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 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 object that you can do tricks on 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 earlier this 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 down with it, you'll probably be completing at least five of each level's 10 goals on your first run-through. However, 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.
If you're any good at Tony Hawk, you'll find this game an absolute breeze.
The online action in THAW is very similar to last year's Tony Hawk. It lets up to eight players 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 you can 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 is 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. Of course, all this is brand-spanking-new to Xbox and Xbox 360 owners, who are finally getting their first taste of online support this year. In addition to Xbox Live support, there's split-screen multiplayer, but this isn't much fun at all. Also, 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. If you're new to the series, you'll be matched up by rank, allowing you to compete with players of a similar skill level.
The game's character models look pretty bad up close.
You'll unlock secret skaters when you finish the modes on different difficulties. This year's unlockable for beating the story on normal is pretty random (like it has been in recent years), 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 versions, letting you create skaters, skateparks, tricks, deck graphics, graffiti tags, and so on.
Graphically, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland on the 360 doesn't look much better than its Xbox counterpart. Sure, you can run it in a higher resolution thanks to the 360's 720p and 1080i support, but all this does is make the character models look really awful. It runs at a smooth frame rate and doesn't have any jagged edges to it, but it still looks like a game that was initially developed for the PlayStation 2 and then hastily converted for a higher-powered system. If you're familiar with how some console-to-PC ports come out looking like crisper PS2 games, you should already have a pretty good idea of how this one looks. The textures are a weird mix--some of them are clearly higher-quality textures that look sharp, clean, and colorful. But you'll still come across some really dirty-looking ground and wall textures from time to time, too. When you compare this to other games on the Xbox 360, it looks downright mediocre.
Much of the sound in American Wasteland has been pulled from the previous versions, 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, it 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 still decent. As with most every Xbox 360 game, you can opt for a custom soundtrack, if you like. As far as the speech goes, there's a lot of it, and most of it's nicely done. The pro skaters, who were occasionally rough in previous years, aren't present very much, but their performances are generally more believable overall. And the rest of the cast members do a fine job 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.
The game's story goals usually line you right up with the item you need to interact with.
You'll notice, though, that the subtitles rarely match the spoken dialogue. You'll probably also notice that the subtitles are displayed even though they default to "off" in the menu, which is pretty sloppy. There are a few other minor bugs, much like this one, that pop up in rare circumstances. These bugs are never bad enough to cripple the game, but they do give off the feeling that a few corners were cut during development.
While the gameplay in Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is still sharp, the weak graphical display found in the Xbox 360 version really takes the whole experience down a few notches. But even beyond the graphics, 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.