“American Wasteland” is the name of a rickety, homemade skate park for a ragtag group of LA skateboarders whose main goal in life is to enter the Tony Hawk AMJAM skateboarding competition and get the recognition for their “mad skillz” that they truly deserve. It is also the name of an as-yet-unpublished fanzine, totally fictional and only within the game of course, which has “sick” artwork created by the only prominent female character within the game who is surely destined to end up in the arms of the unnamed main character. Such is the gist of the Story Mode offered in Neversoft’s latest in the Tony Hawk series.
The game is about a dorky twenty-something from the Midwest who has decided to abandon the dull life and live it up in true skater punk style in the City of Angels, Los Angeles, all while wooing the girl of his dreams. In typical LA fashion, he is mugged the moment he steps off the bus and spends the first thirty minutes of the game meeting the aforementioned female character, who advises him to buy a set of cooler clothes and a cooler haircut so he can fit the part of “LA Skater Geek”. Personally, I would have been tracking down the bastards who stole my stuff instead, but I enjoy some good character customization in a videogame so I took up the girl’s advice and pimped myself out with some newer, flashier gear, nice sunglasses, and a spiked blue mohawk. Why anyone would want their old crappy Midwest clothes after buying cooler LA clothes is beyond me but the next story goal becomes finding the thieves -- after boning up on your skating skills, of course.
The fact of the matter is that the story mode here really only offers novice players a chance to learn all the series’ hallmark tricks before tackling the Classic Mode stages, and as a result, the game holds your hand to make sure you learn everything you’re supposed to. It has been reported that the story in American Wasteland is of a much higher caliber than the previous two games, which says more about the seeming plot quality, or lack thereof, of the previous games than any real merit of storytelling in this latest iteration. Narrative is not their strong point, but making fun skateboarding games is, and their story here serves a valuable function in being slightly entertaining while teaching you the tricks of the trade. However, I cannot help but smile when acknowledging the fact that, after six games bearing Tony Hawk’s name, you don’t actually play as the man himself, instead only meeting him as just another character in Story Mode. You’ll occasionally hear him making an announcement over his radio station while skating around the levels. Speaking of which, where is exactly is the music coming from while you’re riding around? From the skateboard? Perhaps the main character carries a pocket radio around with him, as I don’t seem to recall him wearing any of those nifty portable radio headphones that were all the rage fifteen years ago. That being said, the story bits were taken seriously enough to not feel entirely ham-fisted, though they do get a bit silly at times. Then again, what fun would a Tony Hawk game be without a little silliness?
Los Angeles is the main setting for this, the seventh outing of extreme skating action, though the area feels more like five large levels connected by a series of hallways. Unlike other games that try to capture the setting and feel of the real life city, Story Mode is very much just an extended set of separate levels built around a single theme. This works fine enough for what it is, just don’t go into it expecting a whole world to explore. Like Chuck D says, “Kids, don’t believe the hype,” especially the hype they put on the back of the game box. Grand Theft Auto with skateboards this is not, especially since the driving portions of the previous games have been mercifully removed, though it does offer BMX bikes for those weary of skating and grinding away. The bikes control a bit differently than in other games, making use of the right analog stick in conjunction with the rest of the buttons on the game pad in order to pull off stunts and tricks, which is a welcome addition. It’s essentially just another set of mechanics for the gearheads to master, even though it’s really more a diversion from the norm than anything else. Sadly, the story is over and done with before you know it, and in a way that suggests the developers ran out of time and had to finish it to ship. This is a pity, but there’s always the next game to really shine, isn’t there? I’m sure it’s being developed as we speak.
Classic Mode is where the real meat is at, yet it fails to live up to previous games in terms of level design. In fact, some of the stages are simple repeats from prior Tony Hawk titles. However, after getting a handle on the mechanics in Story Mode, the Classic Mode levels offer a nice playground where you can put your talents to good use. Each of the levels feature enough lines to grind on that you could actually grind, trick, and combo for long after the two-minute-run is up. However, there might not be enough here to warrant the interest of series experts. There are a few new tricks added to the already sprawling list, such as flips and wall jumping abilities for when you’re running around on foot, and the whole BMX aspect to play around with. When all is said and done, though, I find it hard to imagine anyone who’s already played the previous six games would find any real reasons to play this one other than to check out the new and improved story portion.
Visually, Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland packs the most punch with the environments, which is fair as that’s the part you spend the most time with, but the characters look somewhat muddy and under-detailed. The soundtrack is mostly bland, licensed, mainstream punk music which fits the story’s theme. Despite all this, the game still serves as a nice introduction for novice skater fans that haven’t already experienced the genre, while providing some fodder for the hardcore series fans. As a result, it somewhat manages to cater to both crowds, which is a rarely accomplished feat.
Note: There was an online portion that the reviewer was unable to play as he doesn’t have online PS2 capabilities.