Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland

This game broke my old faithful first generation, never-RRoDed Xbox 360. 0/10, get out of my sight.

I inserted Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland into my new Xbox 360, eager to keep on trucking with the skateboarding series I’ve been in love with for a long time. Its existence had kind of passed me by, though – I had primarily gamed on PlayStation consoles during the entire Tony Hawk’s era. Because of that, and because American Wasteland was too long out by the time the PlayStation 3 was released, I’ve always considered HD Hawk games to start at Project 8 – I played American Wasteland originally on PlayStation 2, like the previous instalments from Pro Skater 3 and up.

As a result, about two weeks ago when I suddenly remembered that THAW got a 360 release, and for the last 12 years I’d neglected to pick it up and enjoy its wacky goodness in crisp HD (unless you count dabbling with its levels on THUGPro for PC), I bought it. And I’m pleased to report that it’s incredible.

Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland is clearly a PS2 game at heart. Its graphics are still chunky and occasionally ugly, and certain 2D images (such as the HUD that you see for the entire game) are not up-ressed, but the fact that American Wasteland’s world of Los Angeles is rendered in HD is great, and the extra couple of additions such as Xbox 360 achievements also add a little extra to proceedings.

The game itself is superb fun. While I don’t see American Wasteland as a good entry point for anyone considering getting into the series due to the complexity and diversity of different controls there are in it (it’s on the verge of being a clusterf**k), it’s precisely that complexity that makes it an incredible Hawk outing for anyone familiar with the series. On top of everything you could do in the previous games – and AW constantly breaks the fourth wall by tying tutorials on how to do those things to the games that they came from – it adds a stupid amount of extra stuff to mixed results.

One such American Wasteland innovation is that the game’s levels are all tied together, allowing you to seamlessly travel between them. And when I say seamlessly, I mean you travel through a tight, basic, themed area with a few trickable items, and while you pass through it, the game loads the area you’re heading towards into memory as it unloads where you came from. In my mind, it actually works really well – although it’s not as good as Project 8, where the areas in that game really do feel completely interconnected (with the ability to see other “levels” from the one you’re in).

Walking is massively enhanced from the Underground duology with an array of new parkour moves such as front and back tucks, wall running and wall flipping, and shimmying ledges. Biking is in for the only time in a Tony Hawk’s game, although is functionally similar to Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX 2 (with the extra and superior levels, this arguably makes a Tony Hawk’s game the best BMX game). Because the latter is taken from a game with established good controls, riding the bike in THAW is surprisingly fun.

On top of all these, there are a ton of new skateboarding moves. The bert slide is fun, but the two missions that respectively teach it and require its use aren’t. Natas spins now have move tweaking like lip, grind and manual tricks. I think the best addition is rail stalling, essentially a hybrid of lip tricking and grinding, which can be useful in a handful of situations and is great for racking up combos safely because you can sit stationary on a rail racking up your combo with move tweaks, then jump off, manual, and do the same again.

But this leads into possibly the only problem with the feature creep – American Wasteland is at its best when it isn’t telling you what to do, rather leaving you to your business in the wonderfully-crafted world it presents with the full range of tools you have to hand. And the story, for quite some time, has no intention of allowing you to do that. It’s the only Tony Hawk’s game that actually disables certain moves in your arsenal until you complete tutorial missions for them – you don’t even get manuals or reverts to begin with, so the game feels like a glorified Tony Hawk’s Skateboarding/Pro Skater 1. It’s been 12 years and I still remember the dread I felt thinking they’d changed all of the controls and I’d have to unlearn everything I had/still have as muscle memory.

You’d think this would benefit new players, but the way it’s set up, I really doubt it – there tends, for each locked function, to be a mission that quickly tells you how it’s done, gets you to do it a couple of times, unlocks it permanently for you, and then for all but the most fundamental tricks, it’s either never brought up again, or a mission will call on you to do it as if you’ve been doing it constantly and are perfect at it ever since it was taught to you. The Bert slide is really guilty of this – you’re taught it, then half of the game later and having never needed it in the time between, you suddenly have to navigate your way through a cone minefield with it – it took me bloody ages.

