Who knew that a little skateboarding game could get so huge?
Tony Hawk’s eponymous skateboarding franchise is now seven games deep (not counting portable entries and different editions), and is showing no sign of slowing down. The game started as a sleeper hit for fledgling developer Neversoft, only to become one of Sony’s most successful and profitable licenses, eventually crossing over with ports for Microsoft’s and Nintendo’s systems. Through a mix of addicting game mechanics and a willingness to evolve with its ever-increasing fanbase, Hawk’s games now stand alongside such stalwarts as Mario, Madden, and the Final Fantasy series as one of the most lasting (not to mention high quality) names in modern gaming. Indeed, it seems that evolution takes place within the series on the odd-numbered entries—Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 marked the series’ graduation to the current generation of systems, while the fifth game in the series, Tony Hawk’s Underground, took a more chaotic plot and style while adding a Story Mode that gave the game some aspects of an adventure while still retaining the play mechanics that made the series great.
Now we’re on game seven, which means that Tony Hawk must again evolve, this time into Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. American Wasteland retains many of the more popular gameplay elements from the Underground games, including the splitting of the “Story” and “Classic” modes (the latter of which longtime fans still find refreshing and comfortable). The evolution, then, comes primarily in the delivery of the Story Mode—the entire story takes place in an approximation of Los Angeles, all of which can be accessed at any given time. That’s right, the franchise has taken the step into free-roaming gameplay.
Of course, it’s a gimmick that screams of riding the free-roaming coattails of Grand Theft Auto. Still, proper execution of such a gimmick could make for the definitive video game free-skate experience. Unfortunately, “proper execution” isn’t quite what we get—American Wasteland‘s version of freedom is a bit more restrictive than most of us would probably like.
The assertion that one could skate from one end of L.A. to the other without so much as a stop in play for a load time is true. The catch is that L.A. is divided into a number of well-defined areas connected by also-well-defined transitions, where the loading is quite obviously taking place. In order to get from one section of L.A. to another, you have to go through a rampless tunnel-type area that usually has plenty of places to grind, but is generally pretty unexciting. The primary areas like Hollywood and Santa Monica, then, are an awful lot like levels, each with plenty of self-contained tasks to complete in order to advance in the Story Mode. The game’s claim of “total and utter freedom” is, at best, misleading, as the mechanics of the area in which the player skates simply haven’t changed much from past games, save for the replacement of load screens with indoor tunnels. It’s an improvement, to be sure, but this is nowhere near the standard that Grand Theft Auto set for free-roaming gameplay. To that end, disappointment is inevitable.
Speaking of disappointment, it’s hard not to be struck by the apparent concession (perhaps also related to the Grand Theft Auto-wannabe syndrome) that the only people playing the game are going to be male. I have no doubt that the majority of Tony Hawk players are male, but of the five possible playable characters in Story Mode, none are female. Of the many possible playable skaters in classic mode, none are female, at least until some of the Story Mode’s characters are unlocked. Women are relegated to the periphery of the game, there merely to advance the cause of the men. And, of course, all of their anatomies practically guarantee back pain in their early 30s, which I suppose was probably a given going in. I’m boggled as to how a game can alienate an entire percentage of its audience, minority or not, by all but removing the women from the game and including such adolescent giggle-evoking challenges as “Get the Naked Lady Statue”.
All told, however, this is still a Tony Hawk game.
All of the franchise’s games are addictive as hell, and American Wasteland is no exception. The Story Mode might skew a little heavily toward the novice gamer with its tutorial style early on, but there’s plenty to do for even the most devoted Tony Hawk junkies. There’s a skate park to put together and find all the pieces for, there are gaps to find, there are secret areas to uncover, and there’s even a pile of tasks that take place on a BMX bike, which changes the entire control scheme. The soundtrack is as fantastic as ever, particularly the savvy selection of Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles” as the theme song for a game that takes place in Los Angeles. The Classic Mode allows for the play of levels that fans have come to know and love from past games, often with added challenges that breathe new life into areas that could well have gone stale.
To this point, each Tony Hawk game has evoked a feeling of mild awe and serious joy as it unfolded in its own unique way, even as the play hasn’t changed all that much in the six years since the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater appeared on the market. American Wasteland, while still a solid and addictive game, is the first game where the awe is replaced by a bit of disappointment. The supposed evolution is lazy, and even in the move away from the silly Underground plots, the humor and dialogue is immature and cheesy. Perhaps after seven games, player fatigue is bound to set in—or maybe the development of a truly free-roaming atmosphere (executed, no doubt, on the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 consoles) is all the Tony Hawk franchise needs to invoke that breath of new life that it very much needs. Fortunately, if the pattern holds, we only have a year to wait and find out.