A year or more ago, Gameloft's Skate & Slam was one of the top choices for mobile skating games. The first Skate & Slam wasn't the deepest sidewalk surfing escapade out there, nor was it the longest lasting--but it ran fast, came loaded with an arsenal of combo-friendly tricks, and had a certain silly attitude that recalled old classics like Skate Or Die. The new chapter in the Skate & Slam series has picked up a famous brand, a celebrity endorser, and a freshly minted look, all of which suggest a commensurate level of maturation in gameplay. Indeed, Vans Skate & Slam doesn't supply the same brand of easy, entry-level play as its predecessor; you're going to need to work hard and stretch your fingers to the limit to derive satisfaction here. Fortunately, Vans Skate & Slam's excellent presentation and precise, trick-oriented gameplay will make you want to keep at it until you're an expert.
Your character in Vans Skate & Slam is none other than Geoff Rowley, a professional skater from Britain who is renowned for his technical prowess on stairs and rails. However, everyone in Vans Skate & Slam seems to have forgotten Geoff's status as a latter-day skate deity, because he's just another nobody looking to catch someone's eye at the beginning of the game. Otherworldly skills notwithstanding, you'll still have to help him through 18 challenging levels before the higher-ups on the Vans skating team wake up and smell the genius.
All of the action in Vans Skate & Slam scrolls from left to right, across the sidewalks and roads of places like Barcelona and Huntington Beach. Each of these locations is littered with stuff you can trick off of, including rails on huge staircases, ramps, and walls, as well as junk you'd better avoid, like garbage cans--and even the occasional aggressive dog that runs out of the background. The first few levels are simple tutorials designed to teach you how to perform basic tricks, like kick flips and grinds, but before long, you'll be required to meet increasingly more challenging goals to advance to the next level.
The game makes you jump through two different types of hoops to progress. You must either reach a required point threshold via freestyle tricks and combos, or perform a successful photo shoot by posting the right tricks in the right places. No matter what the case, it'll be slow going past mission 10, which is about when Vans Skate & Slam reaches its challenge threshold. The game never seems inordinately difficult or unfair; in fact, it makes every effort to facilitate your learning curve. For instance, you get a prerun tour of every course so you can scout out the jump locations and obstacles, and the game will tell you how to perform all of the tricks you need to pull off in the right order. Furthermore, the game doesn't run very fast, so you usually have enough time to squeeze the necessary moves in, and you're free to restart the levels as many times as you wish.
Instead, the game's major obstacle is simply remembering how to perform the right trick when the time comes around. There are six or seven different types of aerial moves to worry about, as well as several varieties of manuals and grinds, and keeping them all straight is a challenge. None of these tricks require more than a three-button combination to pull off, but on a photo shoot level, you'll often be asked to rattle them off in quick succession in locations that are all over the screen. It's no easy task to remember the difference between a nose grind and a nose slide when pressed for time--and if you screw something up, there's nothing to do but restart the level. Also, it takes about a second of holding down the jump key to perform the oft-used high jump, so the odds are good that you'll need to flat-out memorize several of the tougher courses before you'll be able to get everything right.
Practice-based gameplay of this order is often an indicator of poor design, but this isn't the case in Vans Skate & Slam, which is actually more motivating than it is frustrating. For one thing, the courses are laid out expertly, with plenty of opportunities for rail-to-rail combos, huge air, and alternate routes. The best course in the game, which you will revisit several times, consists of two enormous slopes with ramps at the bottom and a ton of obstacles on the landing zone. If you take the right path through a level, you can pick up Vans logos for extra points; on the other hand, bailing on the cleverly placed grass patches and garbage cans will detract from your style rating and hurt your score. Also, the game's controls are easy to pick up and fairly responsive, and you can enjoy a course in free ride mode if you want to practice racking up crazy tricks minus the pressure. Finally, the skating mechanics look and feel very natural. For example, Geoff will kind of wobble when he runs into an obstacle, and if you attempt to pull off a trick without enough air, he might land it, but it won't look as good. His flailing pratfalls are a dead-on take on what actually happens when you try to pose, too. In all, Vans Skate & Slam approximates the actual sport of skating pretty accurately, so you won't necessarily mind repeating the levels to get things right.
Vans Skate & Slam's graphics and sound augment this sense of immediacy and realism, at least in the Series 60 Java version of the game. The game's graphics feature huge, painstakingly rendered character sprites and intricate details in the backgrounds. Geoff's range of animation is superb. You can easily distinguish tricks like "the impossible" from similar maneuvers like kick flips, because the game distinctly renders each move's separate steps. The black-and-white snapshots you're shown at the end of the photo shoot levels are a neat addition, too, even if they don't add much to the game. On the negative side, Vans Skate & Slam doesn't run at a very fast clip. Part of this is probably built into the game's design, but there are times where the slowdown becomes noticeable, especially during big jumps. This doesn't ruin the experience, but it makes you wonder how much better the game would have been if it ran more consistently. Vans Skate & Slam uses sound economically but effectively. There's no music, but the in-game sound effects are excellent, from the skating noises to the occasional bit of voice.
Overall, Vans Skate & Slam is a great mobile skateboarding game that will appeal to more nimble-fingered mobile gamers. Keep in mind, however, that this game isn't the best option for beginners or those looking for a quick, fun experience--and if you're not willing to practice certain levels a lot, you may not get far. At the same time, those who are interested in extended replay will appreciate the game's inherent challenge and multiple difficulty levels.