Neversoft has been steadily expanding the scope of its Tony Hawk games for years. The past couple of installments have seen some pretty radical approaches to expansion with the Tony Hawk's Underground games, which have integrated a story in addition to building on the existing trick system and various gameplay modes. The latest entry in the series boasts a new title, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, and a bevy of new additions that should please fans of the series. The last time we saw the game, we got a good sense of its story and some of the ways the always-inventive Neversoft is evolving the franchise. We recently got an exclusive look at updated versions of the new game, including the shiny Xbox 360 version, and eagerly tried them out.
We clocked in a bit of time with the game's story mode--which is a change of pace from the story mechanic seen in THUG--before starting to explore other aspects of the game. The deliberately paced story mode now requires you to pick one of several different goofy alter egos to represent yourself in the game, as opposed to a custom skater. You'll eventually be able to customize your character a bit. The story itself is an homage to the roots of skateboarding and '80s punk style in an adventure worthy of Footloose. You'll guide your lowly, tragically unhip self as you flee oppression, bad dating options, and dysfunctional parenting, heading off to the wilds of Los Angeles to become a skate champ. One mugging later, the reality of life in the big city dawns on you. Fortunately your pathetic state engenders some pity from Mindy, an alternative-looking lass who's big on the eyeliner and hair dye. The first part of the game serves double duty as both a story setup and an in-game tutorial that familiarizes you with the basics of how to play. This early sequence will let you unlock moves as the story progresses and will generally ease you into the experience.
Though it may sound like THAW follows the THUG template a little too closely, it doesn't. The game is set in a free-roaming 3D world that streams in like Grand Theft Auto. The coolest thing about the game is Neversoft's attempt to offer a cohesive experience that integrates the various "create-a" modes seen in the previous Tony Hawk games. In a nod to GTA, you'll now find different stores in the game that will let you do the aforementioned customizing. Barbershops will let you change your hair. Clothing shops will let you buy new outfits. Skate shops will let you customize your deck and will offer "sponsor challenges" that will let you increase your skater's stats. Of course, the stores themselves don't care about your stats--they want cold hard cash, so you'll have to earn some. Fortunately, you'll find a healthy assortment of cash missions from the civilians you encounter in the game. The game experience is kept lively by a day-and-night cycle that is more than just a cool lighting effect--the passage of time will also affect the sponsor challenges, which change every day.
Your ultimate goal in the game, besides cementing your rep as a badass, is to unearth a legendary snake run that's part of a ranch. Once you find it, you'll be able to enhance the ranch with parts that you'll steal from various spots in the environment as you progress through the game. Along the way you'll encounter professional skaters that are a mix of old and new. For example, Tony Alva hangs out on the Santa Monica pier and gives you some helpful information that sees you getting your hands on an alien costume to freak out a Ferris wheel operator. You'll eventually get other pros to show up later in the game, as your goal to unearth the snake run and preserve skating history is going to require you to organize a benefit.
There's a good deal more to do in the game. Neversoft has implemented a compass that shows where the various shops and challenges are in relation to your skater so you know where to head. One of the biggest additions to the game (which will stand out on the compass) is a BMX bike that you can choose to hop on at any time. The BMX gameplay is an interesting departure from the normal skate mechanics due to an all-new control layout. The left analog stick will let you steer, while the right analog stick will push your weight around for flips and rolls when in the air. The nice thing is that the bike is more than just an extra--you'll find BMX-only challenges too.
Skate or Die
The addition of the bike doesn't mean that the game's core skating mechanics are getting short shrift this year--far from it. For one, you'll find modifiers to existing moves. You'll have the ability to do double flips and double rolls. Also look for a grind modifier that lets you make any grind a one-footed grind. Natas spins can be modified to make them one-footed or to turn them into sit-downs or handstands. When you're off your board, you'll be able to perform a few free-running moves, such as backflips. You'll also be able to run up walls. You'll be able to put graffiti tags on the ground, and when you're off your board, you'll be able to lash out and throw your board at people.
Rail stalls will let you hop up onto rails and stop moving, which will come in handy as you pursue some goals. The game even has berts, the low, fluid, surfing-like turns that were brought back into the public eye by the skate documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. All told, the game has a good, tight feel to it and is a touch faster than the last THUG game. The camera can hit a few awkward angles when the action speeds up (as it does often), but it's nothing Neversoft can't fix.
The visuals in THAW have continued to make positive progress since our last look at the game. The current-gen consoles were all quite comparable to each other, with the Xbox leading the pack with a crisper overall resolution. The frame rate was good and high despite the addition of the streaming world, which speaks highly of Neversoft's skill as a tech wizard on just about any machine. Of course, the real money is the Xbox 360 version of the game, which dwarfs its current-gen cousins thanks to an insane 720p resolution that features incredibly clear textures and a solid frame rate. It goes without saying that this version was the best looking of the bunch. We should note that the Xbox 360 game wasn't a total quantum leap over those for current-gen platforms, especially the Xbox version, but it was obviously the better looking of the different versions.
Now, while the Xbox 360 game shares the same core content as its predecessors--such as the single-player game and a classic mode that lets you play through levels from previous games in an objective-based experience--THAW on the 360 comes packing some unique features specifically for Xbox Live. The game will track your achievements, such as your progression in story and classic modes, your high score in all areas of the game, how often you're competing live in each area of the game, and whether you've gotten 100 percent completion. As you meet these goals, you'll earn achievement points. What you can do with them--perhaps in the Xbox Live marketplace--remains to be seen. The game will also offer information on what you're playing to friends who look you up. For example, the game will let them know if you're playing classic style online. Finally, online leaderboards will track your personal high scores as well as all the multiplayer modes.
Based on what we saw, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is shaping up to be a strong entry in the series that's trying a refreshing number of new things. The game looks great across the board and handles well too. Our hats go off to Neversoft for somehow managing to bang out all the current-gen versions of the game along with a ripping Xbox 360 version at the same time. There are still a few rough edges to the package, as there always are in work-in-progress versions of a game, but we're pleased by what we've seen and are left excited by the promise of what's to come. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is slated to ship in October for current-gen consoles and in November for the Xbox 360. Look for more on the game in the coming months.