I grew up during a time when skateboarding was just becoming mainstream (ie: Advertisers were throwing money at it). It was cool to dress up in grungy clothes and carry your board around school with you, as long as the school didn’t ban them. I know my school quickly did. Either way, skateboarding made the transition from surfing spin off into underground sport and mainstream product for kids. It wasn’t long before skateboarding culture found icons. One of the more prolific icons is Tony Hawk, and he has managed to spin his skills and image into a media company to produce games and gear for eager skateboarders. He has done a good job, and I don’t think that Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land (THAS) will disappoint.
THAS was a game that outright shocked me. I had not yet played a game on the DS that attempted any form of 3d graphics. I knew it could do basic 3d, but I was expecting 3d similar to what was found on the Super Nintendo. I got Saturn/Playstation era graphics. This is not some basic groups of models tied together to look like a skate park or a Hollywood street. It is a Hollywood street. There is sufficent detail in the world and people that I actually turned my DS over and checked to see if someone had added an expansion pack to the back.
Just to add to that, the graphics were very smooth. I could not find any kind of slowdown during the normal gameplay. The engine was well tuned enough to be able to push the levels quickly and keep up with the wicked tricks that you pulled off. My only gripe about the graphics was that I didn’t care for the font they used. It was hard to adjust my eyes to it during tricks to check which manuvers I had done. It was a minor issue in the long run though, and didn’t detract from the rest of the game.
Along with the graphics, this game surpised me greatly in the sound department. Throughout normal gameplay, you are treated with what sounds like full songs from current hard rock bands. This game celebrates and shouts it’s grunge heritage with a set of rock songs that is very up to date. I didn’t recognize much of the music, but it was well in tune with the game, though the game did not change music dynamically. The manual lists bands such as Dead Kennedys, Breakstra, Pest, Green Day, The Thunderlords, Frank Black, Tony Guerrero, Strike Anywhere, Nassim, Black Flag, Emmanuel, and Saves the Day. The tracks wore on me after a while, and I found myself turning the volume down during extended play sessions. It was good music to rebuild a skate park to.
The game also makes good use of voiceovers for each of the major characters in the game (aside from you). Tony Hawk makes regular appearances along with Molly, who guides you around town. The voice recordings are clear and easy to understand, and a very nice addition to the overall sound.
The control was a mixed bag in this game. It used the upper screen as the primary view, and the lower screen as the map/specials view. You use the basic button controls in combinations to perform various tricks. During my play of the game, I did not discover a single trick that was more than four button presses, but when chained together, I was hitting 20 and 30 button sequences to score. It worked well, and in my own little world, I owned the half-pipe.
The part that really pained me was the use of the touch screen. When you were setting up major combinations, icons appear there to simplify and provide access to special tricks. Since both hands were on the d-pad and buttons, it was hard to hold the stylus to hit those commands. Same for the Focus Mode (an eye icon) which put you in a bullet time. I found that using my thumbs to hit the icons worked well, but I was frequently cleaning off the thumbprints from the display. My lower touchpad looked a lot like a police blotter after a game of THAS.
Another major gripe I have with the game was chaining during grinds. If I had to jump to another grind that was directly in front of me, such as a series of handrails at street level, my own character would be in the way and make it very difficult to get the timing right. You can control the camera somewhat on the touchpad, but it requires the stylus to do this, and that makes it nigh impossible to do during a series of tricks. This issue with the game prevented me from learning how to do extended tricks and multipliers.
The overall goal in THAS is to rebuild the well known skate part American Sk8land. This is done by performing tasks that people in the different areas of Hollywood ask you to do. It can range from performing a set of tricks for a photographer, to helping a buxom star improve her skateboarding style by watching you. Apparantly these people will hand you 250 dollars or more for completing these tasks. Also, completing the tasks opens up new areas of Hollywood for you to exercise your amazing skills on, starting on the basic Downtown area and moving up eventually to American Sk8land.
As you finish each major set of tasks, you get to pick new pieces to spend your money on in the skate park. You can then test them out and decide if it is worth keeping there. Once you have unlocked an area, you can freely travel to it from menu choices or the arrows that link the zones. You also earn more trick buttons on the bottom display, eventually giving you up to three special move choices to spend your Special bar on.
The special bar is the core mechanic to the game. By building it up and maintaining it, you can move faster and get a better boost on jumps. This allows you to keep chaining moves together and maintain your score multiplier.
With multiple parts of Hollywood to unlock, and special moves that you can earn by performing tricks in the different areas, the single player mode will offer most people a good ten hours or more of sky high, grinding fun.
The big value in THAS has to be the multiplayer and WiFi functions. Multiplayer does require that everyone own a cartridge, but considering the size of several of the levels, this is not surprising. The ability to go online through a Nintendo wireless USB adapter or a wireless router has to be the most interesting part. Setting up the connection on a Linksys WRT54G only took me a few minutes, and I have security enabled on my router. You can connect and post your scores for the different areas, just to see how you stack up. You can also post replays of some of your special moves so other players can watch you racking up the points. I was a little disappointed to learn that some of the top scoring people were just grinding back and forth between two walls and performing some tricks inbetween, using the grind to get their score multiplier up to astronomical levels.
THAS also allows you to go head to head with other players in a one on one match of trick skating. Unfortunately, I never got this function to work properly. The game never connected, or it stopped responding after putting me in the skate park. As my wireless connection usually plays nice, I’m not certain what caused this technicial difficulty. I tried to play random online games eight times and finally gave up.