Don't let the recent name changes or Tony Hawk's debut on a new video game system 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 has been in the previous two versions. 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 is over almost immediately.
The Xbox 360 version of THAW runs in a higher resolution, but that really makes the game's graphical flaws stand out.
The Xbox 360 version of Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is roughly identical to the versions that were recently released on the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube. The main difference is a graphical one, since this version of the game supports HDTV-quality resolution like every other Xbox 360 game. But the character models, textures, and animation still look very similar to what's on display in previous versions. Those previous versions looked great on their respective platforms, but when you blow that stuff up to higher HD resolutions, it all starts to look really, really bad--especially when you're watching cutscenes in story mode. Up close, the characters look awful, and the way the inside of their mouths are rendered, combined with the odd mouth-movement animations, makes these scenes look terrible. On top of that, American Wasteland is weirdly dark when running in HD, though it isn't quite as noticeable on regular TVs. There's an in-game brightness control that you can use to attempt to fix the problem, but this only succeeded in making the entire thing look washed out. There are also some nasty graphical glitches, causing some decals to flicker in and out of existence. Some of this stuff isn't as noticeable when running the game in standard resolutions, but at that point, you'd probably be better off saving $10 by going with the Xbox or PlayStation 2 version anyway. You won't get the higher resolutions that you'll get in the 360 version, but it won't be as glitchy, either.
The PlayStation 2 controller has long been the best way to control the action in the Tony Hawk games, though versions on other platforms have gotten by. It really helps having four shoulder buttons to work with when trying to pull off all those tricks. But now, there's a new controller on the block with four shoulder buttons. The Xbox 360 controller is just fine for controlling this one, though using the right analog trigger to revert takes a bit getting used to. So, in essence, this is the first non-PS2 version to control just as well as its PS2 counterpart.
The main mode is a story that puts you in the role of a nameless skater from the Midwest who has 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, when you are 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, which 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 will take a little while before you learn to use special tricks, flatland tricks, and focus.
The closer you get to the character models, the worse they look.
You'll also learn the new tricks, like the bert slide, which is the ground-based, surfinglike 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 (which you'll encounter during a couple of goals), but they 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. You'll hold a button to pedal, steer with the left analog stick, and perform tricks with the right. Also, some tricks are left up to you to put together. A flair, for example, is a backflip and a 180-degree turn combined. 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 be added to the ranch. There are a lot of different pieces to be added, 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, you are set down directly in front of those support cables. After you grind them, you're 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. But the simplistic nature of the goals will probably turn off new players, as well. While it has a "sick" difficulty mode that's meant to make things more challenging, it still lines you up just right, and it still forces you through all the early move-learning tutorial stuff. It's decidedly un-sick.
Classic mode resurrects some of the levels from earlier games.
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 pros, you do it in a way that feels natural, which is great. That said, the plot has 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, then you'll probably be done with this one 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 environment to skate in, without 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 they really might as well just be load screens. New areas start to load when you enter the connecting area, which occasionally causes some stutters and skips in the frame rate. 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?