Tony Hawk's American Sk8land Feature Preview

Vicarious Vision shows off its upcoming DS skater, and we try out a near-final version. How does Tony Hawk do on the dual-screen portable?

Tony Hawk's Sk8land is one of the most unique incarnations of Activision's venerable skating-franchise games in years. It offers a bit of a departure from this year's American Wasteland games but stays true to their spirit. Developer Vicarious Visions, a veteran of portable Hawk games thanks to its previous Game Boy Advance efforts, has come up with a unique interpretation of the series for the DS that is proving to be an impressive showcase for the DS hardware. Reps from the New Jersey-based studio demoed the game at Nintendo's Gamer's Summit and gave us the chance to try out the latest version, which is arguably one of the best-looking DS games we've seen.

Tony Hawk's Sk8land is a sharp debut for the series on the DS.

The presentation offered a deep look at the original DS game, which aims to take advantage of the DS hardware in much the same way that Tony Hawk 2 did at the GBA's launch. The game was developed from scratch by Vicarious specifically for the DS, and it boasts some very cool features that mimic the console version--but that also break new ground. As with its console cousins, Tony Hawk's Sk8land follows you as you attempt to make a name for yourself as a skater in California who tries to refurbish a classic skate locale that's fallen into ruin. You'll be befriended by Mindy, a self-described local skate-chick, who is quickly drawn to you once she sees that you hang with Tony Hawk, who's on hand to provide voice-over. However, the game isn't a carbon copy of the console story, as Vicarious opted to craft an original tale that touched on elements from the console, but also told its own unique narrative.

The gameplay will focus on the skating mechanics that have made the series a juggernaut since its debut on the original PlayStation. In many ways, the game is a welcome throwback to pure skating, as its sense of speed most definitely encourages you to enjoy yourself. You'll find a myriad of challenges set in different interconnected levels around California. As with all previous Hawk entries, you'll progress by both clearing goals and earning cash. One of the goals will tie in to finding parts to refurbish the old skatepark.

The demo showed off the assorted editors in the game that will let you customize your board, graffiti, and skater. In addition, you'll be able to use the DS's microphone to record sound bites for success or failures that customize your virtual alter ego. The game will also contain a skatepark editor that will let you create your own custom park. Each of the editors makes smart use of the DS touch screen by letting you do your selection and editing there. When we got a tour of the game proper, we got a look at the various ways the touch screen is implemented into the single- and multiplayer experiences. Aside from the now-standard use of it as a perpetual map screen, Vicarious is also using it to let you quickly perform special moves, thanks to three context-sensitive onscreen buttons that will let you perform different tricks depending on whether you're on the ground, grinding, or jumping. The buttons will change on the fly as you play to let you know what trick you'll be pulling off. In addition, should you fall off your board, you can use the touch screen to initiate a freak-out by tapping moving bars to fill up an onscreen meter.

The new cel shaded art style gives the game a fresh new look.

The Wi-Fi demo was a cool showcase for the game's connectivity, as well as a promise of what to expect post-release. You'll be able to compete against a friend in local or proper Wi-Fi matches over the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, which is all good. You'll be able to search for opponents via an automatic match, which nabs anyone, or via a friends match, which looks for anyone whose friend number you've logged. The impressive twist to all this Wi-Fi business is that the game interacts with Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection Web site by actually sending data of your performance to the site. In addition, the game will track you on global leaderboards on the American Sk8land Web site.

Better still, the Wi-Fi support lets you trade custom art online with your friends, and, more significantly, it offers downloadable content in the form of new challenges that will test your skills. The demo we saw featured a challenge to execute a hard-flip from one building to another. Once you clear the challenge, the game will add that to your tracked completion status. The nice touch is that once you download the challenge, it will be playable offline until you replace it with another download (the DS cartridge only has enough room to hold one download at a time).

When we finally got our hands on the game, we were pleased by how well it handled. Hawk aficionados should have no trouble getting used to the control scheme, although working the touch screen in to your normal routine may take some effort. Once you sort it out, though, the game handles like a gem.

The visuals boast an outstanding sheen to them thanks to a winning combination of tech and art. The game boasts a cracking cel-shaded, fully 3D look that gives the visuals a fresh look. The art style, a stylized retro presentation that hearkens back to Saturday morning cartoons, stays true to the feel of the series, but gives it a funky new look. In fact, the Vicarious reps even referenced the mighty Mr. T cartoon of the mid-'80s as an inspiration, which is both awesome and horrifying...but in a good way. While this may sound like one of those artsy ideas that sounds better in theory than in practice, Sk8land looks awesome in motion. Vicarious has whipped up a muscular 3D engine that purrs along at 60 frames per second. The cartridge format lends itself well to simulating the seamless streaming experience we've come to expect from the franchise. Moreover, the assorted customization you can do with the DS for your graffiti and deck is a cool touch.

The audio will likely come as a pleasant surprise to anyone who hasn't been keeping up with the latest and greatest DS software. A funny thing has happened since the dual-screened portable was released earlier this year: Developers have gotten more comfortable and ambitious with the platform, which has resulted in some very cool developments in audio on the DS. Sk8land will feature a robust assortment of speech and full-blown music tracks that, while not CD-quality audio, are rather impressive. The sound-recording option in the game, like the graffiti and deck stuff, is sweet...and it represents a cool first for the series.

The game's Wi-Fi support includes some cool touches like downloadable challenges.

Based on what we saw and played, we doubt Tony Hawk's Sk8land will disappoint. The game's return to the franchise's gameplay roots, its clever look, and its impressive use of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service for the DS have all combined to present the earmarks of a top-tier game. We're especially impressed by the downloadable content that Vicarious Visions will be supplying postrelease, which should only add to the game's longevity. Tony Hawk's Sk8land is currently slated to ship next week, which is just in time for the launch of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. So be sure to look for our full review shortly.

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