Genre: Extreme Sports
Release Date: February 7, 2006
The Tony Hawk series is now on its seventh iteration, approaching eight years of age and now two spin-off chains. First, Underground took the series from the standpoint of a small-town kid's breakout to stardom, then touring with the skate pros who were the stars of the first four games. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland takes the same idea of a small-town kid, then puts him on an entirely different, grungier route into the "real" underground. Unfortunately, the execution seems to have lost a few things from the previous iterations of the series, and the PC version in particular has significant issues, although the end game is still fun.
I've played the PlayStation 2 version, and the differences between the PS2 and PC versions are relatively modest. The higher screen resolutions of a PC are not matched with significantly improved textures, which can make things look worse at times, and the gameplay is strictly identical to its console brethren (as a port should be, especially if you use a PS2 controller), except for being able to type in names with a keyboard and having a few graphical options. Unfortunately, there are some technical issues that plague the game in many circumstances.
The game installed easily enough on my moderately high-power machine, but had issues of regularly locking up in the middle of a trick for a few seconds, in a fashion nearly guaranteed to screw up any combo you are in the middle of when it happens. This occurs at entirely random times, but particularly when text is to appear on the screen, such as when you find a gap for the first time. This occurs just frequently enough to be infuriating, but not quite often enough to declare the game truly unplayable.
Graphically, THAW feels a lot older than it really is; this was intentional to allow for streaming levels with minimal load time, but nonetheless, especially when compared to the Xbox 360 release, the game looks more like it's pushing the limits of the Dreamcast than the current generation of consoles. The graphics are below par when compared to last year's Tony Hawk offering: bushes consist of several 2D textures rather than anything looking like shrubbery; textures that look extremely washed out, especially under higher resolutions; and faces that almost look blocky.
That said, the graphics do pay out in a big way, with the giant representation of Los Angeles being larger than all of Tony Hawk1 and 2 combined, with the only noticeable load times (half a second) occurring when you switch from skateboard to BMX and back. The Classic Mode levels being easily as expansive as some of the most massive piles of skating from previous current-generation releases. The levels are full of fine skating opportunity, including many, many locations to bust out all the new and old tricks that define the game and series.
... That is, once you get them. This is where the issues with the gameplay really begin. When you start the game, you cannot even perform a kickflip, which might make sense from a storyline standpoint, but it is extremely infuriating in context of actual play, especially when you go from not doing a kickflip to being able to perform all of the basic flips and grabs. It's enough to make you want to quit before you get even halfway through the game's Story Mode. Since every period of unlocking new tricks consists of the same "do it three times in 60 seconds" aspect, you end up with the entire Story Mode seeming like a giant tutorial, with few objectives that have a true sense of achievement to them.
However, the few objectives that do have a significant sense of accomplishment get it VERY right. There is nothing quite like dropping a T-Rex on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Sheep, or otherwise messing with similar sendups and exaggerations of annoying or funny stereotypes, all very distastefully, yet humorously, handled. The game's way of handling BMX controls is also creditable for being distinct, instead of being different only in trick names. On the other hand, it's also different from Matt Hoffman's Pro BMX, forcing players who played that series to relearn their two-wheel skills. Here, the "tutorial" nature is more reasonable, with an actual sense of discovery and accomplishment to it. It's unfortunate that there aren't more BMX objectives in the game, and most that are there are optional and easy to miss.
The core issue with Story Mode does not persist as much in THAW's iteration of Classic Mode, mixing a few revamped levels with some new levels with fairly standard, yet reasonably challenging, objectives. However, the mode also suffers from being fairly short, with a mere six levels, none of them being particularly memorable and many repeating large elements from older games (beyond the obvious repeated elements from the old levels). The Collector's Edition adds two levels, but it's not available for the PC. Classic Mode also doesn't offer significant level-changing objectives, such as the earthquake in THPS 3; some might appreciate this because the changes could ruin lines as easily as they opened new ones, but I personally did not.
The game's controls remain spot-on, tight, and true to the form that's been established since the original - especially in Classic Mode, where you will be screwing up just as much as you were in Underground 2. If you are able to avoid screwing up and bailing for more than three minutes, you should consider trying online play. I encountered no significant lag while playing with a team of Midwesterners, and the mix of free skating and competition mini-games made for a fun time, though the controls for sending chat messages were weird for PC play, and obviously not significantly modified from the console version. Given that they integrated GameSpy to allow for better friend searching, making minor additions for faster keyboard entry would have been nice.
Overall, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is playable, and with the graphics cards that it was "made for," it probably works brilliantly. It just still isn't all that good, and feels identical to the PS2 version I played a while ago, which in and of itself wasn't "the best Tony Hawk yet" for the first time since the series started. Graphically, the improvements made since Underground 2 were mostly subtle, and make the areas that were not improved - or were cheapened for RAM efficiency to allow for streaming levels - stick out like a sore thumb. Technically, the game has significant compatibility issues which can be difficult or annoying to work around, especially with limited compatibility-increasing options, but once it is working, it's reasonably effective but can still freeze up at times.
The traditional Tony Hawk gameplay has several twists - some for the better, others not so much - but has had the difficulty significantly dumbed down to the point where Story Mode is boring much of the time, and is insufficiently counterbalanced by Classic Mode. However, if you enjoy the series, are into online play, or aren't in the mood for a big challenge, have a higher-end PC and don't already have the console versions, then THAW might be worth getting, although it is not the shining high point of the series.
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