Tony Hawk's American Wasteland Updated Impressions

Another runaway hits Los Angeles with dreams of making the big time as we take a closer look at Activision's new skateboarding game.

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If you haven't been following the Tony Hawk games closely over the past few years, the fairly constant name changes might seem confusing. But, really, the progression is simple. The Tony Hawk's Pro Skater line focused on the goals; Tony Hawk's Underground gave the game an overarching story; and Tony Hawk's American Wasteland expands upon the story theme even further and makes additional changes to the overall formula of the gameplay by moving away from individual levels and instead including a large multi-area city. It uses streaming technology similar to that found in games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, so you'll be able to skate from one side of Los Angeles to the other. Despite these large changes to the setting and the way the goals are presented to you, the Tony Hawk-style gameplay that has made the series a success is still present.

New modifiers let you change any grind or Natas spin into a one-footed maneuver.

Tony Hawk's American Wasteland puts you in the shoes of a Midwestern kid who has decided that he's fed up with the cops, his cheating girlfriend, and his old man. So he hops a bus to Los Angeles, where he hopes to become a famous skater. Of course, a fairly harsh reality sets in when you arrive in LA, as you get shaken down for all of your belongings. A local girl takes pity on you, and from here the story gets going. You'll initially have to learn all of your tricks in a tutorial phase that will reintroduce you to some of the tricks from the previous games in the series while also showing you some of the new tricks. From there, you're off and running, though you'll be restricted to specific spots until you've progressed far enough in the story to unlock additional parts of Los Angeles. Your eventual goal is to unearth a legendary snake run that's part of a ranch that some crusty punk-rock guy is squatting on, but you'll also enhance the ranch with parts that you'll steal from various spots in the environment as you go through the game. Along the way you'll encounter professional skaters. 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. Other pros turn up later on, as your goal to unearth the snake run and preserve skating history is going to require you to organize a benefit.

New tricks are always a part of each new game in the Tony Hawk line, and this year's list is pretty long. Some additions are modifiers to existing moves. The previous game introduced the ability to do flips and rolls while in the air. Now you'll be able to do double flips and double rolls.A grind modifier will let 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-like 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. But perhaps the biggest change to the Tony Hawk series has nothing at all to do with skateboards.

Go to stores to buy clothes, tattoos, and haircuts--just like in GTA.

At certain points in Los Angeles you'll find BMX bikes lying around. Yes, you can skate up and get on those bikes and ride them around. The BMX control is pretty different from skating, since you'll be using the right analog stick to push your weight around for flips and rolls when in the air. Also, you'll encounter some goals that can be accomplished only on a bike. At any time, you can drop the bike and switch back to your skateboard. Does this mean there's no need for any more games in the seemingly dormant Mat Hoffman series? Activision isn't saying for sure, but it seems like this game would make a separate BMX game a little pointless.

Skate or Die

Along with the new tricks and story-oriented goals come plenty of other objectives. In what seems like an obvious nod to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the various items you'll use to customize your skater are now purchased in shops found around the city. You'll also find tattoo parlors and barbershops that will let you customize your look. All of this costs money, so you might have to hit up some optional cash goals to make sure you're folding enough paper to pay for your look.

The bert slide as seen in Dogtown and Z-Boys.

Also, many of the 40-plus pieces of Los Angeles that are perfect for your skate ranch are earned in optional goals. You can return to the ranch at any time to skate around with the pieces you've recently earned, and you'll find some goals here, too. Goals are usually given out by pedestrians, which is nothing new for the series. However, the close-up shots of bad-looking character models with looping idle animations seem to be a thing of the past. Many goals are set up with in-engine cutscenes that were motion-captured, giving them a much more lifelike look. Additionally, the character models used for bystanders look much better.

Graphically, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland appears to be on the right track. Aside from better-looking bystanders, the areas appear to be larger than the levels in previous games, and stringing all of the levels together with no load times between them is an interesting addition. Despite the larger layout, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland appears to run slightly faster than THUG2, continuing what appears to be an annual trend of speeding the game up just a touch. The cutscenes are made even more interesting thanks to the inclusion of artwork from well-known skate artist Jimbo Phillips. His unique style of 2D still art, when combined with the polygonal models, definitely gives the game a rad and totally unique look. Support for widescreen and progressive displays will also be included.

It's difficult to get a grasp of the audio side of the presentation at this point, as some of the voice-over wasn't in the version we were shown. What was in place sounded appropriate. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland will, like previous games, feature a large licensed soundtrack. We heard Frank Black's "Los Angeles" in there, which fits with the game A-OK.

Tony Hawk's American Wasteland will be online on the PlayStation 2 and will feature the face-mapping option found in the THUG games. The game will also be online on the Xbox and Xbox 360. All three will let up to eight players compete in a variety of games. Online games from the previous entries will return with an occasional new twist here and there. Combo mambo, for example, can now be combined with graffiti to base your score on a number of tags instead of just points. A new pot-of-gold mode sounds similar to king of the hill, though the object here is to get a pot of gold and score points while holding it. The skater who gets the most points while holding the pot wins.

The bike controls remarkably different from the skateboard.

Specific details about the Xbox 360 version of Tony Hawk's American Wasteland are hard to come by at this time. It's expected that the 360 version will look better than its current-generation counterparts. Also, it will take advantage of some of the new features of Xbox Live on the 360, including leaderboards that let you know where you stand and achievements that let you display some of the things you've accomplished in the game.

Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is currently scheduled to be released this fall on the Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube, and DS. The Xbox 360 version will follow, though no specific time frame is available at this time.

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