"There’s a saying about rockstars that I think applies to everyone in a creative field; it’s better to burnout than fade away. Perhaps it’s time for Neversoft to step aside and let someone else carry the torch. Preceded by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1-4, Tony Hawk’s Underground (THUG), and THUG2, American Wasteland is the seventh in this renowned skateboarding franchise, discounting cross-console remakes. After the outcries against the lunacy of THUG2, American Wasteland promised a return to the root..."
There’s a saying about rockstars that I think applies to everyone in a creative field; it’s better to burnout than fade away. Perhaps it’s time for Neversoft to step aside and let someone else carry the torch. Preceded by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1-4, Tony Hawk’s Underground (THUG), and THUG2, American Wasteland is the seventh in this renowned skateboarding franchise, discounting cross-console remakes. After the outcries against the lunacy of THUG2, American Wasteland promised a return to the roots of the series. Sadly, like a Twisted Sister reunion tour, it just isn’t the same.
Taking a cue from THUG, the core of American Wasteland (AW) is Story Mode. Whereas the surprisingly dramatic narrative of THUG followed a talented skater rising above obscurity and betrayal, AW is the bland tale of a young man running off to L.A. to become a skate legend. Also unlike THUG, AW’s Story Mode doesn’t include any option to create your own character. Instead, you get to choose one of four guys to play as, no women. On the bus ride to L.A., the main character meets a woman with dreams of Hollywood stardom, despite her complete lack of acting experience. Maybe that scene would have been funny if the main character knew how to skate before heading out.
Having religiously played the Tony Hawk games, except THUG2, there are certain things I have come to expect; things I can no longer do. Forget all the tricks you perfected in the past few installments, because you’re going back to Pro Skater 1. Manuals, reverts, wallrides, and everything in-between will have to be learned from the local NPC’s. I spent a long time developing my flatland style in THUG, so having it taken away is a serious slap in the face. Pulling off high level combos requires some finger gymnastics and exact knowledge of the button configurations, so I can understand that Neversoft is trying to ease in new players, but that’s what tutorials are for. For experienced players, this feels like a sad attempt to pad the weak story with a few extra hours of gametime.
If you are able to get through the few hours of talking to NPC’s and learning to skate, pat yourself on the back. You just got past some of the most atrociously abysmal dialogue and voice-acting know to man. It’s finally time to put those tricks to use…right? Maybe if the levels weren’t packed like a toy store before Christmas. If you skate, you know what a “spot” is. It’s a place with room to ride and objects to trick off of. I don’t think Neversoft knows this. Everywhere you turn there are rails, planters, ledges, and ramps, but no room to simply skate. The levels are so cramped I found traveling around and lining up tricks was made easier by getting off the board and running. Neversoft calls this a “caveman”, but seriously, when has running been a trick? Try that in the X-Games and see how many points you get.
The back of AW’s box brags, “Skate L.A. as one seamless world.” “Seamless” is hardly the word I would have used. There are still distinct levels, only now you skate from one to the next via long tunnels with nothing to do but grind, instead of looking at a loading screen. There is always the option of taking a bus to other areas, but you can’t tell me that watching my character ride a bus is a good replacement for a loading screen. Do not make the mistake of thinking this is Grand Theft Auto on a skateboard. As an added frustration, many of the missions in Story Mode require that you go back to previous areas to find people or objects and complete goals. Five minutes of backtracking is hardly quicker than a minute or two of loading time.
For what it’s worth, AW is at the top of its game with character customization and the trick system. Granted that Story Mode starts you off with a pre-made character, Free Skate and Classic Mode are almost excessive in their options. Nearly every physical feature, color, and item of clothing can be changed. After you’ve created your character, or in my case, a team of skaters that look just like my friends, you can customize all of the tricks. The trick system is as amazing as ever. If you can do it in real life, you can do it in AW. If it’s not a real trick, chances are that you can make it in the Trick Editor by combining bits of other tricks to create something completely new. It’s just a shame that half of the tricks go unused. AW is designed for huge air and insane combos. Personally, I’d rather do some smooth kickflip-to-manuals on the sidewalk than random vert tricks and grinds linked together into multimillion point combos.
AW does have one small saving grace. Classic Mode has you performing early Pro Skater-style objectives, like collecting letters, getting high scores, and finding secret tapes. A grin overtook my previously clenched teeth when I saw the opening level, Minneapolis. The levels in Classic Mode are all past favorites, like the aforementioned Minneapolis, Chicago, and the Mall. The best part is that, except for graphical overhauls, their spacious layouts are completely untouched. It’s in open levels like these where the intricate trick system of AW really shines. These are levels that require true skill, and not the grind-jump-grinding of Story Mode. It’s too bad there are only eight levels, and even worse that two are only available in the more expensive Collector’s Edition of AW. I sincerely wish that Neversoft had forgone the new content and made AW one gigantic Classic Mode.
There’s another saying out there, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” I am all for improving a series as it moves along, but Neversoft has tried to make the wrong improvements in the wrong places. The trick system has been wasted on mindless combos, the more-is-better approach to level design makes skating a frustrating endeavor, and the narrative potential shown in THUG now seems better suited for a Mountain Dew commercial. Whether you’re a Tony Hawk veteran or an inductee, let the series end with THUG.
Community review by pup (January 02, 2006)
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