Another problem with the story mode is that, in terms of your player character, huge step back. Rather than having the full suite of customisation options, you are limited to five prebuilt characters. They’re all men, too – it’s baffling that, in a game series where even in the debut 5 instalments prior you could complete the campaign as Elissa Steamer, suddenly you’re limited to a group of blokes because the game’s dead set on having the story be about you hooking up with the one female character. Losing the customisation in general is gutting as well – in both Underground games, the fact you could make anyone you wanted really helped you jump into their mid-2000s Etnies trainers and see the world through their eyes. In American Wasteland, you’re controlling someone else.

Thankfully that’s pretty much where the negatives end, because Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland is an absolute riot to play, with an engaging and interesting concept. The summary is that you discover an old, dilapidated skate park, and look to reclaim it and furnish it. Throughout the game you raise money by creating a video with a number of real-life professional skateboarders to gain ownership of it – that’s the reclaiming part.

The furnishing is the really interesting part. For each of the “levels” in Los Angeles, there are a number of goals centred around vandalising, disconnecting and stealing the most bizarre items you can find, which are then fitted into the Skate Park. At any point (and the game lets you teleport there after every acquisition if you so desire) you can go and see that piece as part of the park, often beaten up and broken, but normally to improve its skateability. I love how this is done – you get a sense of progress as you acquire more and more chunks of LA and see the gaps of the fairly large, barren area fill in more and more, with pieces intertwining and lining up to form massive park-wide combo possibilities. All of this while, at the same time, the rest of Los Angeles gets more and more broken up but also more skateable – if you’re breaking a boulder to take back to the skate park, you can bet that it’s going to ricochet off of the floor a few times and create a few new fully skateable pools first.

On top of how good the result is, the freedom Neversoft had with mission concepts means that very few weak ones exist in the game. One annoying one has you perform a number of awkward grinds on spade handles and bank drops on the tiniest of ramps to dislodge a row of Hollywood Walk of Fame stars. A few suffer from how, if you’re doing a mission that has several parts, you can restart the singular part you’re on through the Pause menu, but outright failing (by falling over or leaving the area) sometimes means you have to do the whole mission from scratch. In those instances, you’re almost having to play chicken with the game if you’re not sure if you’re going to fail it or not.

But for each of those small moments of frustration (and we’re talking a minute or two of frustration, no mission in THAW lasts more than that), there are tons of excellent ones – and the destructive cutscenes you get when you break something particularly large is pleasing in the same way Underground 2 managed with its own themed destruction set pieces.

Aside from the story mode, the game has a Classic mode to sate the appetite of people that liked the oldest games’ 2 minute timed goals. Although in this case, there are some odd picks of levels, taking some of the “exclusive” levels in PSP’s excellent and criminally-stranded-on-PSP Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 Remix and mixing them with some from Tony Hawk’s Skateboarding. Nothing from Pro Skater 2 through Underground 2 at all. Classic mode is capped off with a brand new level, Ruins, which depicts LA after an apocalypse. It doesn’t use any of the geometry from the story mode’s areas either – I’d have expected it to have been more impactful if it had been a ruined version of Hollywood or Beverly Hills. Oddly, there are two more returning levels, but they’re built into the LA world and are not in Classic Mode. Casino, another THUG2R level, is present. And so is Oil Rig, a level about 8 people will have seen because it was only in the Xbox version of Pro Skater 3.

American Wasteland is an incredible romp, and the Xbox 360 version may very well now be my absolute favourite rendition of the Tony Hawk’s formula. Featuring the sharp graphics of an HDMI-powered console, mixed with the plethora of mechanics to toy with of the pre-Project 8 games (I still love Project 8 though, don’t get me wrong), and finally enjoying authentic-feeling controls on an Xbox console due to the 360 controller’s far superior thumb sticks and presence of two more shoulder buttons, this game is an absolute blast to play. Even now, with every goal completed, I could see myself sinking hours into just dicking around in it, now I have no obligations and no locked gates stopping me from exploring.

If you have access to an Xbox 360, or a PC and the patience to mod the game so it runs on modern systems less terribly, I can’t recommend American Wasteland enough.

NAL

Independent game developer, font creator and occasional casual writer.

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