Just in the nick of time, the DS gets some quality software. The PSP loomed dark on the horizon, but Nintendo countered the impending doom with their Wifi connection service, and Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land
was one of the first games to utilize the new online play. Now I’ve never been a fan of the Tony Hawk games—not that I dislike them or anything, I’m just not into skating. So I can say I came to Sk8land with an objective mind, an important thing for a review, and needless to say I was impressed. Vicarious Visions’ first Hawk DS offering has just about everything you’d want from a skateboarding game.
Now, I’ll try to get the presentation out of the way first. Let me say that these graphics aren’t going to blow your socks off like Wasteland on the bigger consoles, and if you’re expecting a visual masterpiece, prepare to be disappointed. Rather, you should take this game’s visual style at its own merits. Compared to what little I’ve seen of the franchise, Sk8land has a unique style, more akin to Jet Grind Radio than the other Tony Hawk titles. Characters all sport a cell-shaded appearance and the worlds have simplistic, colorful texturing. The whole scheme conveys fun, the kind of fun you’d have hanging out with a few wild friends. The darker, quirkier tones of the Underground offshoots are absent, in favor of a lighter mood.
Personally, I think this flavor suits the DS Hawk fine, and just because things are simpler doesn’t mean the graphics are rudimentary. Sk8land carries all of the visual customization that made the Tony Hawk series famous, and the DS’s special abilities augment this customization like never before. There are the typical assortments of outfits and licensed boards, but the touch screen allows you to create your own board art and graffiti. All this is done through a competent paint program. Spraying your logo on a wall has a sense of satisfaction, and I know a friend who created a Zelda NES spray, pixel for pixel. This individuality really comes into play when taking Sk8land out onto Wifi.
The skating environments themselves are stylized LA locations, littered with quarter-pipes, ramps and fellow skaters, eager to part with cash if you demo some sick moves. The object of the story mode is to raise enough cash to refurbish American Sk8land, a rundown skate park where Tony Hawk practiced in his early days. Hawk and a few other characters assist you by teaching you tricks and giving general advice, but it’s mostly up to you to fix up the abandoned warehouse. Your customized skater will travel across most of LA, showing off their skating abilities to prospective contributors.
The different areas have a good deal of variation, and while you’ll be performing most of the same rudimentary tricks over and over, the combo system really lets you build upon the basics and come up with your own style. The touch screen adds variety with special trick icons that appear once the score meter is high enough. A bullet-time effect is triggered by another icon, and lets you fine-tune those moves in slow-mo. Also, if you screw up a nice combo, you can make your character “freak out” by stroking the screen, and regain some of the lost points in the process.
New equipment such as ramps and half-pipes are unlocked as you go, and can be purchased at the skate shop. This lets you build up Sk8land to meet your tastes, as well as improve your skills. As with previous Tony Hawk games, the skate parks all connect to each other to form one continuous world, although some slight loading occurs between areas. Each location has a set of challenges to complete and a final goal that’s presented by a skating pro.
The story is a tad on the corny side, but if you tire of the escapades of your nameless skater you can play old-school in arcade mode. This option returns to the earlier Hawk games, where you grind and ollie your way across the parks but have no story-based objectives to meet. It’s great for pick up and play moments and really makes Sk8land a perfect example of portable gaming.
While arcade mode offers some quick distraction, the online mode is the meat and potatoes of replay value. Sure, you can play head-to-head over Bluetooth (assuming your friend also has a copy of the game) but the real action is found on the Nintendo Wifi Connection. With a few prominent exceptions the multiplayer offers the same modes as the console release, and a couple new ones to boot. Vicarious Visions also planted the foundations for a thriving online community, with new downloadable content on a weekly basis, and a web page perfect for entering records. The custom sprays and boards are another form of online status, and as I stated earlier it’s a way to show off artistic talent and cult fandom. Sk8land’s multiplayer will have a healthy following for quite some time, at least, until the next Tony Hawk DS is released.
A given factor in any Hawk game is the audio, and because there are so many Hawk games it tends to get overlooked. Sk8land received the same attention as any other title in the series, with a sizeable selection of licensed music tracks that run the gamut of tastes and styles. It’s a good thing there’s such a variety, because these songs are the only music in the game—no supplemental, no incidental. As expected, there is a way to select specific tracks at any time during play.
Sound effects and voice acting are not as plentiful as the music; you’ve heard the same rail-grinding noise a thousand times before. But without the woodwork, the presentation would fall apart, and it’s nice to see Tony Hawk and his fellow star skaters providing their own voice work.
These days, after what seems like dozens of Tony Hawk games, it’s surprising to see one make a splash. The superb multiplayer aspect and myriad options keep Sk8land on par with its brethren, and the 3D presentation is finally done justice on a handheld. There might not be anything new or radical here besides the cel-shading, but if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Fans of the series and DS owners in search of a good game should definitely pick this one up.
Itâ€™s rare to see a quality console-to-portable translation, but Vicarious Visions pulls it off with flying colors. A fresh new art style, mildly intriguing story, rock-solid classic modes and a stellar multiplayer component launch American Sk8land to superstardom on the DS.