Skateboarding is a strange thing. People who do it are usually quite annoying, and will generally listen to some kind of emo/screamo whilst getting in the way of people by falling off their boards, whilst the people who are actually good at it are geniuses, which is why I usually watch the X-games. Furthermore, it's not something that you can 'kind-of' participate in, like football, badminton, tennis etc., where once you know the rules you can play any time you want. I mean it takes some serious skill, which is why whenever you see a skater in your local town centre he'll attempt a trick and fail miserably. If the videos on YouTube and Metacafe are anything to go by, it's only a matter of time before the skaters completely wipe themselves out anyway, as they push each other to fall aimlessly off of even taller buildings.
I guess this is why skateboarding computer games are fun – it's the same reason why war-based games are fun; you can do all kinds of crazy shit that you could do in real life, but if you did you'd be dead. So it is that I find myself enjoying the Tony Hawk's series of games quite inordinately, and American Wasteland is the latest one I've been playing relentlessly.
The games themselves are relatively simple, it's a case of defying gravity in new and interesting ways whilst performing kickflips and ollies and all other tricks with increasingly ridiculous names. You build up a score by linking tricks together – a 'Japan Air' on it's own is pretty low scoring, but rotate yourself a few hundred degrees whilst you're doing it then do a kickflip or two before you land and you'll get a much higher score. The last Tony Hawk's game I played completely through was Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, way back on the Playstation 1, and on that game linking tricks was actually quite difficult. Sure you could get massive air (that's skaterspeak for a big jump) and perform a few good tricks, then land with a grind (where they skate along a curb or something on the side of the board rather than with the wheels) and then do a manual (like a wheelie on the skateboard) to link tricks together to get lots of points, but Tony Hawk's American Wasteland takes the ability to link tricks to an all new level.
Firstly, you can get off the skateboard. It's crazy, I can do a load of tricks then before I land, grab my board out from under me and run over to another half-pipe (that's… oh, nevermind) then throw the board back down to continue the combo. It really allows for some very high scoring moves, but before you think that this makes it easy, let me explain: the easier it is to link tricks, the easier it is to convince yourself to try just one more jump for another multiplier and then totally bail. It's a real art to score a high scoring combo and then have the nerve to actually stop linking tricks together in order to keep the accumulated points.
There are two main modes in the game – 'story' and 'classic' – and each has advantages and disadvantages. In story mode, you play a young skater who goes to LA to learn to become the best. You skate around small areas meeting other people and then learning tricks from them (including parkour from a ridiculously stereotyped Frencho) in order to beat some local skating God, whose respect for you will then allow you to progress to another location. The advantages to this are that the game is essentially free-roaming, and you can ride other vehicles like a BMX bike as well as customising your character with new clothes and equipment, and there's a very good learning curve. You learn one trick, use it in competition, then learn some more – not overwhelming at all, which is good. The flipside of this is that you have to put up with the 'story' itself. See, I don't play a Tony Hawk's game for anything other than a quick diversion – messing around, pulling a few shapes, then getting back to work. The story mode doesn't let you do this by forcing cutscenes on you, with bad voice acting and that absolutely stupid skater language ("Hey man, watch me do this Japan Birdman Prisoner of War" – "Oh dude that is so sick" – "Yeah! You're the illest dude in town homie" ad infinitum/nauseum). Obviously this detracts from the game, although it does provide some amusement if you're in the mood.
Much better is the classic mode, which is your standard Tony Hawk's fare – two minutes, a huge location, and about ten challenges to complete. These challenges range from simply performing a combo higher than a certain amount and getting an overall score of more than a set number, to collecting five icons hidden around the arena or performing a specific trick in a specific location. The more of these challenges you complete, the more locations you will unlock. This is the Tony Hawk's I know and love, and it is here than I spend most of my time playing.
Ultimately, I think a lot of people would be put off these games by the fact that it's skating, which they don't know or like. Well, neither do I, really, but the Tony Hawk's games (whilst there not being much of a difference between each one) are some good simple fun, and I enjoy them. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is a good way to mess around on your computer without having to concentrate on a plot, and is one of those games which rewards a player's skill rather than his actual weaponry or something.
Recommended, if you like arcade fun.