Another year, another Tony Hawk game. The seventh in the seminal series once again puts you back in the role of a rookie skater looking to make a name for himself, impress the pros, and maybe, just maybe, become the new superstar of the skating world. In a tribute to the skating culture of the 70's and 80's, the entire game takes place within the confines of the skating mecca and hometown of the legendary Z-Boys: Los Angeles.
This is the first time that a Tony Hawk title has had such a contiguous world to skate around in (as opposed to the "global" themes of the other games) as you tour the various areas of the microcosmic City of Angels. It's pleasing to see that everything essentially works together, with individual areas connected by fully skateable interstitial tunnels in lieu of loading screens. However, it is still somewhat disappointing as to how obvious these loading areas are, when one giant city a la GTA would've been a lot more exciting. Even though you can still do tricks and "ride forever" as the game claims, it tends to break up the action and reveal how compartmentalized the levels remain. In a couple of these connecting areas, there's even a POV switch to a security camera which slows down the action (presumably to allow a little bit more time for the next area to load). While it's a good thing that there are no loading screens, ultimately, this can't be classified as a free-roaming game.
The individual areas, though, are quite well-structured and have some of the best level design seen in recent iterations of the series. You start out as a country bumpkin, fresh off the bus in Hollywood where a couple of territorial punks knock you down and steal your stuff. It isn't long before you meet your first friendly face, a girl name Mindy who longs to have her sketches features in the as-yet-unpublished underground 'zine "American Wasteland." Her drawings are reminiscent of early-80's skate punk culture with heavy lines and comically grotesque imagery which define the overall style behind the game, as well as most of the cutscenes. Mindy helps you get on your feet by pointing out where you can get a taste of LA style. This prompts the character customization element of the game, where the avatar you picked initially can be outfitted with new hairstyles, clothes, tattoos, and boards. I gave my character green chops; it's a personal rule that if a game offers you the possibility to add chops, that I'm obligated to do it. The customization in story mode seems to have been cut back again, though, as it isn't quite as fully-featured as the Underground games. All of the avatars are male and you can't change body size/shape, either. This was obviously done to facilitate a stronger narrative, since the relationship with characters such as Mindy would be a lot more awkward were the player a female.
Indeed, the plot, while still nothing stellar, is a bit more cohesive this time around. After traipsing around Hollywood for a bit, Mindy will lead you through Beverly Hills to the Skate Ranch, an exclusive skate park frequented by those deemed worthy enough to skate there by the owner, Iggy van Zandt (a fictional hard ass whose name seems to be derived from Iggy Pop and Steven can Zandt, two of the more musically influential people on the scene during the era of the Z-Boys). Apparently, van Zandt was one of the early superstars of skating who disappeared right when he was starting to get big, put off by the media attention and sponsorship deals. When American Wasteland takes place, for all intents and purposes, van Zandt might as well be dead. Almost none of the pros know he's still around and he's only surrounded by a small group of local followers: Mindy, the bail-prone Boone, the human wikipedia Useless Dave, and a few others.
Once you prove yourself a good enough skater to hang out around Iggy van Zandt, the Skate Ranch will serve as your home base throughout the rest of the game. It is also the most interestingly designed area of the game; an ever-evolving skateboarding amusement park, in essence. One of the main goals of the game is to go out and collect various pieces of other levels so that they can be implemented in the Skate Ranch – land marks such as the Hollywood sign and fountain statues are equally fair game. This makes it fun to come back to the Skate Ranch once in awhile to see what has changed, and it's even more of a beauty at night when everything is lit up (the game makes use of an internal clock, so there is a continual day-night cycle in effect). The game will eventually take you through Santa Monica beach, East LA, Downtown, and a few other areas as your character accidentally gets Iggy van Zandt in trouble and then must rescue the Skate Ranch from certain doom. Along with a secret belonging to the Z-Boys past being buried deep within the Skate Ranch, American Wasteland also makes efforts to reference other LA-centric pop culture, such as Michael Douglas' engineer character in Falling Down, or a task which has you "jumping" over a shark named Fonzie. It certainly made the game a little more entertaining to try and figure out all the references and in-jokes.
