Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Tony Hawk's American Wasteland (PS2)

Following the release and success of Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 in 2004, the annual releases continued with Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland in 2005. Rather than following in the same footsteps as Underground 2, this entry sets itself apart by featuring an open world, a first for the series, as well as setting itself within the confines of the Los Angeles area. While it pulls this aspect off successfully, the game is overall a bit of a mixed bag when compared to its predecessors.

The story tells of the player character having traveled to Los Angeles by bus in order to start fresh and hone his skateboarding skills. After his belongings are stolen upon arrival, a sketch artist and skating enthusiast named Mindy helps him out, starting with helping change his appearance in order to fit in. After the player character proves his skating skills and recovers his belongings, he is taken to a hidden spot known as The Skate Ranch, led by retired skater Iggy Van Zandt. Mindy has an idea on how to spruce the place up, motivating the others to gather pieces around Los Angeles to make the Ranch a more interesting place to skate.

In contrast with Underground 2, the game tries to tell a more grounded narrative more in line with Underground 1, though with a noticeable decrease in crass humor. The game manages to succeed in this front, even serving as more or less a celebration of skateboard culture, though it involves the main characters being jerks to each other at some point or another, usually with the player character having well-intentioned actions that backfire at the expense of Iggy. That said, the game does end on a more positive note, with the original characters’ camaraderie pulling them through to the end.

In a natural evolution from previous entries, this game is the first to use an interconnected open world, even advertising it on the box art. Since the PS2 still has its own technical limitations, this open world concept is accomplished by some cleverly-placed and designed loading tunnels to help disguise the loading for a truly seamless experience. Transitioning between levels is also made easier by the presence of arrows and other environmental hints telling you where everything is in relation to each other, as well as a map accessible through the pause screen. Additionally, there are buses present to act as a form of fast travel if you need to get to a faraway location more quickly, though there are some places inaccessible through this method, usually areas that are actually extensions of others. Within the levels themselves, there is a convenient compass to guide you to each goal or shop, alongside a mini map viewable in the pause menu to help orient your location.

Aside from this, the gameplay features a number of elements similar to Underground 2, with some key differences. The off-board mechanics have been greatly expanded upon, with the added ability to use your board as a melee weapon (Board Whack) or just randomly drop your board on the ground and pick up a new one (Board Throw), as well as the ability to Graffiti Tag the ground. I should mention that boards dropped during Board Throw also remain active boards as long as they aren’t reset, meaning it’s possible to have several boards on the ground and you automatically ride one if you walk over it. Additionally, off-board moves have been greatly expanded to feature parkour, with moves such as the Wallrun, Wallflip, Shimmy and Back/Front Tuck, with the Shimmy being a carryover from Underground 2. In addition to driving vehicles, biking is also an option, with lessons given by an in-game representation of BMX pro Rick Thorne.

Newer on-board tricks are introduced as well, including the Boned Ollie, Bert Slide and Rail Stall. The Bert Slide is a little hard to pull off on command, especially when required to perform the trick for a long stretch, however it is very easy to accidentally perform the trick when trying to dismount from your board, as it's mapped to one of those same buttons.

Los Angeles becomes your playground (when you have all the right moves).

The day/night cycle introduced in Underground 2 has been expanded upon as well, even being integrated into gameplay. Stats are increased by completing Sponsor Challenges at skate shops, which reset at midnight in-game until they run out, however it is entirely possible to cheese these by resting at designated areas to advance time. The cash system from some previous games makes a return, though here it’s used to purchase cosmetics or pay off NPCs at certain points to advance the story. You can also earn more cash from advancing the story or completing challenges issued to you by NPCs. The ability to Freak Out from a bail is present here as well, though unlike Underground 2 the rage is deadly silent, resulting in me instinctively quoting the player character from that game in order to fill the void.

Classic Mode makes a return as well, with the same rules as in Underground 2, but feels like somewhat of a downgrade. While it does feature a mixture of new levels, ports of levels from Underground 2 Remix on the PSP and some faithfully recreated ones from Pro Skater 1, there are only six of them combined and you complete each of them in a row. Among the new levels, the one that has managed to stick with me the most is The Ruins, mainly for presenting a post-apocalyptic scenario that hasn’t been seen in other games, allowing it to stand out. By virtue of having originally been a competition stage in Pro Skater 1, Chicago is the smallest map in this mode, making it much easier to take advantage of due to its size and a different physics engine. Aside from that, I also enjoyed this stage in particular because I could finally get a good look at what the inside of the announcer booth looked like.

