Reviewed: October 21, 2005
Reviewed by: Cliff O'Neill


Neversoft Entertainment

Released: October 18, 2005
Genre: Sports
Players: 2 / 8
ESRB: Teen


Supported Features:

  • Analog Control
  • Vibration
  • Memory Card (134kb)
  • Online: Ethernet Broadband
  • Network Adaptor (2-8 Players)
  • Progressive Scan
  • 16:9 Widescreen
  • Dolby Pro Logic II
  • EyeToy USB Camera

    Screenshots (Click Image for Gallery)

  • “The world is your skatepark” would be a good description for Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, or THAW for short. Actually, there’s just one main level in the game, based on Los Angeles (the skate Mecca), but its sheer magnitude allows for a whole world of gameplay possibilities and trick opportunities. This is the closest a Tony Hawk game – or any action-sports game, for that matter – has come to mimicking the free-roaming sandbox-style play popularized by the Grand Theft Auto series.

    So, yes, that means you can now whack pedestrians with your skateboard, you brute. Go ahead and call THAW Grand Theft Auto: Dogtown if you wish (legendary Z-Boy Tony Alva is accounted for). All that’s really important is – after the goofball antics of Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 – the Tony Hawk series is back on track, newly re-energized and focused on delivering a more authentic, free-form skating experience. As expected, new tricks, features, and modes supplement the series’ solid gameplay mechanics and ultra-tight controls.

    One prominent new feature is the ability to ditch the old skateboard for a shiny BMX bike. In typical Neversoft fashion – these guys never half-ass anything, evidently – the BMX aspect is nearly as polished as the skating. That shrill sound you just heard was Mat Hoffman weeping over the end of his short-lived video-game franchise. Fret not, Hoffman fans: The Condor has a cameo in THAW. Tony’s a good sport, after all.

    Tony’s also a good skater…as if you needed to know that – the man’s name has been on seven damn games! As good of a skater as Tony is, however, he’s no match for his virtual self. Neversoft has made certain of that by establishing, then continually refining, a trick/combo system that lets you do stuff Tony and the pros only fantasize about. Watching a skilled player in action – like, say, the famed Andy “THPS” Gentile – is a thing of beauty.

    Now, with THAW, you can truly bust through the stratosphere and put together combos that stretch across all of Los Angeles, or at least a good chunk of it. In addition to the stuff from previous games, an array of new tricks and gameplay functions let you shred the city in style. THAW gives a warm welcome to Bert slides (straight from the old school of skateboarding), grind stalls, boned ollies, modified Natas spins, one-footed modifiers, and expanded off-board maneuvers, including somersaults and wall runs/flips.

    That’s just a smidgen of the new things included. None may be as revolutionary as the manual or revert, but taken as a whole, the new features add a tremendous amount of depth to an already incredibly deep trick system. In fact, it’s easy to see THAW initially overwhelming newcomers or anyone who has been away from the series. Even Tony Hawk veterans will have a thing or two to learn – namely, the fine art of BMX.

    The inclusion of BMX riding is something completely new this year. It’s executed well enough that it effectively eliminates the need for Activision to release another Mat Hoffman game (though you won’t hear us complaining if one arrives). Apart from handling differently, BMX also features unique controls.

    In short, the left analog stick steers and shifts your bodyweight, while the right stick performs tricks. You hold the X button to pedal, releasing it to bunny hop, and use the top shoulder buttons to brake. The rest of the buttons handle various modifiers and trick functions, such as grinds, stalls, and tabletops.

    Although bikes are found in specific areas, you can resume skating from the very spot where you end your bike ride – something you couldn’t do with the vehicles in the THUG games. THAW has vehicles you can ride in, too, primarily in the form of buses that transport you between locations. This is great if you don’t feel like skating through the boring sections that link to different areas of the city.

    While THAW is indeed composed of one huge, streaming level devoid of load times, the mundane corridors you must skate through to reach new areas make it feel more like a handful of interconnected levels. These passageways are present to hide the loading that takes place as you skate between areas. Unfortunately, there’s not much happening inside the passageways, and you’ll have to deal with a few frame-rate stutters while tricking on the strategically placed objects lining their walls. That said, using the passageways to travel to new destinations makes it entirely possible to begin a combo in one part of the city and end it in another. More often than not, however, you’ll opt for a quick bus ride instead.

