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 on your game, you'll probably be completing at least five of each level's 10 goals on your first run-through. 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.
The online action in THAW hasn't changed much at all. It lets up to eight players get in to a game to 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 the game lets you throw down just 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's 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 owners, who are finally getting their first taste of online support this year. GameCube owners are, obviously, still left out in the cold. Each of the three versions has 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.
That said, you'll unlock secret skaters when you finish the modes on different difficulties. This year's unlockable for beating the story on normal is--like it's been in recent years--pretty random, as well as representing 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 games, allowing you to create skaters, skate parks, tricks, deck graphics, graffiti tags, and so on. On the PlayStation 2, you can also map your own face onto a created skater, and the game lets you upload and download things like created parks from a central source. Since you can't take your story mode skater out into other modes for some strange reason, creating your own skater is good for getting your individuality out there, especially if you're playing online a lot.
Graphically, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is a great-looking game. More attention has been paid to things like the pedestrian models, which don't look as badly as they used to. Key story figures also seem to animate a little better when just standing around on the street while waiting for you to ride up and activate them. The areas are large, but they don't seem much larger than the levels found in last year's game. You'll also notice a fair amount of tearing when you turn really quickly, especially on the PlayStation 2, which is unfortunate. The PS2 version looks better when you're running it widescreen in 480p, but it also starts to look a little grainier when you raise the resolution. The Xbox version has a cleaner look overall. But if you're choosing, the PS2 controller is still the proper way to play Tony Hawk. Because without four trigger buttons, you're left fumbling around with the black and white buttons on the Xbox to perform some moves. Meanwhile, the GameCube controller is still the least desirable choice for this series.
Much of the sound in American Wasteland has been pulled from the previous games in the line, 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, the game 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 decent. If you're playing the Xbox version, you can opt for a custom soundtrack. There's a lot of speech in the game, and most of it's nicely done. The pro skaters, who were occasionally rough in years past, aren't in the game very much, but their performances are generally more believable overall. And the rest of the cast members do fine jobs 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.
If you're any good at Tony Hawk, you'll find this game an absolute breeze.
You'll notice, though, that the game's subtitles rarely match the spoken dialogue. You'll probably also notice that the game displays the subtitles 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. They're 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, and the game still looks and sounds just fine, 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.