At the peak of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater success, everyone and their brother wanted in on the extreme sports gaming genre. BMX, inline skating, surfing, wakeboarding - no extreme sport was left untouched in the early part of this decade. The Great Extreme Sport Shakeout left just one franchise standing, and today the series has withstood seven iterations and spinoff sequels on the console. And development studio Vicarious Visions was there every step of the way, matching the console releases almost step for step with a portable rendition of the skateboarding series for Game Boy Advance players.
The handheld team's latest production takes their portable Tony Hawk expertise onto a new platform, where the designers can really stretch their legs and really offer up a true console experience on the clearly weaker handheld platform. And stretch them these guys did: Tony Hawk's American Sk8land is an extremely thorough and accurate representation of the extreme sports series that's just as fun and challenging as the bigger productions, and even though the whole Tony Hawk thing has been played out to the point of lacking anything truly new this time around, it's still a great game to experience on the DS
both online and off.
Though the DS title is being released within the same shipping window as the console games, the namesake "American Sk8land" is meant to separate this dual-screen edition from the bigger Xbox, PS2, and GameCube productions. It shares similar attributes, including the L.A. setting as well as the game's main goal: use your boarding know-how to earn money and befriend some of the most elite members in order to rebuild a classic park for a new generation of skaters. By working through the different territories, you'll be challenged to pull off specific tasks within the game's five unique skateparks that'll fill your bank account, which can, in turn, be used to customize a sixth park with a selection of rails, vert ramps and other skating elements.
To further separate American Sk8land from American Wasteland, the development team employ a graphic style that's far removed from the console game design. American Sk8land now looks much more like Sega's Jet Grind Radio series by utilizing a nifty toon-shaded appearance, and this drastic change was a very smart move, as it makes doing side-by-side comparisons to the console versions virtually impossible and, more importantly, impractical.
This cool new graphic style also allows the development team to push a 3D engine on the Nintendo DS that runs just as fast and smooth as the console version. American Sk8land runs at a slick 60 frames per second pace that looks stunningly good on the DS screen. This engine allows for other subtle effects, like sketchmarks on the surface when wallriding, as well as custom artwork that can be plastered in specific locations in each park. These park designs are just as elaborate as the console games, with some crazy rail grinds that can stretch on for a mile if you're lucky. The skateparks, when unlocked, are linked together, though any combo string in motion when moving from one location to the other ends due to some slight loading issues.
The designers intentionally bring the series back to its basics while still feeling like a forward-moving sequel. The RPG-like element of building up character attributes is still in the game, but some non-skating moves like the Run Out have thankfully been taken out. Unfortunately, without the runout some challenges, like painting graffiti tags on the wall, end up feeling awkward and stiff because you can't hop off the board and walk up to the specific mark on the wall. Instead, you have to balance between stop-and-go movements to get to the triggerpoint, which is unbelievably clunky in this control set-up.
Because the DS utilizes a button layout that's extremely similar to the original PlayStation's controller, this handheld Tony Hawk plays just like Tony Hawk. There's very little compromise in controls and functions, and very little has been moved out of the skateboarding engine because one or two buttons are missing. In fact, the addition of the touch screen brings new elements to the Tony Hawk design: touch screen specials. When your special meter's filled, special panels slide in on the right of the screen as buttons, and the player can map any special aerial or grind move to these three buttons. A slow time "focus" move can also be triggered with a virtual button. And when the screen's not being used for buttons, it allows for keeping track of items and goals via an overhead map.
This game does go a little over the top in presentation, so you'll need to employ a little suspension of disbelief most of the time. Tony Hawk, for example, is certainly not going to drive a bus through a wall to help knock together a few vert ramps in real life, and a streetcorner bum isn't going to reward you with a few hundred bucks just to grind off an escalator handrail. But, hey, you'd never survive 90% of these tricks if you managed to pull them off in the real world, so it's a healthy balance of absurdity for the sake of being fun and funny.
And even though the game's single player campaign is a little on the easy side, American Sk8land has tons of replayability for solo outings because each park also contains the classic Arcade mode. Outside of the story mode, players can try to knock certain sets of challenges off a checklist in a set amount of time, exactly the way the classic Tony Hawk used to be back before the "open-ended" design kicked in with Underground. This mode works fantastic in the world of the handheld, and more importantly the Nintendo DS because players can whip out their system, check off some tasks, save their game, and put their system away in a few short minutes. All without any annoying loadtimes.
As meaty as the single player experience is, it's Tony Hawk's "aftermarket" focus that opens up a lot more gameplay. Through the use of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection online service, players can match-up for some head-to-head competition in a few gaming modes, as well as upload a mess of data, including custom deck and tag artwork, to the American-Sk8land.com website to put their gaming skills on display for bragging and competitive rights. On top of this, the design team will be adding to the experience by creating brand new challenges that aren't built into the game - American Sk8land has the ability to download fresh challenges within the existing parks, and these will be uploaded weekly for as long as Activision supports the game. If you figure in a year of aftermarket downloads at most, that still adds a huge amount of replay beyond the purchase. Even though there's still restrictions to the online experience, Vicarious Visions clearly poured more Wi-Fi effort into its own product than Nintendo did with Mario Kart DS, and that focus does not go unnoticed.
Though the development team focused on the wireless functionality, the game's head-to-head isn't quite as fleshed out as the console editions. Two multiplayer favorites, graffiti tag and Horse - two staples of the Tony Hawk competitive experience - didn't make it into the final game. And while new game modes like The Price is Wrong are pretty cool additions, the lack of the classics is just a bit disappointing.
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