    THAW’s sole purpose for spotlighting a single city is to provide a cohesive feel to its Story mode, which exclusively boasts a streaming game world. THAW is the third Tony Hawk game to feature a story, and it’s easily the best yet. Choosing from one of five character designs, you play as a dejected male skater from the Midwest who escapes to LA to start anew. Upon arrival, however, reality literally kicks in, as you’re jumped for all your belongings straight off the bus.

    Fortunately, a local skater chick named Mindy helps you out by serving as your tour guide, introducing you to the local skate scene. Per Mindy’s advice, your first job is to get a haircut and some new clothes. Character customization is done completely in-game (no boring menus), so if you desire a change of dress or hairstyle, you simply walk into one of the corresponding shops around town. The same goes for getting tattoos and acquiring new skateboards.

    Of course, these things cost money. You can earn some extra spending cash by completing cash goals, assigned by hobos around the city. Cash goals are persistent and usually involve doing a set of specified tricks or combos. The more difficult the goal, the more cash you’ll receive. Another way to earn cash is to help graffiti artists tag the city; they’ll also help you create your own tags.

    Story mode isn’t simply about obtaining cash and finding new ways to spend it: After proving yourself to a few locals, your main goal becomes to transform the local skate hangout, known as the Skate Ranch, into a kick-ass skatepark. Accomplishing this entails completing a variety of fun missions involving skating, destruction, and general horseplay. You’ll need to learn a bunch of moves from the locals, since the game starts you off with limited abilities.

    To make your life easier, you can brush up on your skating skills (i.e., improve your stats) by undertaking sponsor challenges posted at skate shops. Sponsor challenges change periodically, and since the game unfolds in quasi-real time, you have a limited time frame to complete the current challenges. Luckily, rest spots in the city let you accelerate time for a head start on a new day.

    As in the THUG games, three difficulties are available in Story mode, each dictating the difficulty of missions and sponsor challenges, as well as the extras you unlock. Novices will want to stick with the easy setting, since they’ll have their hands full learning all the maneuvers and conquering the more complex missions. Tony Hawk aficionados, on the other hand, will need to play under the highest difficulty to receive any sort of real challenge.

    In fact, THAW’s Story mode is easier than it was in the past two Tony Hawk games, though it’s far more engaging and devotes less face time to the pros. Still, it would have been nice if it did less handholding. Many of the story missions play like an interactive training guide, with the game telling you precisely how to do things and often placing you exactly where you need to be. Don’t take that to mean there aren’t any challenging moments. They’re just few and far between, and the whole Story mode, regrettably, ends rather abruptly.

    But the Tony Hawk games haven’t reigned supreme because of their stories. Frankly, THAW’s Story mode is a small piece of a bigger pie – a sweet, succulent cherry pie. The real fun, it can be argued, comes from skating in High Score/Free Skate mode, in which you can continuously exploit the wonderful gameplay Neversoft has honed through the years. Not pleased with the job of the developers? Fine, then create your own skaters, levels, tricks, and graphics with the same easy-to-use editors found in previous Tony Hawk games.

    If you prefer the golden oldies, the return of Classic mode from THUG 2 (now with co-op play!) may be right up your alley, though it’s shorter and simpler than its last outing. Classic mode gathers levels from the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and the PSP version of THUG 2, sprinkles in familiar goals (high score/combo, letter collection, hidden tapes, etc.), and adds a two-minute timer. It’s fun…for an hour or two.

    Perhaps the longest lasting enjoyment comes via the multiplayer modes. Not much has changed, as the on- and offline modes from past games remain intact, accompanied by the new Pot O’ Gold mode. This new multiplayer mode revolves around – you guessed it – a pot of gold, and has players competing to score a set amount of points while the pot is in their possession. Nothing beats schooling the competition while talking smack like a leprechaun.

