Building upon the THUG and THUG 2 schematic, THAW is another step in the right direction for the series. by Vaughn Smith
December 20 , 2005 – The Tony Hawk Pro Skater series debuted in 1999 and with each subsequent year Neversoft has released a new installment. In essence Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland (THAW) is really Tony Hawk 7, but Neversoft made the decision a few years ago to evolve the franchise and make it fresh, exciting and new. The Underground games were a dramatic departure from the linear environments and lack of any real personality found within THPS 1 – 4, featuring a storyline that attempted to capture the skate culture. Neversoft has been busy further retooling the series, tightening up the aspects that worked and removing those that didn’t, and the result is a more cohesive and involving gameplay experience.
I should preface this review with the statement that I haven’t been all that impressed with the Tony Hawk series as of late with the exception of THUG. Back in the early days of the series I looked forward to the arrival of the new games. Then around THPS3 I felt that perhaps the one year window of development time just didn’t seem to be enough and the series, in my opinion, was running out of creative steam. When the series moved to the next gen consoles (PS2, Xbox, GC) I felt that it was still cemented in old generation design and didn’t take enough advantage of the hardware advancements. THUG managed to teach an old dog some awesome new tricks, while THUG 2 was such a radical departure that I felt I was playing BMX XXX II. Truth be told I wasn’t even wanting to review THAW, but everyone else was busy so I had no choice. I’m sure you’re not used to such honesty in reviews but that’s the big bold truth. I loaded the game into my 360 and sighed “Here we go again….” I lamented to no one in particular. Then to my surprise I found myself enjoying the events involving my characters arrival in L.A. and it just mushroomed from there. I was like Dicken’s Scrooge born anew, bursting open the window shutters on Christmas morn:
Me: You there! What game is this?
Street urchin: It’s Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, sir.
Me: Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland for all!
But I would only tell you to buy THAW for the Xbox 360 if you A) own an Xbox 360 (that should be obvious!) B) haven’t played it for the current gen systems. If you have already played it on the Xbox, GameCube or PS2 you won’t find anything new besides some enhanced lighting, textures and resolution. Other than those factors, the Xbox 360 is identical to the current gen versions.
Previous THPS and THUG games have always provided a healthy dose of challenge and considering the fan base the series has attracted, I was surprised to discover that the objectives in THAW were on the easy end of the difficulty factor. Veterans need only apply at the hardest difficulty level to wring any challenge out of the game, while noobs to the series might even find the Easy mode too easy at times. Of course, playing online against other skaters always requires you to perform at peak capacity and therefore provides a healthy dose of challenge, but the offline career mode could and should definitely be considered a cakewalk on the lower difficulty settings.
Visually THAW probably won’t impress ‘graphic whores’ (love that term) as the game sports the same polygon count and models as found on the current gen systems. There are some visual enhancements such as the lighting and textures, but for the most part the high res gloss shines a spotlight on the visual defects – especially of some of less attractive character models – since the game was developed for the current gen systems. The LA environment which I thought was supposed to be one wide open level happens to be several areas cleverly disguised by connecting points. Vehicles can be located which will transport you from one area to another quickly (such as a bus and truck) and you will have to endure a little animation while the game loads the selected destination. In the usual Tony Hawk fashion, virtual areas of LA are easily recognized by the various landmarks tossed in to get your attention. You’ll skate various LA locations such as downtown L.A., Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Santa Monica (where Activision is located in the real world) and be able to practice your skills at ingame legend skater Iggy Van Zant’s secluded Ranch and the Van’s skate park.
The story progresses via cutscenes and I have to admit that I was pretty smitten with fictional character Mindy and her American Wasteland comic book which pays homage both in artistic style and name to New York underground artist Harvey Pekar and his book American Splendor (with a nod to R. Crumb of course). Surprisingly there is a lot less of Mr. Hawk then you’d expect in a game that has his name on the cover, but when he does make an appearance it makes sense in the context of the story.
Customization of your character is handled by visiting various shops to buy new threads or change your haircut. I always find it funny that you can go into a barber shop cleanshaven and bald in games like this and walk out with a set of muttonchops and cornrows, but such as the limitless imagination of video games. You won’t have as much control over facial features but pretty much everything else is up for grabs. Customization even carries over into gameplay as you are free to customize your own “tags” and spray them around LA.
