The Tony Hawk series has come to portable systems before, but usually the game has been transferred out of its behind-the-back perspective into a more portable-friendly isometric view. Tony Hawk's American Sk8land for the DS is a new, mostly original game that captures almost all of the gameplay found in this year's console version, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland. Most of its level design comes from that version as well, but its novel look, its online play, solid gameplay, and its revamped goals make this a great one for the Nintendo DS.
The change from Wasteland to Sk8land appears to be mainly focused on toning it down to make the game easier to swallow for a younger audience. Wasteland's storyline had an edge that's lacking here. You aren't referenced as a runaway, and though you still meet up with Mindy, she's just a friendly local comic book artist looking for her big break. You meet up with Tony Hawk almost immediately, who's impressed with your skills, and the three of you set out to build a wicked skatepark by collecting cash and completing goals.
While the game is largely focused on throwing goals at you, there's something to be said for just skating around and doing tricks. The Tony Hawk trick system has evolved quite a bit over the years, and this installment contains most of the moves that have made the series so popular. You'll notice some omissions--the ability to get off of your board is gone, for example, but since none of the goals require you to get off your board, you probably won't miss it. It's almost like the game has taken the good, refined points of the series' classic gameplay while leaving behind the more recent inclusions that haven't worked so well. In addition, the levels are large and contain plenty of interesting surfaces to use in your combos.
The story mode lets you skate around the levels in search of pedestrians that will give you tasks to complete. For the most part, the tasks are rather simple. Someone will ask you to perform a trick using a certain ramp, and you'll have to achieve fairly low combo scores, and so on. You're often lined right up with your goals when you're required to do specific tricks, which makes completing them a one- or two-button task. If you've been playing Tony Hawk games all along, you won't find too much challenge in the story mode, but it's still interesting enough to be worth playing. If you're new to the series, a "kid" mode lets you lighten things up a bit.
Like the more recent Tony Hawk console games, Sk8land also has a classic mode, which returns to its pro skater roots by giving you a list of 10 goals and a two-minute timer. You need to complete goals within that two-minute limit, but you can retry as many times as you like without having to redo any goals you've previously completed. This mode is significantly more challenging than the story mode, since you'll have to do a little more than just execute a basic trick or two to succeed. By the end of the game, you'll need to score 2,000,000 points in those two minutes for one of the score goals. This is not impossible to achieve, but it's much tougher than anything you'll find in the story mode. Therefore, it's worth it to go back through the levels a second time for this additional challenge.
Additionally, Tony Hawk's American Sk8land is one of the first DS games to contain online support via Nintendo's Wi-Fi connection service. Unfortunately, only two players are allowed to play at once, which isn't so hot. The levels are large, and it's certainly possible that you could play an entire game without ever seeing the other skater (though the bottom screen is always used as a map, so you'll at least know his general location). You can play trick attack, where the highest score wins once time expires; score challenge, where the game ends when one player reaches a certain score; combo mambo, where the highest combo wins when time expires; and a new mode called the price is wrong, where you need to get your score within a certain score range. If you go over that score target, then tricks start to subtract from your score instead of add to it, so you have to work on getting it in the zone. If you have a local friend with his or her own copy of the game, you can also play these same online modes locally. The modes are functional, but Tony Hawk staples, like graffiti, would have been a good inclusion. The game does, however, have some great online stat tracking that keeps tabs on your classic mode scores.
Sk8land maintains the behind-the-back viewpoint found in the console games, but the graphics actually look completely different. The game has a more cartoon-like style, complete with cel-shading and slightly exaggerated body parts. While you start out with a slow-moving skater, you'll build up your stats as you play and eventually end up with a fast-moving game. Despite the speed increase, the frame rate remains smooth and everything looks great. The only problem you'll encounter is that the items you find in the levels, like skate letters, hidden tapes, and so on, don't appear unless you're very close to them. This can be a real drag when you're looking for some of the harder-to-reach items.
The sound in Sk8land is really fantastic. Selected songs from the Wasteland soundtrack are included here, and they'll fade into one another as you skate around. You'll hear tracks from Green Day, Frank Black, and more. You can also use the microphone to record new special trick-and-bail sound effects for your skater. It's a cool little feature that further personalizes the game. Also, the story mode cutscenes contain a lot of well-done speech. People you skate up to on the street, however, seem to have been recorded with the same short time buffer used for your custom sound effects, so a few people will be cut off before they are finished speaking. The sound effects have been lifted from the console games and sound great here, too.
While the online isn't quite as interesting as you might have hoped, you're still left with an adventure that manages to cram in an awful lot of the Tony Hawk experience. The easy difficulty mode should make this game more accessible to new players. But even if you're a longtime fan of the series and you've already seen these levels in American Wasteland, this game's still worth taking a look at.