In life, there are some things that are simply inevitable: death, taxes, Christmas, etc. Since 1999, there's been a new addition to that list—every fall will see the release of a new game in the Tony Hawk series. This year is no exception as the guys at Neversoft grind (pun fully intended) out yet another sequel in the form of Tony Hawk's American Wasteland. Since Neversoft is never content to merely make sequels, American Wasteland is essentially the third new iteration in the series' history—following in the footsteps of the Pro Skater and Underground games. It's a credit to the developers that they've been able to make so many games in this franchise in such a short amount of time yet haven't made a single game that felt like a rehash or an attempt to simply cash in. Each year's new installment of Tony Hawk is a lot like each year's Madden—the core gameplay might be the same as the last year's, but there's always something new in the mix that makes the current release unique.

Fortunately, American Wasteland is something of a return to its roots for the series. After the two Underground games and their Jackass-inspired shenanigans, American Wasteland gets back to the heart of the series—skating. Story mode finds players taking on the role of a country bumpkin who hops off the bus in Los Angeles with little more than his board and some big dreams. After meeting up with Mindy—the player's erstwhile guide—gamers set off to explore the entirety of L.A. in search of fame, fortune, and street cred. Skate well and your avatar will develop a full-blown career. Fail and he'll never get past the first section of the game.

Story mode is essentially broken down into a series of missions and tutorials. In an interesting twist, the game starts the player off as a complete novice who must learn even the most basic skateboarding moves. Early challenges will find players having to master manuals, reverts, and transfers through a series of challenges doled out by the local skate gods. Complete the objectives and the move is learned and can be incorporated into the player's moveset. While this elementary school approach to the art of skating will no doubt seem like a waste to boarding veterans, it's a nice addition for the gamers who're new to the series.

As the game advances players will be able to unlock new challenges, earn cash, collect items for inclusion in the game's Skate Ranch skate park, buy gear, and move about the city at will. Unfortunately, unlike past Tony Hawk games (which featured a robust create-a-skater mode), the story mode features a paltry five pre-generated skaters to choose from. There are some customization options available in terms of hair styles and so on, but the crazy and unique looking skaters from the earlier entries are absent this time out.

Perhaps the biggest selling point of this version of Tony Hawk is the lack of load times. Activision and Neversoft have basically stated that players can skate through the entirety of L.A. and (if the player has the skills) complete one gigantic combo without ever encountering a loading screen. While this statement is technically true, the game does actually have loading zones—they simply often take the form of tunnels that players can skate through with a few places to grind as the next area loads in. This isn't a bad thing by any stretch, but it's not quite the "zero loading" we'd been led to expect from the pre-release announcements.

Another new addition is the inclusion of the BMX bike. If players get tired of riding their board, they can always stop and pick up the bike—which offers a whole new experience. In comparison to the boards, the bike is pretty stripped down. There's a series of moves mapped to the four face keys, and other moves can be executed using the right analog stick. The controls are tight and responsive, though, so riding the bike is definitely a fun diversion. The guys at Neversoft even threw in a few bike missions, but not so many as to make it a major part of the game.

The rest of the controls are just as buttery smooth as fans would expect. Putting together massive combo strings is an almost sublime experience as players become one with the DualShock 2 controller. The Tony Hawk games have always been a perfect example of how solid controls can make the onscreen avatar feel like a complete extension of the gamer sitting on the couch—and this year's version is no exception in that regard.

Graphically speaking, the game looks a lot like the past few games in the series. Character models are decent, although starting to show their age a bit. Environments are detailed with maximum emphasis placed on the positioning of things to grind, jump, or skate through. The color palette's still a bit muted, but that seems to be part of the series' signature look. The graphics won't be bowling people over, but this series has always been more about the gameplay than the visual aesthetics anyway.

Aside from story mode, the game features the requisite create-a-park and create-a-trick modes as well as the always appreciated classic mode. Classic mode is my own personal favorite as it's fun to go back to environments from the earlier games in the franchise and tackle them with the new moves at your disposal from each new release. Online play is also back for the PlayStation 2, although it doesn't really seem any different than it was in years past.

If I had one complaint about American Wasteland as a whole, it would be that the game almost feels too easy in spots. I'm a fan of this series, but I'm not good at it—in other words, I'm not the kind of player who busts out the million point combos with any kind of regularity. Despite that, this game never really gave me a challenge on the normal setting. Sure, some of the late game goals were a little challenging, but compared with the earlier games in the series, this one is a step backwards in terms of challenge. It's nice to see the game be accessible to newer or less skilled players, but normal mode should definitely be harder than it is—particularly since there's already an easy setting.

I've said in the past that I think the Tony Hawk series is a franchise that could well use a few years' break—and I still believe that. Yes, each new game improves upon the last one in noticeable ways, but there comes a point where enough is just enough. I don't want Tony Hawk games to go away, but it would be nice if they'd take a break for a few years and let gamers miss them. Absence does, after all, make the heart grow fonder. Despite that, there's no denying that this year's game is a triumphant return to form for the franchise. It's nice to see skating back as the focus after the two Underground titles. And while the series seems to have gone just about as far as it can (without changing the entire mechanics of skateboarding, anyway), I've little doubt we'll all be seeing an American Wasteland 2 next October. Some things are simply inevitable. Rating: 8 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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