What's most important in a Tony Hawk game, though, is how you get around the environment. As the series has become more and more open-ended, each iteration has introduced new techniques for navigating your surroundings. American Wasteland provides both new on-board and off-board techniques this time around, including vert slides, Natas spins, stalls, and one-foot grinds and manuals. There are also BMX biking and freestyle walking elements such as wall running and wall flips, allowing you to reach new areas without having to launch off a ramp on your board or something equivalent.
While freestyle walking is certainly an interesting and offbeat thing to include in the game, neither it nor the BMX biking feel well-implemented. You can technically navigate all of the environments using these methods, but most of the missions associated with them are purely optional. In the case of BMX, I believe there were only one or two story challenges in the entire game that require the bike's use. It's just that development time could have been spent on addressing more crucial issues, instead of packing the game with unessential "stuff."
As over-the-top as Tony Hawk games are meant to be, the physics could be a lot tighter than they are currently, and these two additions just emphasize the problem. Individual character animations in cutscenes aren't bad, but whenever anything requires truly complex movement within the world, correct physics seem to be thrown completely out of the window. It just feels too manic and unstructured sometimes and it really reminds you that you're just playing a video game. Like all Tony Hawk games, American Wasteland is easy to get absorbed in once you start going for high scores or seeing how long you can hold a combo, but the lack of congruency in some aspects of the game just bring you right back out into the real world, which is quite disconcerting.
This isn't even to mention the uneven levels of challenge from mission to mission. Some of them are mind-numbingly simple while others are frustratingly hard, mostly due to some control issue or vague instructions. For instance, if you're trying to complete a particular combo goal and you clip some small edge or polygon, chances are you'll just end up falling flat on your face. Then you'll do it again, and again, and again. Precision needs to be fine-tuned in order to change this. When some of the challenges near the end of the game are some of the easiest, something is definitely wrong with the learning curve.
Tony Hawk games can be really fun from the standpoint of top score one-up-manship and pulling off an astronomically high combo can be exhilarating, but so many of these very basic issues have been plaguing the series since its beginning. Personally, I think that the recent changes have made these problems even worse; worse to the point that they're simply annoying and off-putting. The fact that some challenges which ask you to collect items have very loose hit-detection leads me to believe that the developers know these issues with the game design exist. With all of the new things they attempt to add, they seem to have less time to address the problems. I'd rather they do that than implement new techniques which complicate the control scheme so much that they'll rarely, if ever, get used in combos. Being able to get off your board and hit pedestrians with it can be mildly entertaining, but it's not essential to the game if there is only one mission in the game that asks you to do that.
Though it may seem like comparing apples to oranges here, "design by subtraction" philosophies (such as in Ueda's game, Shadow of the Colossus) are increasingly more appealing. So many developers these days seem to get caught up in adding exponentially more "stuff" in their games that they can't bring them together in a cohesive and seamless whole.
That said, the game runs smooth as ever. It flies along at a cool 60 fps all the time. Though the overall graphical style hasn't changed much since the series transferred to the PS2, its still very nice to look at. A few repetitive textures and the occasional boring areas aside, the visuals are solid. As for the soundtrack, it is one of the best I've heard in the series, with more of a focus on alternative rock and punk music than previous titles. They fit the style of American Wasteland well, and many of the tracks give off a distinct LA-culture vibe. The various "Create-A-" and online play modes are still there and good as ever, though not much has really changed about their fundamentals. They are respectable modes, with the "Create-A-Skater" providing a bit more freedom than the customization found in the main game, including EyeToy support so you can put your mug in the game if you so choose. Skating around online showed little to no lag, but there didn't seem to be too many people connected. However, the addition of Classic Mode is the most appealing, for those wishing to revisit levels of Tony Hawk past, complete with COMBO, SKATE, Secret Tape, etc. goals in-tact. They provide a refreshing return to simplicity from Story Mode and you can play as any of the pros featured throughout the game (plus, some secret characters, per usual).
I really have a love/hate relationship with the series. Some of the fundamentals are nailed right on the head (such as the combo system and level design), but other basic elements (physics, congruency, etc.) need to be drastically improved. Though some may argue that the Tony Hawk series grew stale long ago, I believe there is still room to improve, but developers Neversoft are likely going to have to change their design philosophy again in order to breathe new life into it. I almost feel that the series continues to get near-perfect scores based on the virtues of the original Pro Skater, but I can't, in good conscience, do the same.