They say that the number seven is a lucky number. Well, lucky for me, I was given the chance to review Tony Hawk's American Wasteland -- the seventh home console iteration of the behemoth Tony Hawk franchise. Having felt this series had been Hawk'd up one time too many with when the Tony Hawk Underground games came out, I've had a pretty good break from the franchise. Before playing it, I was eager to see how the game would translate on the new Xbox 360 console, despite the negative hype the game received since its underwhelming unveiling during the Xbox 360 MTV preview. Despite the bad press the game has gotten, American Wasteland is still probably the most complete Hawk game, and it will be should be enough to impress long-tome fans of the franchise while the developers work on making a true next-gen game.
Even if American Wasteland was the best gameplay experience of the year (which it certainly isn't), I still think most people out there would be more curious of how the game looks on the 360. As mentioned already, this game is hyped as one of the least impressive launch titles from a visual standpoint on the 360. Of the handful of games I own, it's definitely the last one I would show my mom to validate why I had to have a 360 as my early Christmas/birthday present. At the same time, onlookers have definitely recognized that it is the cleanest and most vibrant Tony Hawk game to visit my HDTV set. My feelings are that the comic themed graphics and overall look to the game are gorgeous, but the game's characters models really look like they belong on the Xbox of old.
Like the graphics, I think the gameplay of American Wasteland feels like more of the same thing on the Xbox 360 -- for better or worse. The good thing is that the game has probably never been more fun to control, as the 360 controller is as good and better than any previous controller for pulling off moves. If you played a Hawk game before, it will not even take a minute to realize what buttons let you grind, grab, etc. I guess my biggest complaint would be that the Xbox d-pad can really start to be a pain when trying to pull off intricate moves. My hand started to blister when attempting to pull off moves on command. Other than that, I guess I'm just a little disappointed that the series in the next generation plays the same as it always has Hopefully we'll see some significant changes when developers are focusing more on newer consolers, and if we're lucky, the Revolution controller will really ramp up the gameplay.
Easily the biggest difference with this installment of Tony Hawk is the free roaming American Wasteland you inhabit. At the beginning of the game, you need to select and customize a skater who will become the focus of the game's storyline. The storyline is pretty basic and cliché as you become that guy that tries to make it big in LA. But rather than trying to become a Hollywood star, you're trying to become the man in Los Angeles' skating scene by impressing the locals and helping build the local skate park. In my opinion, the storyline is rather trite and boring and the only thing that kept me playing the game was the gameplay.
As for the game's Grand Theft Auto-inspired free roaming gameplay with advertised "no loading times", there are pros and cons. The bad news is that there are still plenty of load times. Like GTA, you move around trying to find goals to complete. When you get into the story of some these quests, the game still has loading. Its nothing significant, but the game is far from seamless. As for being able to skate all of LA, you can actually go from corner to corner of the game doing tricks (well, I'm not that good) and really use the whole game as one big level. This is cool, but the game's setting isn't quite on par with level design found in San Andreas, or even GTA III for that matter. In my opinion, it really feels like Activision just slapped a bunch of levels together that could have resembled something you played in Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4, and simply tied them together with subways, alleyways, etc. Sure they have the "Hollywood" sign and you can see some resemblance of Rodeo Drive, but overall, it doesn't feel like you're skating through a living, breathing city. It is not as authentic as I wanted, but then again, its not like the real LA is perfect everywhere for skaters. Overall, it's definitely a step in the right direction.
When I see Tony Hawk games coming out yearly, I can't help but compare it to EA's Madden football franchise -- in that the core gameplay is more or less the same every year, but the developer continues to make additions to make the game more immersive and still appealing to gamers. That said, Activision pulls an EA, and as a result, die hard fans who plan on purchasing a Tony Hawk game every year should be pretty happy with the progress made this time around. For casual fans who are lucky enough to own an Xbox 360, you might want to rent this title first and hope that next year brings us a version of the game that is more "next-gen."