    Does the name Jim Phillips – renowned skate artist of the ’80s – mean anything to you? If so, you may be glad to know that his equally talented son, Jimbo Phillips, provided artwork for THAW. Jimbo’s eye-popping artwork pervades the game, from the opening cutscene to the user interface. His colorful art style sets the mood and differentiates THAW from other Tony Hawk titles.

    Despite being more complex in nature, THAW looks quite a bit better than previous Tony Hawk games (though some graininess and screen tearing still exist), particularly on a widescreen TV capable of displaying progressive scan. Los Angeles looks simply marvelous here, complete with recognizable landmarks, like the Hollywood sign, Walk of Fame, Chinese Theatre, Rodeo Drive, and the Santa Monica Pier. Obviously, it’s not a complete (or fully accurate) re-creation, but each area has been lovingly crafted and injected with lots of energy. Sharp lighting, including day/night cycles in Story mode, further enlivens the game world.

    THAW’s good looks extend to its character models, which are the best looking of the series. Lip syncing and facial texturing has been given closer attention (you can still map your own face onto a custom skater), and character animation is the smoothest it’s ever been. Even the off-board animations have received additional polish. There are still rough spots, of course, but most everything animates smoothly. Moreover, a stable frame rate keeps the action steady, with the only notable hitches occurring during transitions between areas.

    Overall, while there may be more Tony Hawk games released on the aging PS2, it’s unlikely they’ll improve significantly on THAW’s graphics, especially if future installments build upon the game’s free-roaming aspect.

    THAW’s audio presentation offers no surprises. That’s a good thing, considering that audio has been consistently solid in the Tony Hawk series. It’s not as if the developers suddenly replaced the skating sounds with barnyard noises – that would have been interesting, to say the least.

    Although minor sound glitches and audio dropouts occasionally annoy, the skating sounds, ambient noises, and character voices remain high in quality. The pros also step up their game, delivering their most enthusiastic voice-overs yet. Lastly, Dolby Pro Logic II support provides an enveloping sound mix, but you’ll need a proper audio setup to hear its true benefits.

    Like the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, THAW opens with a classic song by the Dead Kennedys. Their song, “California Uber Alles,” gets things started right and sets the pace for the rest of the heavily punk-inspired soundtrack. Accompanying the Dead Kennedys are other noteworthy ’80s punk acts, including Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Bad Religion. Additionally, some of today’s popular bands cover classic punk anthems.

    Rounding out the soundtrack are various rock, thrash, and rap groups, altogether contributing to the soundtrack’s collection of roughly 70 songs. As usual, you have complete control over the playlist. It isn’t in need of much editing, though, as Activision has put together a tight soundtrack – quite possibly the best in the series.

    Just as with previous Tony Hawk games, the amount of value you glean from THAW depends greatly on the type of Tony Hawk player you are. Those mainly looking to play through the Story mode and perhaps dabble in few other areas will get by just fine with a rental. Story mode is not especially long, nor particularly worth the price of admission by itself, even though the level-streaming element is specific to it. Worse, you can’t use or modify your story character outside of Story mode.

    On the flip side, gamers who buy each new Tony Hawk title purely for the new gameplay features will again have their days cut short with all the tricks, modes, and customization options occupying their time. Discovering new lines, building bigger combos, creating new levels, and competing against other players never gets old for these folks, for whom a Story mode is inconsequential.

    It all comes down to whether you play Tony Hawk games to “finish” them (complete all goals and unlock all extras) or master them (tirelessly work on new lines, achieve bigger scores/combos, and build better parks). In other words, the potential for long-term satisfaction is here. You just have to be willing to find it outside the Story mode.

    The Tony Hawk series has done exactly what any great game series must do to survive: evolve. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 and 3 added significant new moves; Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 removed the timer from levels; Tony Hawk’s Underground replaced the Career mode with a Story mode and included drivable vehicles; THUG 2 lightened the mood with pranks; and now Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland tears down the boundaries of levels.

    There’s still room for improvement – THAW isn’t quite as wide open as we’d hoped – and it will be interesting to see where Neversoft takes the series on the next-generation consoles. For now, though, THAW is plenty hot.