The ingame music is a wrapped around an obvious product placement of Sirius Satellite Radio which is hoping to make some big inroads this holiday season against competitor XM Satallite Radio. THAW features a ton of great music, some of which I loved, some of which I hated and some I was indifferent to. Considering I’m an old fart, that’s pretty good. Thank God skateboarders appreciate the guitar….that’s all I’m going to say. If I have to listen anymore drum and bass bling bling crap I’m going to freakin’ lose it. Okay, now that’s all I’m going to say. The voice actors run the gamut from good to bad to “Hey, that’s Will Ferrell”. At least I’m pretty damn sure that vagrant that calls your character “skaterat” is Mr. Ferrell. If not, it’s a very authentic soundalike. The Chinese dude who eventually teaches your character Special and Focus seems to go from Chinese to a bad impression of Team America’s Kim Jong Il to an Irishman and back again. At any rate it’s supposed to be a caricature, I’m just not sure if it was supposed to be a caricature of that many characters at once.
Having been an Xbox graphics sympathizer over the last few years but yearning for the control of the far superior PS2 Dual Shock 2, THAW is like butter on the Xbox 360 controller thanks mainly to the 4 shoulder buttons on the new deck. Executing insane trick combos finally feels 100% perfect as everything you need to do is right at your fingertips. For those among us who haven’t spent a lot of time playing the latest in the series, Neversoft accomodates novices by introducing new tricks at a comfortable pace via various objectives handed out by your skate posse or other colorful characters hanging out in LA. As in previous games if you blow a goal, you can easily do it again by pausing the game and selecting Restart Goal. Longtime fans of Matt Hoffman might need to wipe a tear from their eyes as Neversoft gives us the ability to drop the four small wheels for two large BMX ones. The control of the bike feels very reminiscent of the Hoffman games and that’s a good thing as it was pretty tight to begin with. If bikes and boards aren’t your style, you’ll be able to run around on two legs to get where you need to. THAW even allows you to toss your board in frustration if you bail which, depending on fast you mash the button, will present you with points that you can then use to start off a new combo.
THPS vets will definitely enjoy THAW’s Classic mode which features some already classic levels from days gone by such as Minneapolis, The Mall, Santa Cruz etc. As you might guess if you’re familiar with the THPS series, the infamous 2 minute time limit will be forever taunting you to complete the various objectives. A nice touch in Classic mode is having exactly the same control and moves over your character as you do in the American Wasteland portion of the game. You can get off your board, climb ladders and execute tricks that weren’t available when these levels first appeared in the original games.
Neversoft has been refining the online portion of this game for the last few years…at least on the PS2. Finally Xbox and X360 owners are allowed in on the action. Taking THAW online will definitely enhance the overall play value. As with most online games you’ll generally have to look in the evening for people to play against as it’s a little sparse during the day. THAW features a plethora of online and multiplayer modes, most of which have are incredibly entertaining if played with/against the right people. Multiplayer staples such as Capture The Flag, King of the Hill and newcomer Pot o’ Gold are great time wasters. If you can’t find more than a handful of online/co-op modes that you absolutely love to play, than you’re extremely hard to please.
Equally as time consuming but just as entertaining and brimming with play value, THAW’s Create modes are not only intuitive to tinker with, but a great way to share the love of virtual boarding with your comrades. There really isn’t anything new here but that’s nothing to complain about. Neversoft has also been refining these modes for years now and it shows.
THAW is sure to please almost everyone who said “WTF?” when playing THUG 2. The story mode is fun, funny and yet not absurd enough to wonder what drugs were abused during development time. As mentioned this installment will gently ease any players back into the Tony Hawk series and while there is perhaps a little too much handholding at times, vets can always ramp up the difficulty as they see fit. While the Xbox 360 is the best looking of the bunch, it doesn’t come close to showing off the power of the system since it’s a visually upgraded port from the current gen systems. If you’re playing THAW on the Xbox, GC or the PS2 you aren’t missing out by not having the “hot system” of 2005. As I see it, Neversoft has brought the series back from the brink of no return in this sound and solid piece of game coding. I look forward to the next one and that’s something I haven’t said for quite awhile.
- Freedom to Ride Forever: No load times. No level-based gameplay. In American Wasteland you travel throughout the vast urban terrain of Los Angeles including: Hollywood, East L.A. and other landmark areas without restrictions or repetition.
- Ultimate Player Control: More tricks and expanded controls than ever before! New on the board tricks include the Bert slides, Natas spins handstands, and one-footed grinds and manuals. New off the board tricks include wall runs, wall flips, and charged jumps.
- Choose board or Bike: For the first time, you can choose to ride BMX bikes throughout the entire game, with all-new physics, a BMX-specific control system and several BMX-specific goals.
- Customize Like Crazy: Enter and explore dozens of shops in-game to customize your gear and your look! Check out skate shops, barbershops, tattoo parlors, and clothing stores as you accomplish goals and earn cash.
By Vaughn Smith
CCC Site Director