Aside from the shortcomings of the Classic Mode, I ran into other issues during gameplay as well. One of the biggest for me was that the subtitles were not always 1:1 with what was actually being said, which often got a little distracting during cutscenes. The other is that, coming off of the previous games, you are unable to do anything but the most basic of actions until after you learn them during the campaign, making the story come off as a glorified tutorial that only starts to get more fun once you have already finished it. For the purposes of said narrative, you are unable to create a custom female skater, though how much this is actually an issue depends entirely on the perspective of the player.

Much like the previous game, there’s a lot of attention to detail to make the environments feel lived in, with this game featuring highly condensed, yet accurate recreations of various locations throughout Los Angeles. As a SoCal native, I can vouch for the accuracy of the game’s depiction of Hollywood, especially the “glamor” side of it, up to and including the iconic Hollywood sign, since I have actually been to Hollywood a number of times and once took a guided hike up to the sign itself. The depiction of Santa Monica is largely based on the pier, which features a number of amusements, though just being there in the game brought back some memories of having been there when I was younger.

You can even go inside and walk around the shops.
(Windows version pictured because it's hard to find screencaps.)

In general, the game has more of a “punk” styling to it, with cutscenes being a mix between in-game and 2D graphics. This extends to the menu design, as it features some particular aesthetic choices in order to keep within the “punk” vibe. That aside, there’s some more visible product placement for Sirius, Nokia, Powerade and Jeep via billboards and promotional banners. Those first two are even worked into the gameplay itself, with Sirius having its branding on the in-game playlist and Nokia taking over for Motorola as the phone brand through which the player receives text messages. Some smaller details I otherwise noticed were that the Beverly Hills level features a “69” gas station as an obvious parody of real-life chain 76 (down to the logo design and iconic ball) and Hollywood features a billboard that advertises performance artists The Blue Man Group.

As with previous entries, the soundtrack, this time consisting of 64 tracks, has some variety to it, though leans towards punk in line with the visual aesthetic. It should be noted that 14 of these tracks are covers recorded specifically for use in the game, all of which are included on the soundtrack’s physical CD release. While I generally favor the soundtrack of Underground 2, the music selection of American Wasteland comes in a close second as one of my favorites of the entire series.

As for my favorites, these include “We’re Only Gonna Die” by Bad Religion, “Wash Away” performed by Alkaline Trio, “We’re Gonna Fight” by 7 Seconds, “Unconditional” by The Bravery, “I Disappear” by The Faint; “Holiday” by Green Day, “Ever Fallen in Love” performed by Thursday, “Image of the Invisible” by Thrice, “Suburban Home/I Like Food” performed by Taking Back Sunday, “Institutionalized” performed by Senses Fail, “Sonic Reducer” performed by Saves the Day, “Fix Me” performed by Rise Against, “Astro Zombies” by My Chemical Romance, “Who Is Who” performed by Dropkick Murphys, “Duke Kerb Crawler” by Pest, “Burn Hollywood Burn” by Public Enemy, “Filthy Gorgeous” by Scissor Sisters, “Sun of Pearl” by An Endless Sporadic, “I Like Dirt” by The Thunderlords, “Live Near Death” by USSR, “Warlord” by Lair of the Minotaur, “Live Wire” by Mötley Crüe, “Iron Tusk” by Mastodon, “Gravedancer” by Pig Destroyer, “Peace Frog” by The Doors, “Rawhide” by Nassim, “Everyone Is Someone In L.A.” by Felix da Housecat, “Los Angeles” by Frank Black and “Teenagers From Mars” performed by The Network. The song “Sonic Reducer” carries over from Underground 2, where it was performed by original artist The Dead Boys, as it thus far the only song to carry over between main entries that aren’t remasters. While Saves the Day gives the song a somewhat lighter sound, it works well enough on its own and within the rest of American Wasteland’s tone that I enjoy both versions of the song. As a side note, “Holiday” by Green Day is included uncensored.

One minor note is that among the credits is the tattoo shop Needle Pushers Tattoo & Piercing. This wouldn’t be that significant to me if not for the fact that it just so happens to be located in the area where I live and, as of this writing, is still in operation. I will admit I have never set foot in the place, only ever been near it, however I still thought it was cool to see a local business get mentioned in the game.

As stated previously, Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland is kind of mixed. The open world concept is handled in an interesting way, especially considering the limitations of the PS2 by comparison to modern systems, though the game holds your hand a bit much during the campaign and the fun factor is only more present as you progress. I wouldn’t recommend it more immediately than prior entries, though despite this, I have a soft spot for the game for its soundtrack and its depictions of various Los Angeles locations and landmarks. Should you decide to play it, it’s thankfully designed to be more self-contained from the other games, plus being able to skate around Los Angeles once the story is complete can be fun by itself.

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