up with comparable talent. The game's soundtrack ranges from hip-hop to alternative to punk rock. The track listing is impressive and has some good selections from little-known artists; I was especially excited to see the likes of El-P from Company Flow represented. You can also turn off specific track(s) or genre(s) if you want, or you can use your own playlist from ripped music, or you can even hook your iPod and stream music from your playlists that way.
THAW is essentially a more refined rendition of the THUG episodes. To some, that may be a good thing, but to me, I see it as Neversoft missing the point. The good things about THAW are that the skating is tight and nuanced, and the story is a little more tolerable, albeit laden with cheese and a highly romanticized take on LA street life. You can always do what I find myself doing and revert back to classic mode, but if you've rocked your way through all of the Pro Skater series, then you'll find this to be nothing but merely ported versions of a "greatest hits" collection of levels. Had the series skipped THUG 1 and 2 and jumped right to THAW, I'd be more forgiving, but it seems that Tony Hawk is turning into Lara Croft with each new iteration that oddly resembles the one before it. Neversoft needs to seriously look at what they've done right with THAW (larger environments and skating mechanics) and strip away the fat to return Tony Hawk back to what made it great: a clean, fast, and compelling sports game for those of us who aren't so much into "sports."
More articles about Tony Hawk's American Wasteland